Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has launched the latest attack in the administration’s war on a free and independent media. The Pentagon is requiring reporters covering the court-martial of U.S. Army Sgt. Hasan Akbar at Fort Bragg, N.C., to “sign agreements that limit their ability to perform their jobs under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.”
In order to gain access to the proceeding, reporters must “pledge to not interview soldiers at Fort Bragg about the case or ask legal advisors in the media room to speculate on the outcome.” Reporters who don’t sign aren’t allowed to cover the case.
These restrictions aren’t taken lightly. To ensure compliance, journalists are “escorted everywhere while on base and some were monitored as they went to the restroom.” Eugene Fidel, a military law expert, “said he has never heard of restrictions against talking to soldiers,” calling such limitations “crazy.”
Just because it’s the military doesn’t mean the First Amendment doesn’t apply. The judge can close (or partially close) a proceeding to outside observers, but “[t]his can be done only after finding no reasonable alternative will safeguard [a compelling] interest and after providing for a narrow closure based on specific findings that can be reviewed on appeal.” In this case “[n]o public hearing was held, no showing was made and no judicial findings were rendered to justify press restrictions of any sort.” Moreover, applying these restrictions only to journalists is an unconstitutional “content-based form of restriction of speech.”
Military Reporters & Editors (MRE), the official association of military journalists, has written a letter to Secretary Rumsfeld demanding that “the Department of the Army rescind these constraints and assure that similar restrictions will not be imposed elsewhere.”