The first day of Private First Class Bradley Manning's court martial kicked off with Judge Denise Lind tackling one of the most contentious issues of the trial: whether the press and public will be allowed access to the trial of the WikiLeaks whistleblower.
To date, the Army has been bombarded with criticism that they've systematically prevented public access to the proceedings--and for good reason. There are currently no transcripts of the proceedings released by the courts, video and audio recordings are banned, cell phones and Internet usage is prohibited, no one can read the government's briefs, and there are strict limitations on the number of individuals who can attend the trial in person.
Manning, who is facing decades in prison for releasing documents to the whistleblower website WikiLeaks, has become a focal point in an international debate over press freedom and government transparency. Now, access to the trial itself has become another flashpoint over unnecessary and arbitrary government secrecy.
Judge Lind began the morning by questioning the prosecution about the accommodations that had been made for the press and public.
Prosecutor Maj. Ashden Fein stated that 16 seats in the courtroom were available for the public, and that a trailer outside would have a live feed and could hold an additional 35 spectators. Fein also stated that a theater would be available next door that could currently seat 100 individuals but that, with the help of the fire marshal, could be adjusted to fit up to 540 people.
The prosecution then stated that no members of the public had been turned away from observing the proceeding through one of the available venues.
For those of who have attended Bradley Manning's Article 32 pre-trial hearing and who attempted to attend the court martial today, such statements by the prosecution are so flagrantly inaccurate as to border on ludicrous.
During the Article 32 hearing, the "overflow theater" was open for merely one day - meaning that individuals who couldn't get into the courtroom had no way to view the proceedings. While I cannot know how many total individuals were turned away from the courtroom, I personally met two people who had traveled from DC and were refused access to the Article 32 hearing due to lack of space.
Monday morning, I queued up in the rain for a couple hours before the court began in order to get one of the few seats that were allotted to the public. Standing with me in line were individuals who traveled from as far away as Mexico City and Ireland to attend this historic trial in person. Those not among the first 21 were relegated to the overflow trailer or the theater outside. Unfortunately, the video and audio feeds in these rooms were reportedly spotty, cutting out during crucial moments of the defense's opening arguments.
Members of the media haven't faired much better in getting access to the trial.
Maj. Fein stated in court Monday that only five media organizations had been denied access to the trial. This statement directly contradicts written statements by the Military District of Washington Media Desk, which issues press passes, late last week. In an email exchange, the MDW Media Desk stated that "more than 350 requests for credentials were received" but that "space limitations based on building fire codes" meant that only 70 individuals were granted access to the media operations center.
That means at least 270 members of the media were denied media credentials to cover the proceedings, not five.
Reader Supported News was among those denied access. They filed a motion to intervene on Friday in order to gain access to the media room. Their brief also asks that the video and audio feed that is available in the media operations center be available to the general public, noting that the "public and press have First Amendment and common law right to prompt and contemporaneous access to the records of proceedings of the court-martial trial proceeding."
The Freedom of the Press Foundation, which crowdsources funding for investigative journalism organizations including WikiLeaks, has raised nearly $60,000 from more than 1,000 donors to hire professional stenographers to produce daily transcripts from the media room, since the government refuses to do it themselves. These stenographers teamed up with media partners at the Guardian, the Verge, and Forbes to apply for press passes to the court martial. All three of the media passes requested for the public stenographers were denied.
More than twenty major media organizations - including Fox News, NPR, Bloomberg News, Newsweek, and the Los Angeles Times - sent a letter Monday morning to the military court asking for press access for crowd-funded stenographers so they can provide a way to the more than 270+ media organizations that were denied access a way to report on the historic trial. The letter stated, "Public and press access to court proceedings is a hallmark of democracy in the United States," a concept that's notably absent for all aspects of the Manning trial.
In the face of all of these restrictions to public and press access to the trial, the prosecution has nonetheless been touting the openness of the trial. After questioning by Judge Lind, Maj. Fein pointed out that there was "unlimited" space available in the "press pit." This is an area that is outside the courthouse altogether, in a fenced-off section of parking lot several yards away from the courthouse. Individuals in this area have no way of hearing or seeing what's happening in the courtroom. Cell phone usage is banned in this area.
Rainey Reitman, co-founder of the Bradley Manning Support Network and the Freedom of the Press Foundation, is reporting from Fort Meade, Maryland.