Announcing new restrictions on the press covering Bradley Manning’s court-martial trial at Fort Meade, MD, a military spokesperson said, “This media operation center is a privilege, not a requirement. Privileges can be taken away.” She also announced that cell phones would no longer be allowed in the Ft. Meade media center, which broadcasts a live video feed from the courtroom.
“To say the judge wasn’t happy with what happened is an understatement,” she said. “Police yourselves. If there is another violation, everyone feels the pain, not just certain individuals.” The announcement comes in response to last month’s publication of an audio recording of Bradley Manning’s statement in court taking responsibility for releasing documents to WikiLeaks.
Michael Ratner, president emeritus for the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), called the idea that media access isn’t a right “one of the more foolish and dangerous propositions I have ever heard.”
“It’s one I would have hoped we would never hear in this country regarding press and public access to criminal cases. Calling access a “privilege” is to say it can be taken away at the whim of the judge. That befits a dictatorship not a democracy. Access to criminal proceedings including pretrial hearings is guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution, a right that can be limited only in the most extreme of circumstances. The Manning trial is already a travesty of First Amendment violations. This just compounds its utter unfairness.”
Judge Denise Lind also addressed the audio leak upon coming on the record this morning. “To date, I have not ordered persons to be screened for phones and recording devices,” she said. “I hope I don’t have to.” But as of today, those in the media center have been banned from bringing cell phones inside.
The new rule needlessly constrains a press increasingly frustrated with extremely limited access to Manning’s case, with several reporters complaining that these proceedings are more restrictive than military tribunals at Guantanamo Bay. No court rulings or motions are available to the press and public, forcing journalists to type what they hear in court as it happens. This makes contemporaneous coverage difficult like no other case.
Last year, the CCR legally petitioned the military to make all rulings, motions, and filings in Manning’s case public, contending that the First Amendment requires contemporaneous access to these records. Without officially responding to that suit, the Department of Defense released 84 documents in late February 2013. Since then, they’ve only released one more document – Manning’s statement (redacted).
Bending to public pressure today, in a first for Manning’s case, the military provided printed copies of two of Judge Lind’s rulings. A military legal subject matter expert explained that these rulings were released because they were “procedural,” they were already clean-typed copies, and the defense and government didn’t object to their release. There’s no indication that this means we’ll continue to get same-day access to these filings from now on. But there’s no reason why we can’t: the military has a court reporter who could type up the rulings, and it can redact any sensitive information (as it here redacted Manning’s social security number).
These rulings are a promising start, but they don’t counter the months of secrecy and choked-off access that those covering Manning’s case have endured. The First Amendment should afford full and timely access to these documents – a free press and fair coverage of Manning’s trial depend on it.