By WENDY BENJAMINSON
WASHINGTON (AP) — New Defense Department guidelines allow commanders to punish journalists and treat them as “unprivileged belligerents” if they believe journalists are sympathizing or cooperating with the enemy.
The Law of War manual, updated to apply for the first time to all branches of the military, contains a vaguely worded provision that military commanders could interpret broadly, experts in military law and journalism say. Commanders could ask journalists to leave military bases or detain journalists for any number of perceived offenses.
“In general, journalists are civilians,” the 1,180 page manual says, but it adds that “journalists may be members of the armed forces, persons authorized to accompany the armed forces, or unprivileged belligerents.”
A person deemed “unprivileged belligerent” is not entitled to the rights afforded by the Geneva Convention so a commander could restrict from certain coverage areas or even hold indefinitely without charges any reporter considered an “unprivileged belligerent.”
The manual adds, “Reporting on military operations can be very similar to collecting intelligence or even spying. A journalist who acts as a spy may be subject to security measures and punished if captured.” It is not specific as to the punishment or under what circumstances a commander can decide to “punish” a journalist.
Defense Department officials said the reference to “unprivileged belligerents” was intended to point out that terrorists or spies could be masquerading as reporters, or warn against someone who works for jihadist websites or other publications, such as al-Qaida’s “Inspire” magazine, that can be used to encourage or recruit militants.
Another provision says that “relaying of information” could be construed as “taking a direct part in hostilities.” Officials said that is intended to refer to passing information about ongoing operations, locations of troops or other classified data to an enemy.
Army Lt. Col. Joe Sowers, a Pentagon spokesman, said it was not the Defense Department’s intent to allow an overzealous commander to block journalists or take action against those who write critical stories.