Freedom Press
Which way lies freedom for our press? (Photo: sara~ on Flickr)

On Thursday, the Pentagon banned four reporters from further on-site reporting of military commission trials at Guantanamo, because they published the previously known name of a witness that the Pentagon was trying to present as anonymous. The impact of this assault on press freedom can be seen immediately in the corporate news coverage of this event, as only McClatchy continues to name the witness in its coverage of the banning.

Here is how Spencer Ackerman, also present at Guantanamo, reported the banning:

Two weeks’ worth of proceedings in the pre-trial hearing of Omar Khadr found an unexpected meta-conclusion this afternoon as the public affairs shop in the Office of the Secretary of Defense banned four reporters from returning to Guantanamo Bay. Their offense: reporting the name of a witness whose identity is under a protective order.

The four journalists are Michelle Shephard of the Toronto Star, Steven Edwards of Canwest, Paul Koring of the Globe & Mail and Carol Rosenberg of the Miami Herald. They are not being thrown off the base, but, as of now, they are barred from returning.

Continuing, Ackerman describes the impact of the ban:

Those four reporters comprise much of the institutional knowledge of Guantanamo Bay and the military commissions, as their colleagues widely acknowledge. Shephard has written the most comprehensive account to date of Omar Khadr’s life and experiences in detention at Bagram and Guantanamo Bay, in both her Star reporting and her book Guantanamo’s Child. Rosenberg is the single most diligent, consistent and experienced Guantanamo Bay reporter in the world, having carved out the Guantanamo beat steadily almost since the detention facility here opened in 2002 and traveled here more frequently than any other journalist. (I personally heard complaints about her from public affairs officers here five years ago — and those complaints amounted to whining about how dogged an investigator she was.) Koring and Edwards have also been invaluable resources about Khadr and Guantanamo to their colleagues these past two weeks.

Marcy Wheeler described the Pentagon action and asked questions about its impact:

Basically, the government is banning journalists for using a name they’ve used in reports in the past, a name that is publicly known.

Is this an attempt to prevent the public from making the connection between two Afghans who died in 2002–Dilawar and Habibullah–and Khadr’s treatment? And/or just an attempt to intimidate the press so the people who know the most about the Gitmo show trials (and particularly Khadr) don’t bring that knowledge to bear on their reporting?

We will have to wait to see on Marcy’s first question, but on her second, the Pentagon appears to have succeeded in cowering most of the corporate press. This AP article does not mention the name of "Interrogator No. 1". Reuters matches AP’s refusal to name, and goes even further by bragging about that refusal:

His name had been widely published during a 2005 court-martial in which he pleaded guilty to abusing prisoners at the Bagram air base in Afghanistan. He had also allowed the use of his name in subsequent media interviews.

But the Guantanamo court declared his name to be secret during his testimony on Thursday in a hearing to determine whether a Canadian prisoner’s confessions to interrogators were coerced. He was identified only as Interrogator No. 1.

About a dozen news organizations covered the hearing and about half, including Reuters, did not identify the interrogator by name.

Among those large news organizations who did print the name, McClatchy stands out, especially since their Carol Rosenberg was among the banned:

At issue were news articles earlier this week that identified a witness at a hearing for Canadian detainee Omar Khadr as former Army Sgt. Joshua Claus. The Pentagon had asked reporters to identify him as Interrogator No. 1.

Claus has been the subject of news stories since 2005, when he was convicted by a U.S. military court martial of abusing detainees at Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan in 2002, a conviction that earned him a five-month prison term.

He was first publicly identified as Khadr’s interrogator on March 13, 2008, during a hearing at Guantanamo. He subsequently gave an on-the-record interview to Shephard of the Toronto Star, one of the banned reporters, where he asserted that he’d never abused Khadr, who was 15 years old when he was taken captive by U.S. troops in Afghanistan in 2002.

Just as they did in their reporting on the build-up to the Iraq war, McClatchy (and predecessor Knight Ridder) is willing to adhere to the principles of a free press that doggedly pursues the reality behind stories rather than serving as stenographers for government spin.

Hooray for the good guys and hooray for courage under pressure.

Update May 8: David Dayen informs us in comment 21 below that Daniel Froomkin reported Claus’ name in his story about about the banning. As I responded in comments, that raises an interesting question of whether Froomkin would have been allowed to do so if he were still at the Washington Post. But perhaps the biggest surprise of all is that CNN has joined the group of corporate media organizations naming Claus. See this article. Good on them.