Military blocks media access to Guantanamo By BEN FOX,
Associated Press Writer
Thu Jun 15, 5:59 PM ET
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico - More than 1,000 journalists
have visited Guantanamo Bay since the U.S. military
began locking up suspected al-Qaida and Taliban
militants there 4 1/2 years ago. But access has been
severely restricted: Journalists could not talk to
detainees, they had to be accompanied by a military
escort and their photos were censored.
Now, the Pentagon has shut down access entirely at
least temporarily expelling reporters this week and
triggering an outcry from human rights groups,
attorneys and media organizations even as the prison
comes under renewed criticism for the suicides of
three detainees last weekend.
"Now is the time when the media is most needed," said
Clive Stafford Smith, an attorney who has filed legal
challenges on behalf of about 40 detainees. "The fact
that right now, the most important time in the history
of Guantanamo, they are being banned is un-American."
Pentagon officials defended the temporary ban on
media, saying guards and base officials are
preoccupied with investigating the deaths and
maintaining security as detainees become more defiant.
A clash with guards in May left six detainees injured.
Another 10 prisoners were on hunger strike Thursday,
including six being force-fed with nasal tubes.
U.S. officials say the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base,
which sits on cactus-studded hills in southeastern
Cuba overlooking the Caribbean and mangrove forests,
has been unusually open to journalists despite media
complaints that access while they are at the prison is
severely curtailed and requests for interviews often
vanish in the military bureaucracy.
"It's the most transparent detention facility in the
history of warfare," insisted Navy Lt. Cmdr. Jeffrey
Gordon, a Pentagon spokesman, echoing comments by
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
But the Pentagon rejected all requests by news
organizations this week to cover the investigation and
aftermath of the suicides, the first detainee deaths
since Guantanamo opened.
About 10 news organizations, including The Associated
Press, were to cover a military tribunal this week for
one of the 10 detainees charged with crimes. But the
hearing was postponed and hours before they were to
depart for Guantanamo, the Pentagon canceled the
authorizations that reporters need to visit.
Reporters cover the hearings from the courtroom
where they are barred from speaking with participants,
even during breaks. Or they can view the proceedings
on a large-screen TV near a media center where
military censors peer at their photographs and video
and decide what is out of bounds.
On Wednesday, the Pentagon expelled two journalists
from the Los Angeles Times and The Miami Herald who
arrived at Guantanamo on a charter flight Sunday and
two others from The Charlotte Observer, who were at
the base for coverage of a commander from North
The Paris-based group Reporters Without Borders said
Thursday the expulsions damage the credibility of the
"We condemn the Pentagon decision and we call on the
U.S. government to take the necessary steps to
guarantee the media free access to the naval base at
Guantanamo," the group said.
Media visits have been common, drawing journalists
from dozens of countries, but they have always come
with thick strings attached.
Access to the base is available only through military
planes or small charters. The charters take about 3
hours to fly from Florida to Guantanamo because they
can't travel through Cuban airspace and must circle
around the island.
On the base, a 10-page list of ground rules bars
journalists from interviewing anyone without approval
and prohibits photos of detainee faces and base
features, such as radar or the coastline. The military
says such restrictions are needed for security and to
protect detainees' privacy.
But critics say the military is being disingenuous in
saying it wants to protect detainees' privacy. One
prisoner, speaking in English, once told a visiting AP
reporter that he wanted to talk. But when the reporter
asked the military if she could interview the
detainee, the answer was no.
Other reporters have been have been hustled away when
prisoners have tried to communicate with them
through food slots in the cells of the
highest-security section, or from behind curtains at
the medical clinic.
Gordon said regular media access is scheduled to
resume next week, with journalists from three European
news organizations taking a tour that can take two
months or more to arrange.
But without access to the detainees, Stafford Smith
said such visits amount to little more than
"The media sees a very sanitized view of what's going
on," he said.