Miami Herald editor blasts unprecedented ‘culture of censorship’ at Guantanamo Bay

Last month, four Miami Herald journalists who visited the Guantanamo Bay detention center were told they couldn’t publish the names of staff members and had to photograph troops from the neck down.

Mindy Marques Gonzalez

Mindy Marques Gonzalez

This week, Gitmo soldiers published a story headlined, “There and Back Again: Guantanamo guards return 12 years later,” that had no photo or name restrictions.

In a letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Herald executive editor Aminda “Mindy” Marques Gonzalez points out that the Gitmo public affairs piece “showed the names and faces of four soldiers …[and] quoted them by name and published a routine interview on the web and in print, journalistic style.”

She tells Hagel that “under your rules, the story your media wing published would have been defined as an operational security violation had we published the same thing.”

Mr. Secretary, a culture of censorship has set in at Guantánamo of a scale we have not experienced in the past 13 years of reporting from there. Your troops are wielding editorial instruments on independent journalists with an ever-expanding interpretation of their power to influence the story of Guantanamo in the free press.

Read the editor’s letter after the jump.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel
U.S. Department of Defense
Pentagon
Washington, DC 20301

Secretary Hagel:

From March 17-21 four Miami Herald journalists visited your detention center at Guantanamo Bay and conducted a reporting trip under new expansive ground rules that forbade the media that week from photographing the faces of anyone but the detention center commander, his spokesman and the contractor in charge of catering.

Under these new more restrictive ground rules, written by the public affairs officer and adopted by the U.S. Southern Command, my journalists were forbidden to report the names of any other members of the 2,100-member staff of JTF GTMO.

During their trip, two sergeants and a private introduced as “your operational security officers” systematically deleted any imagery that showed the face of any other member in a superstructure of censorship that portrayed any face, even those previously disclosed through public affairs imagery, as an operational security threat to the 13-year-old detention center. Their military escorts ordered them to photograph troops from the neck down, and forbade the soldiers we interviewed from giving their true names.

Yesterday, soldiers assigned to the same operation as your enlisted “operational security officers” published a story and photos under the headline, “There and Back Again: Guantanamo guards return 12 years later.” It showed the names and faces of four soldiers on the 2,100-member staff, quoted them by name and published a routine interview on the web and in print, journalistic style.

If we at the Miami Herald do the same thing, under Southcom’s new gag order on troops talking to media and new ground rules governing civilian media access, the people who censored my journalists at Guantánamo have the authority to expel them from the base and permanently ban them from reporting there. In short, under your rules, the story your media wing published would have been defined as an operational security violation had we published the same thing.

Mr. Secretary, a culture of censorship has set in at Guantánamo of a scale we have not experienced in the past 13 years of reporting from there. Your troops are wielding editorial instruments on independent journalists with an ever-expanding interpretation of their power to influence the story of Guantanamo in the free press. And in doing so, the organization whose motto is “Safe, Humane, Legal, Transparent” detention is implementing a dishonest double standard that snuffs out the reporting of basic information the public was once allowed to know.

As an example: For nine months the detention center routinely released a daily count of the number of detainees on a Navy medical list of those eligible to receive enteral feeds. On December 3, Marine Gen. John F. Kelly imposed a gag order on that information. The London Daily Mail reported that the military considers hunger strike figures to now be “classified.”

Another example: In December, your troops seized the video of a visiting French journalist who recorded a scene of Santa Claus at the Guantanamo commissary, with permission of an escort. They deleted the imagery and then days later staged a similar photo and published it on the cover of the detention center’s in-house newsletter, The Wire.

We write this letter to protest the prison camp’s recently adopted unilateral ground rules and to ask you to order their immediate withdrawal. We respectfully request that you order Joint Task Force Guantanamo to resume using the Office of Secretary of Defense ground rules that still govern reporters’ visits during OSD-sponsored Military Commissions trips. Those September 2010 rules were negotiated through a protracted, respectful process of negotiation between the media and your Office of Public Affairs. While we do not approve of everything in those rules, they do not give a soldier the power to in one moment delete a journalist’s photo and ·in the next take the same image and publish it as Pentagon product. They do not prevent us from publishing the name, rank and service of a detention center staff member while empowering an Army journalist to do it.

Respectfully yours,

Aminda Marques Gonzalez


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