Armed Intimidation of Journalists Covering Manning Trial

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Breaking News: Judge Lind will issue her finding on guilt Tuesday at 1:00 PM Eastern.

When a recruit joins the military, he is frequently told that he is giving up many of his rights. Such a surrender of freedom should not be a condition for receiving a media credential to cover a court-martial.

During the first week of the Bradley Manning court-martial, RSN was not credentialed. The Army claims we were denied for not being listed as media by a media monitoring service.

A few weeks into the trial we finally received credentials, not realizing that the price for access to a computer (only credentialed media have access to a computer in an area where they can watch the trial) is freedom of movement without an escort from the United States Army. You might even have an armed guard looking over your shoulder to make sure you don’t access the internet while the court is in session.

Every day we are told that any interviews we want to do have to be arranged by them in advance. I’m sure public affairs officers think they do just as well as the reporters and their support staff at arranging an interview, but who really thinks they would be as persistent as a reporter in chasing down an interview? And why would the Army help you chase down an interview with someone who will not portray them in a good light?

While members of the public are free to move around the base unescorted, the media can only go someplace with an escort. For example, Manning’s supporters make their way to the PX daily for lunch, can wander, or even leave Fort Meade all together anytime they want. The credentialed media order lunch from the bowling ally for delivery. When you want to leave for the day you have to wait for public affairs officer to escort you off the base.

Even to move between the three press areas – the Media Operations Center (MOC), the pit where cameras can get a shot of Manning entering or leaving the court, and the satellite truck area – you need an escort, and they stay there with you monitoring you.

Controlled Access to Internet

The MOC is down the road from the courtroom, but under some theory that it is an “extension of the courtroom,” the media are not allowed to have their cell phones or air cards in the building. If there is a big development in the trial you don’t wait for a recess to report on it, you have to go out to your car to get to your phone or air card to report the story. I do concede that if you have a staff that you can call, there are land lines in the media center that you can use to call a colleague to write up your report.

Your other option is to wait for a recess. During recess, wireless internet is provided for filing purposes, but as soon as court goes back into session the internet is cut off. If you’re fast, you might get your filing in during a 15-minute recess, but if you’re not, you’re out of luck.

Armed Intimidation

On July 25th, the day the closing arguments began, the monitoring was taken to a new level: intimidating. Armed MPs patrolled the media center, looked over reporters’ shoulders, and scolded them if they had a browser open.

Nathan Fuller, who was in the MOC, reported: “Unlike ever before, armed soldiers paced around the media center today, creepily monitoring reporters’ use of the internet despite the fact that Fort Meade had shut down WiFi in the center when court was in session and banned wireless hotspots. These soldiers reprimanded various journalists for simply having web pages open, and lurked over our shoulders. When asked why, they merely said they had to ensure we didn’t transmit any information while not in recess. When told they were creeping us out, they said they would continue anyway. They also used scanning wands to search us for electronic devices upon entry and emptied our bags – a first in the media center.”

Several other journalists tweeted their displeasure with the developments:

Charlie Savage: “Creepy having armed MPs in camo patrolling behind each row of reporters & looking over shoulders as we take notes on Manning trial today.”

Kevin Gosztola: “Armed military police officer leans over my shoulder & informs me not to have browser windows open during court proceedings.”

Alexa O’Brien: “Journalists sending me emails telling me soldier stationed right behind me with a gun. I tell you, OVER THE TOP JUDGE LIND.”

The following day the MPs only searched everyone at the door. All belongings were searched and everyone was scanned with hand held metal detectors. For the previous two months nobody had been searched entering the media center.

RSN Suing Army over Media Access Issues

The sentencing phase of the court-martial may take up to four weeks. The prosecutors have already submitted a list of 20 witnesses; the defense will also present witnesses.

At the beginning of the trial, RSN was denied media credentials. We filed a motion to intervene directly with the presiding judge. She denied our motion a week into the proceedings.

We now have a case in federal court that will have a hearing on August 8th in Baltimore, where we will request that we be allowed to file our reports in real time, and to use cell phones in the media center. We are also asking for the court to provide the press with audio recordings of each day’s proceedings. Currently the prosecution and defense are provided with a CD at the end of the day. Access to these recordings would help the press fact check their reports, since transcripts are not available until the next day. Those transcripts are not even provided by the court – the Press Freedom Foundation is paying 60 to 120 thousand dollars to provide transcripts to the press and the public.

We understand that cell phones and laptops should not be permitted inside the courtroom, but the media center is not even in the same building. We also don’t believe there is a valid reason to deny the general public access to their phones and computers in the overflow viewing areas, which are also not located in the court room.

Why is the Army so afraid to allow the media to report in real time? What do they have to hide?

Scott Galindez was formerly the co-founder of Truthout, and is now the Political Director of Reader Supported News.