Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Protesting the Gulf Ground Rules

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Protesting the Gulf Ground Rules

Article excerpt

Protesting the Gulf ground rules

Criticism of the ground rules imposed on media covering Operation Desert Shield in the Persian Gulf came down fast and furious from many directions, including a congressman seeking a review of the rules and a lawsuit filed in federal court.

The press rules, issued Jan. 9, state, among other things, that media reports from combat pools must be reviewed by a public affairs officer at the site before transmission. While the decision can be appealed, the process would delay reporting (E&P, Jan. 12, P.8).

Rep. Frank McCloskey (D-Ind.) called upon Secretary of Defense Richard B. Cheney and Rep. Les Aspin (D-Wis.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, to review the Pentagon rules governing press in the Persian Gulf.

McCloskey, a former newspaperman, wrote to Cheney, in part: "I remain highly concerned that there will be an unprecedented level of review of every report from the Persian Gulf.

"During the Vietnam War, there was no corresponding censorship and it is my understanding that there were only four violations of security restrictions by reporters during that war," McCloskey wrote. "Although written reports were reviewed during Korea and World War II, I believe that virtually all, if not all, broadcast reports were uncensored.

"Although certain restrictions due to national security interests are necessary, such provisions should not be unnecessarily broad or restraining. I also remain concerned that only a very small number of reporters will be allowed in Saudi Arabia."

McCloskey further noted that the "recent trend toward unnecessary restrictions on media coverage of military activities, including U.S. military operations in Panama and Grenada, is alarming."

The congressman, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, is seeking a response from the Department of Defense regarding the legality and constitutionality of the rules, and has requested that his committee hold hearings on the issue if necessary.

McCloskey told E&P in a telephone interview that, while not much has happened in the week since he sent the letters dated Jan. 9, he plans to pursue the issue further.

"It seems to me totally unreasonable to expect - with the need for comprehensive coverage of the Gulf - the American people would be served by or stand for censorship," McCloskey said, adding he worries that the rules could be used for restricting problematic coverage rather than for protecting national security.

"No one would deny the necessity for security restrictions and classifications," he continued, noting press rules worked well on a voluntary basis in Vietnam.

Aspin's office did not return a call seeking comment.

Although he had not seen McCloskey's letter to Cheney, a Department of Defense spokesman, Rick Oborn, said the ground rules for the Gulf are basically the same as those in Vietnam, except for the appeals process.

Because of the immediacy of media transmission in the Gulf, which was not a factor during Vietnam, Oborn noted it could prove worthwhile "to have a little extra time to think about what is put on the air."

He explained there are no criminal penalties for publishing or airing censored material, but added that a violation could lead to revocation of credentials from the Saudi government.

"Everything continues to be up for discussion," Oborn said regarding any changes in the rules, "but the basic concern of ours will not go away. We're concerned that information will show up that will get people killed."

Cheney also was sent a letter from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Radio-Television News Directors Association urging him to reconsider press rules in the Gulf.

The two organizations wrote of concern notably with the exclusive use of escorted tight pools and security review.

The letter - signed by Jane Kirtley, RCFP executive director, and David Bartlett, RTNDA president - stated, in part: "We urge you to consider carefully whether prior review of pool material by military public affairs officers is really necessary for security, and whether more open coverage than is possible with escorted tight pools can be instituted once the military operation is under way. …

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