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Journalism Coalition Seeks Open and Independent Reporting of Military Campaigns


CONTACT:Robert Leger, SPJ National President, 417/836-1113 or cell 417/425-9140 or rleger@spj.org

INDIANAPOLIS -- A coalition of 16 journalism groups today urged the Bush administration to abide by guidelines the Pentagon and media groups established after the 1991 Persian Gulf War if an invasion of Iraq occurs.

The plea came as the coalition issued an updated Statement of Principles first released a year ago.

Journalists remember how their hands were tied a decade ago in trying to give Americans a full understanding of how the Gulf War was waged, the groups said. That served neither the military nor the public, and it is a mistake that should not be repeated.

Combat-coverage guidelines established by the Pentagon after the Persian Gulf war -- and agreed to by then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney -- call for providing journalists access to all major military units and to special forces where feasible; allowing news organizations to use their own communications systems to file reports; and using press pools not as a standard device but only when specific circumstances dictate, such as when military action is conducted in remote areas.

The journalism groups urged the government to ban military censorship of news reports.

The statement notes that coverage of American military actions in Afghanistan was limited because of the nature and small size of the units involved. However, it seems reasonable to expect that coverage of any action against Iraq will be easier to facilitate.

The groups noted they are encouraged by recent statements coming from the Pentagon.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld recently began an extensive series of training camps for journalists who would cover a war in Iraq. The Los Angeles Times recently reported that the Pentagon has decided to embed large numbers of reporters with ground and air troops.

Victoria Clarke, assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, wrote a Columbia Journalism Review essay that lists a number of ways in which journalists have been able to freely cover the war in Afghanistan, yet also acknowledges the military has made mistakes and can do better. In a letter to American Journalism Review, Clarke wrote, “While our policies have attempted to facilitate broad access for journalists, they are by no means perfect. We will continue to work with the media to improve them.”

Veteran reporters, though, remember similarly encouraging words before and during the Persian Gulf War. The coalition of journalism groups encouraged the Pentagon to put any agreements reached in Washington into writing that would be binding on commanders in the field.

The group is encouraged by regular meetings at the Pentagon involving Washington bureau chiefs, and suggests those meetings be expanded to include military reporters and veterans of military coverage.

Members of the coalition include the Society of Professional Journalists, Military Reporters & Editors, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Investigative Reporters and Editors, National Association of Hispanic Journalists, Public Radio News Directors Inc., National Society of Newspaper Columnists, National Association of Science Writers, National Coalition against Censorship, Student Press Law Center, National Press Club, Native American Journalists Association, Asian American Journalists Association, Washington Independent Writers, Freedom of Information Center at the Missouri School of Journalism; Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law, School of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Minnesota.

The Statement of Principles prepared by the groups follows.
The Society of Professional Journalists works to improve and protect journalism. SPJ is dedicated to encouraging the free practice of journalism and stimulating high standards of ethical behavior. Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, and based in Indianapolis, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press.


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
University of Missouri School of Journalism

Charles Davis, Executive Director

National Society of Newspaper Columnists
Michael Leonard, President

Jane Kirtley
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

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