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Everything But The Truth: Pentagon rules may change war reporting

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Washington: New guidelines in a US military war manual may change the rules for reporters covering conflicts, but it remains to be seen how the Pentagon will implement the new policy.

Media watchdog organisations have expressed shock and concern that reporters could be treated as “unprivileged belligerents” under the Defense Department’s new Law of War Manual, which provides guidance for US commanders and others.

The Pentagon has insisted it “supports and respects the vital work that journalists perform.” But some media advocates see too much room for maneuver in the guidelines.

Reporters Without Borders joined other organisations this past week in expressing concern, sending a letter to Defense Secretary Ashton Carter urging consultations on the issue.

In the letter to the US defense chief, the Paris-based group said it was concerned that journalists could lose “privileged” status in combat areas merely by “the relaying of information,” which, according to the guidelines, “could constitute taking a direct part in hostilities.”

“This terminology leaves too much room for interpretation, putting journalists in a dangerous situation,” said the group’s secretary general, Christophe Deloire, in the letter.

Deloire said governments “have a duty to protect journalists covering armed conflicts” under a United Nations resolution and that his group was “disappointed that this manual takes a step in the wrong direction.”

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists expressed similar concerns last month, saying the Pentagon “has produced a self-serving document that is unfortunately helping to lower the bar” for press freedom.

And The New York Times, in an editorial this month, called for the repeal of provisions affecting media, warning they would make the work of journalists covering armed conflict “more dangerous, cumbersome and subject to censorship.”

The newspaper said the rules could put reporters in the same category assigned to guerrillas or members of Al-Qaeda.

Treating journalists as potential spies, the newspaper argued, feeds into the propaganda of authoritarian governments that attempt to discredit Western journalists by falsely accusing them of espionage.