DoD 'Plowing New Ground' in Military Commissions, Media Coverage
By Kathleen T. Rhem
American Forces Press Service
NAVAL BASE GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba, Aug. 23, 2004 Defense Department officials are "plowing new ground" in conducting the first military commissions since 1948 and in how civilian media will be allowed to cover the proceedings, a spokesman for the commissions said.
Pentagon officials have allowed some 65 media members to come to the base nicknamed "Gitmo" to cover preliminary hearings for the first four detainees here to be charged with war crimes. Hearings are scheduled to begin Aug. 24.
"This is new ground in terms of the legal proceedings, and it's new ground in terms of how Gitmo handles a (media) group this big," said Army Col. David McWilliams, chief commissions spokesman. He briefed media members Aug. 21 after they landed on the island aboard a U.S. Air Force C-130 from Andrews Air Force Base, Md.
The colonel said he intends to "uphold the ideal that this will be an open, publicly accessible proceeding," because the media will be the eyes and ears of the rest of the world.
There is ample evidence on site of the government's commitment to provide access for the media. For example, McWilliams said, if there's a disruption in the courtroom, the closed-circuit camera operators have instructions not to cut off the cameras or impede the media's viewing by turning or blocking the cameras. Media representatives also will have access to the detainees' defense attorneys and to representatives of several human-rights organizations on the island to observe the hearings.
More than just American media will tell the story. Three Arabic-language television stations are represented in the media group: al-Jazeera, al Arabiya and al Hurra.
There is a strong Australian presence here as well. Australian detainee David Hicks is scheduled to appear in court this week, and members of his family are due to arrive on the island from Australia. All four major Australian television networks are represented here, as are two Australian newspapers and a radio station.
Each day, eight media members will be chosen by lottery to actually sit in the courtroom as first-hand observers. One of these will be a sketch artist each day. Media are not allowed to bring cameras or any recording devices into the courtroom building. McWilliams stressed no photos or video recordings will be made of any court proceedings at Guantanamo, not even by military documentary photographers.
The remaining media representatives will be allowed to observe all court proceedings on closed-circuit television in a nearby conference room. The closed-circuit broadcast will be set on a digital buffer with a two- to three- minute delay. The signal will be shut off if there is an inadvertent disclosure of classified information in the courtroom, so the information will not be relayed to the main body of media.
"Then only the eight (media) in the courtroom have to be debriefed if there's a security breach," McWilliams explained.
The only images allowed out of the courtroom will be from the sketch artist, who is under several security restrictions. No sketches can depict the faces of the detainees or of the prosecuting attorneys or panel members, and a government security official will review all sketches before their release. Images of defense counsel can be released because they agreed to this, McWilliams said.
The naval base here is at a "heightened state of alert" because of the court proceedings, McWilliams said. "At one time, al Qaeda made a threat that if we held trials, there would be retribution."
Media members have escorts at all times. For operational security reasons, McWilliams did not detail other security measures being taken. "Right now, the heightened state of tension on this island is tangible," he said.