In an editorial published in the New York Times on Monday, the authors heavily criticized the Defense Department’s recently published guidelines on the treatment of journalists covering war. The guidelines, published in June, are part of the Law of War Manual, which sets forth the Department’s interpretation of the law of warfare. Journalists believe the guidelines related to their actions should be repealed as soon as possible.
The manual’s provisions related to the treatment of journalists provide that journalists covering war generally should be regarded as citizens, but in some vaguely defined circumstances, may be considered “unprivileged belligerents.” This classification refers to fighters (such as Al-Qaeda fighters) that receive fewer protections than a war’s declared combatants. The guidelines further state that, “the relaying of information (such as providing information of immediate use in combat operations) could constitute taking a direct part in hostilities.”
The manual further characterizes journalists and their occupation by stating that, “Reporting on military operations can be very similar to collecting intelligence or even spying. A journalist who acts as a spy may be subject to security measures and punished if captured. To avoid being mistaken for spies, journalists should act openly and with the permission of relevant authorities.” Governments “may need to censor journalists’ work or take other security measures so that journalists do not reveal sensitive information to the enemy.”
Obviously, journalists take quite an issue with these guidelines. They feel that allowing this document to stand as written would do severe, irreparable damage to freedoms of the press. Authors of the New York Times editorial point out that, “Authoritarian leaders around the world could point to [the manual] to show that their despotic treatment of journalists – including Americans – is broadly in line with the standards set by the United States government.”
Journalists also point out that the manual’s broad, sweeping assertion that journalists’ information may need to be censored by American authorities to avoid the release of sensitive information to the enemy stomps on the Bill of Rights. The statement, as written, seems to fly in the face of the American Constitution and case law and provides fodder to those governments that censor the press as a routine matter.
In order to cover recent wars, reporters have risked their lives to covertly sneak across borders to gather information. The Committee to Protect Journalists claims that out of the 61 journalists killed in 2014, 59% died while covering wars.
Interestingly, the Law of War Manual may not have the backing and support of the entire United States government as it states in its preface that it does not necessarily reflect the views of the “U.S. government as a whole.” Lieutenant Colonel Joe Sowers stated that, “[The manual] is not policy and [it] is not directive in nature.” He added that the Pentagon would take the manual’s criticism and comments under advisement “as [they] review and seek to improve and clarify matters addressed in the manual.”