WASHINGTON -- The Miami Herald’s top editor called on the Department of Defense to withdraw new media restrictions at the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo, Cuba, and blasted the 13-year-old facility's growing “culture of censorship,” according to a letter obtained by The Huffington Post.
In an April 4 letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, executive editor Aminda Marqués Gonzalez wrote that four Miami Herald journalists visiting Guantanamo Bay last month were forbidden “from photographing the faces of anyone but the detention center commander, his spokesman and the contractor in charge of catering.”
Gonzalez wrote that two sergeants and a private “systematically deleted any imagery” showing the face of anyone else, even if the identity of the person photographed had been previously disclosed and publicized. The Herald journalists were ordered to photograph troops from the neck down and were prevented from reporting names of any other members of the 2,100-member staff, according to the letter. Previously, reporters were allowed to photograph and name members of the military with their permission.
Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale said Wednesday that Hagel was traveling in Asia. He said The Miami Herald, not HuffPost, sent the letter and would therefore receive any response first.
"The Secretary responds to correspondence to him in reasoned, due course, but never via the press," Breasseale wrote in an email to HuffPost. "It's worth noting that -- without addressing the letter you 'obtained' directly -- the Department takes very seriously the issue of access by the press at Guantanamo where it is lawful, reasonable, and responsible to do so and has an established history of doing just that."
The rules for reporters covering Guantanamo constantly change, but the shifts usually have to do with staff turnover rather than changes in written policy. On one trip, reporters may be allowed to take photos of the orange barriers surrounding the military courtroom. On another trip, members of the military might delete every photo that includes any portion of an orange barrier. It took a long time for officials to allow reporters to bring spiral-bound notebooks into the courtroom observation room, even though reporters are separated from detainees by several layers of soundproof glass.
In September, military personnel stopped releasing daily counts of Guantanamo detainees they considered hunger strikers. In December, the military refused to respond to inquires about the number of hunger strikers.
Meanwhile, U.S. military media outlets appear to operate under fewer restrictions.
Gonzalez suggested a double standard, noting that a military-run outlet published the names and faces of four soldiers in an April 4 article.
“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,” Gonzalez wrote. “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.”
In another example, Gonzalez wrote that troops seized video in December from a French journalist "who recorded a scene of Santa Claus at the Guantanamo commissary, with permission of an escort." After deleting the image, she wrote, troops "later staged a similar photo and published it on the cover of the detention center's in-house newsletter, The Wire."
Gonzalez wrote that “a culture of censorship has set in at Guantanamo 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,” the editor wrote. “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.”
The tougher media restrictions come at a time when there would seem to be an interest on the part of the Obama administration in drawing attention to the massive expense of housing detainees -- many cleared for transfer to other countries. President Barack Obama renewed his effort to get Congress to lift restrictions on closing Guantanamo's detention facilities in his State of the Union address in January.