Are newspapers covering Akbar case under a military gag order and not reporting it?April 28, 2005 7:29 PM EDT ››› JEREMY CLUCHEY
In an April 27 letter to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Military Reporters & Editors (MRE) president Sig Christenson expressed concerns "about restrictions imposed" on reporters covering the military trial of Army Sgt. Hasan Akbar, who was convicted of murder on April 21 for a fatal attack on fellow soldiers in Kuwait. The restrictions on the press reportedly include a ban on speaking without permission to any civilians or soldiers at the Fort Bragg, North Carolina, Army base where the trial was held. The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, and the Associated Press have all covered the trial, but none has reported allegations that the Department of Defense (DOD) imposed restrictions on coverage, nor did they report -- as would be the case if DOD did, in fact, enforce such a policy -- that their own reporters agreed to and complied with those restrictions.
While it is not known whether those papers actually acceded to the restrictions as a condition of getting access to the trial, none of the four media organizations -- all of which evidently attended the proceedings -- in fact included any quotes from civilians or soldiers on the base who were not involved in the trial.
According to an April 27 Editor & Publisher article, MRE claims that reporters "were forced to sign an agreement pledging not to interview soldiers at the base or legal advisors in the court room. In addition, MRE claims reporters have been escorted everywhere they go on the base to ensure compliance, even being monitored in the restrooms." Reporter Jeff Schogol, covering the trial for the Easton, Pennsylvania, Express-Times, also enumerated some of the "ground rules that spell out the limits of media access" in an April 17 article:
I can't talk to any soldiers or civilians on the base without permission.
I can be searched at any time.
I can't ask the legal adviser provided to the media to speculate on how evidence or testimony might affect the trial's outcome.
I have to be escorted everywhere I go on Fort Bragg. When I go to the men's room, my military escort waits patiently outside.
Breaking the rules means I will no longer cover the court martial.
Four articles on Akbar's trial have appeared in the Los Angeles Times (here, here, here, and here), one has appeared in The New York Times, and one has appeared in The Washington Post. The Associated Press has also written several articles on the trial (here, here, and here). None of the articles quoted "any soldiers or civilians" other than those involved in the trial, and none mentioned the alleged restrictions.
Schogol reported on MRE's letter to Rumsfeld in an April 28 Express-Times article titled "Journalists press Rumsfeld to end restrictions on court-martial coverage."
The New York Times recently admitted publicly that a reporter had agreed to restrictions imposed by a source (in a different story), an agreement the Times acknowledged violated its policy. On April 7, the Columbia Journalism Review's CJR Daily reported that the Times had agreed not to interview "pro-Israel" students who complained of harassment by "pro-Palestinian" professors at Columbia University in exchange for an unreleased university report on the allegations. As CJR noted:
If you're looking for an example of irresponsible journalism, this is about as cut and dried as it gets. The Times itself admitted as much in an editor's note on April 6, saying that "Under the Times' policy on unidentified sources, writers are not permitted to forgo follow-up reporting in exchange for information." ... [T]he Times spells its policy out on its corporate Web site, which reads in part:
We do not promise sources that we will refrain from additional reporting or efforts to verify the information being reported.
We do not promise sources that we will refrain from seeking comment from others on the subject of the story. (We may, however, agree to a limited delay in further inquiries -- until the close of stock trading, for example.)
The fact that some at the Times decided to subvert their own reporting by agreeing to ignore one side of a debate is disturbing, if not wholly insulting, to the paper's readership.