The Pentagon’s massive new Law of War Manual drew criticism from the New York Times editorial board on Monday for its section on how to treat journalists, which the Times said would “make their work more dangerous, cumbersome and subject to censorship.”
The manual delineates the military’s power to embed journalists with U.S troops, censor their work, and even deem them “unprivileged belligerents” should they be suspected of somehow spying for, or supporting the work of, the enemy. Legally, people deemed “unprivileged belligerents” are no longer considered civilians, and are afforded even fewer protections than actual combatants.
The Committee to Protect Journalists expressed concern that the manual would allow for arbitrary detention of journalists as well as lower the bar on freedom of the press internationally, in a time when a record number of reporters are being murdered and captured abroad. In particular, for reporters who write critically of U.S. efforts, the line between spy or insurgent and journalist might become blurred.
Organizations representing military and foreign correspondents are also raising concerns about the new legal guidelines. The Military Reporters and Editors Association announced this week that it intends to contact the Pentagon to urge them to revise the guidelines.
“To seasoned journalists who have found resistance by the military to embedding and access to troops on the front lines, they aren’t too sure if [the “unprivileged belligerents” label] doesn’t apply to them,” Isaac Cubillos, vice president of the association, told The Intercept.
It’s not the first time military reporters groups, alongside many media outlets, has fought the Pentagon for its treatment of journalists. There’s a long history of tension between military reporters and the Pentagon, whose relationship crumbled during the Vietnam War, leading to decades of battles over press access to war zones and government meddling in coverage.
Just six years ago, Stars and Stripes, an independent Pentagon-funded news outlet, revealed that the Department of Defense had hired a PR firm to vet journalists hoping to travel to Afghanistan and report on the war.
The Rendon Group was hired to assemble profiles of the reporters — ranking the slant of their previous work toward the U.S. military as “positive,” “negative,” or “neutral.” A U.S. military spokesperson, Air Force Capt. Elizabeth Mathias, said at the time that the profiles helped the military “know with whom we’re working,” and prepare for specific interviews, but most media outlets and activist organizations saw it as unprecedented meddling in a free press.
The Pentagon and the Rendon Group insisted that the profiles never led to reporters being blacklisted from working overseas, but several war correspondents contested that narrative, including one Stars and Stripes reporter, Heath Druzin, who said that he was barred from covering a certain unit in Mosul, Iraq, because he “refused to highlight” good news. Jason Motlagh, Time’s former Kabul correspondent, said he was accidentally included on an email containing his own Rendon assessment, which concluded that his stories were 6 percent positive. A day later, he was denied his embed request “without explanation,” he wrote.
Media outlets and activists were also concerned by the Pentagon’s choice of the Rendon Group, which had been accused of tracking foreign reporters, advising foreign governments on how to deal with the media, and pushing pro-U.S. military content for the Bush administration, for tens of millions of dollars.
By September 2009, the Pentagon killed its contract with Rendon, saying the firm’s controversial past and involvement in the embed process was distracting from the U.S. mission in Afghanistan.
Caption: Journalists embedded with the U.S. Military in Kuwait City in 2003.