Yesterday, closing arguments began in the trial of accused WikiLeaks whistleblower Bradley Manning. But even as the prosecution's arguments in the courtroom may have an enormous impact on journalism, another disturbing issue of press freedom was unfolding in the media center: reporters covering the trial were being intimidated by members of the military, who seemed to be surveilling what they were writing and doing on their computers.
Boing Boing editor (and our board member) Xeni Jardin has the most comprehensive rundown using tweets by reporters on hand, including journalists Alexa O'Brien and Kevin Gozstola, two mainstays in the press room. They indicated reporters were yelled at by the military police and searched for electronic devices multiple times. Most disturbingly, armed military police continually peered over the reporters' shoulders at their screens as they were trying to report, instructing them to close various windows they had open on their computers.
Apparently, the strict conditions were put in place because of "repeat violations of the rules of the court both in the courtroom and the media operations center" though no evidence was given for those violations and there have been no known leaks from the courtroom since the pre-trial period, which was months ago. The New York Times described the scene in the media room like this:
While [military prosecutor] made his arguments, reporters watched the trial on a close-captioned feed at the media center. Two military police officers in camouflage fatigues and armed with holstered handguns paced behind each row there, looking over the journalists’ shoulders, which had not happened during the trial. No explanation was given.
Huffington Post reporter Matt Sledge characterized the feeling in the media room: "I've covered civil and criminal cases in federal and state courts (including a terrorism trial), and the Manning court martial for eight months, and I haven't run into an atmosphere quite as tense as today." Late in the day, New York Times reporter Charlie Savage tweeted that one of the armed military policemen who had swept the reporters multiple times for cell phones and aircards—because they're banned—was on his iPhone.
Of course, the press has already had to deal with restrictive conditions and absurd government secrecy rules throught the pre-trial and trial proceedings that has made it difficult to report, and more importantly, has stifled the public's access to the trial. Bu this marks a new level.
The public has a vested interest in the trial of Bradley Manning. After all, Manning provided the public with documents that shed light on international policies and agenda of the United States and governments around the world, details about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and information about detainees currently being indefinitely detained at the military base in Guanatanamo Bay. Manning's trial could also have major ramifications for press freedom and the rights of future whistleblowers. Yet, there are no recordings allowed in the court room or media center, live-tweeting the proceedings is prohibited, and there's no publicly available transcript to ensure accurate and timely reporting (which is, of course, why Freedom of the Press Foundation is crowd-sourcing stenographers to provide coverage from the media center).
The government ought to be doing everything in its power to ensure that Manning's trial is public. Instead, they seem to be inhibiting access at every legally defensible turn.
At the least, the public and the press deserve an explanation as to why armed guards were pacing ominously behind reporters trying to do their job, snooping on their work. And no matter the explanation, it's unacceptable to intimidate reporters with holstered weapons. Unsubstantiated allegations that court procedures are being violated are not sufficient reason to engage in these disturbing tactics against journalists.