Jump Starting the First Amendment

In February, 2009, the Pentagon allowed the International Red Cross to photograph detainees at Guantanamo Bay for the first time. They had been barred from doing so for eight years prior to that.

Photographers with the Miami Herald went with the Red Cross, and said that it was nearly impossible to distinguish so-called “high value” detainees from those who have been since released. The photos are disturbingly happy, and relaxed, given what we now know about detainee abuse. Some of the men were smiling, and holding up pictures of their young children, children they had not seen since birth. Clearly, it is not in the interest of national security to show the human face of war.

Granting the Red Cross this kind of access was one small step for the Pentagon, but one big step for the war on illegal incarceration. Yet, again, it is one step forward, and two steps back.

And, what the Pentagon giveth, the Pentagon taketh away. In May, four reporters were banned from covering military commissions at Gitmo, and now, in an effort to jump start the First Amendment, McClatchy reports that major news organizations are organizing to challenge the ban as illegal in that it “bars publication of information considered ‘protected’ even if the information is already widely known and publicly available.”

The groups argue that the Supreme Court has, in the past, denied to validate this restriction. McClatchy, parent company of the Miami Herald and more than two dozen newspapers, is joined by The Associated Press, The New York Times, Reuters, The Washington Post, and Dow Jones.

While the Pentagon has acquiesced and said they’d lift the ban next month, the four reporters in question will still be denied access to the hearing they were covering which will resume mid-July.

But, it’s not just the Pentagon. The Coast Guard just issued a ruling that denies reporters from coming within 65 feet of oil booms, and response vessels at the site of the spill in the Gulf of Mexico. As CNN’s Anderson Cooper reports, failure to comply with this new rule will result in felony charges, and fines as high as $40,000. Compliance will result in less coverage of the tragic effects of the spill on wildlife. birds that have been soaked and suffocated by oil.

Doubtless the Defense Department would want to suppress images that might interfere with what is reported to be their more than $980 million in contracts with BP. The First Amendment, which has been in the Intensive Care Unit for more than eight years, is now, like many pelicans in the Gulf of Mexico, in critical condition.

The tired argument that the suspension of a free press and/or free speech is sometimes necessary in the name of national security is quickly exposed as little more than a mask for the true underlying motive which is not national security, but national greed.

The pablum about “keeping us safe” is a ruse for a grand scale money laundering campaign which involves big business and big corporations. This is nothing new, but it is alarming nonetheless that even transparency now comes with an expiration date.




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JAYNE LYN STAHL is a widely published poet, essayist, playwright, and screenwriter, member of PEN American Center, and PEN USA.

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