A new Pentagon manual raises new concerns about how the executive branch views press freedom, especially during times of war.
The “Department of Defense Law of War Manual” covers how the United States interprets what is permissible during wartime. In a section defining journalists, the manual notes that they could also be “unprivileged belligerents.”
Scott Shackford in Reason notes how “unprivileged belligerents” is “apparently the new term for ‘unlawful combatants,’ which some may recall was the new term for ‘suspected terrorists.’”
Vague, shifting categories for those whom the American government finds suspicious casts aspersions and limits protections for many without any evidence or intelligence data to support such a bold move.
In The Washington Times, Army Lt. Col. Joseph R. Sowers, a Pentagon spokesman, dismissed the wording as not containing any legal significance, claiming it reflects the complexity of identifying civilians or “belligerents.”
However, the Committee to Protect Journalists doesn’t interpret the passage as so benign:
“This broad and poorly defined category gives U.S. military commanders across all services the purported right to at least detain journalists without charge, and without any apparent need to show evidence or bring a suspect to trial.”
A double standard exists for how leaks are prosecuted as well. High-ranking officials who leak classified information that benefit the administration receive misdemeanors or no prosecution at all, whereas lower-level officials and employees face felony charges and long prison sentences.
Outside of journalist circles, the state of press freedoms has received little attention. It is difficult to know how one clause or law will affect future standards, but under the Obama administration, dozens of tiny cuts have eroded protection standards for journalists as a whole.
The wording of journalists as “unprivileged belligerents” could be benign, but the treatment of journalists for the last 15 years weighs the evidence against such a rosy interpretation.