In light of the ongoing war on terrorism and the potential for an attack on Iraq, the role of the press in informing the nation about public safety concerns and the military, diplomatic, law enforcement, and intelligence actions of the government continues to be tested in novel and profound ways. As advocates for journalists and press freedoms, we write to provide the Administration and Congress with steps that we believe are essential for the government to take to ensure that it honors its obligations to the public under the First Amendment.
A free and autonomous press is as central to the preservation of democracy as is a strong military. Indeed, news organizations have a distinguished history in this country of providing the public with essential information during times of warfare and national crisis. Journalists have handled knowledge of troop movements and deployments in a responsible manner during past conflicts, just as they have maintained the confidentiality of domestic law enforcement operations. Military public affairs guidelines themselves acknowledge that the dissemination of timely and accurate information concerning combat operations serves the interests of the U.S. armed forces.
During the Persian Gulf War, however, the Department of Defense inhibited news coverage of combat operations by forcing reporters and photojournalists into small pools under the control of military officials and by attempting to exercise editorial control over news content. The Pentagon and the news media subsequently reached an accord in 1992 regarding coverage of military campaigns that recognized that "open and independent" reporting would be the norm for such coverage. This accord should govern any military action in Iraq.
Additionally, because this is a crisis on American soil as well as overseas, involving law enforcement and local public health services in addition to the armed forces, information about domestic operations continues to be as relevant and critical to the public as that about military activities. Secrecy has a place in covert operations, but the government should protect information only as necessary to truly protect national security. Overclassification dilutes the ability of agencies and others to determine what truly needs protection.
Journalistic scrutiny of the war on terrorism and publication of dissenting viewpoints are not signs of disloyalty to the nation, but rather expressions of confidence in democratic self-government and fulfillment of the First Amendment function of holding government accountable. Such scrutiny does not diminish respect for the victims of terrorism or the privacy interests of their families. One overarching principle that must guide government-press relations throughout this difficult period is that decisions about what to publish, including the airing of statements issued by avowed enemies of the nation, must ultimately rest with publishers and broadcasters, not with government officials.
Recognizing these principles and the extraordinary circumstances in which the country finds itself, we urge government leaders to take the following actions. We recognize that as the situation changes, this list will continue to evolve.
The government should:
- Reaffirm the 1992 Pentagon guidelines on coverage of combat operations, including the commitments to 1) provide journalists with access to all major military units and to special forces where feasible, 2) allow news organizations to use their own communications systems to file reports, and 3) utilize press pools not as a standard device but only when specific circumstances so require, such as when military action is conducted in remote areas.
- Activate pool coverage of combat operations if that is, under current circumstances, the most likely method of putting reporters close to such operations.
- Embed reporters in combat situations with troops whenever practicable and consistent with security considerations, as such methods of placing reporters in the field may provide a viable alternative to pool coverage of conflicts. While coverage of American military actions in Afghanistan was limited because of the nature and small size of the units involved, it seems reasonable to expect that coverage of any action against Iraq will be easier to facilitate.
- Work with the news media to ensure that uplink capabilities with adequate bandwidth exist to allow information to be transmitted in real-time—or at least with some immediacy—from military theaters of operation back to the American public.
- Prohibit military officials from engaging in prior security review—censorship—of news reports. The record in Operation Desert Storm, Vietnam and other wars supports the conclusion that journalists in the battlefield can be trusted to act responsibly.
- Encourage this nation's allies and other foreign governments to grant visas to U.S. journalists wishing to cover military and diplomatic events as they unfold overseas, and impress upon foreign governments that threats against journalists or efforts to censor their work are illegitimate.
Over the course of the conflict, however long its lasts, the government should also:
- Establish a joint information bureau in any area where significant military operations occur.
- Release to the public information concerning the identities, charges, and court proceedings against persons arrested and detained in the United States as suspected terrorists and material witnesses pertaining to the Sept. 11 attacks.
- Make available on a prompt basis the identities of all injured or deceased victims of terrorism against the United States, as well as the identities of any U.S. military persons who are casualties of the nation's war on terrorist networks.
- Refrain from using journalists as tools to gather intelligence and maintain the current policy forbidding intelligence agents from posing as reporters, as such practices compromise the relationships between the press and its sources and put the lives of journalists at risk.
- Uphold the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which requires federal agencies to make information available on request unless it falls under one of the nine exemptions in the law.
- Provide, as called for by the Electronic Freedom of Information Act of 1996, expedited review of FOIA requests submitted by news organizations concerning terrorists attacks or threats against American interests and the nation's response thereto.
- Allow media organizations and members of the public to observe or photograph evidence of terrorist assaults located on public property, as long as doing so does not interfere with rescue and clean-up workers.
Society of Professional Journalists
Robert Leger, President
Military Reporters & Editors
James G. Wright, President
Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press
Lucy Dalglish, Executive Director
Investigative Reporters and Editors
Brant Houston, Executive Director
National Press Club
John Aubuchon, President
Freedom of Information Center
Missouri School of Journalism
Charles Davis, Executive Director
National Society of Newspaper Columnists
Michael Leonard, President
Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law School of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Minnesota
National Association of Science Writers
Deborah Blum, President
Asian American Journalists Association
Mae Cheng, President-elect
Public Radio News Directors Inc.
Connie Walker, President
Native American Journalists Association
Patty Talahongva, President
Student Press Law Center
Mark Goodman, Executive Director
Washington Independent Writers
Ken Reigner, President
National Association of Hispanic Journalists
Juan Gonzalez, President
National Coalition Against Censorship
Joan E. Bertin, Executive Director