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Behind the Gates of Guantanamo: The Challenges of Covering a Terror Trial

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Constant supervision. Selective censorship of court proceedings. No recording in the court room.

Press assigned to cover military tribunals at Guantanamo Bay faced such challenges during past trials at the detention camp, according to a journalist. Now, with the trial of the accused September 11 mastermind and four others moved from Lower Manhattan to Cuba, reporters may encounter similar obstacles.

Reporters seeking to cover trials at Guantanamo must do so through the Department of Defense, which invites reporters to visit for between 10 days, as an April press release noted, to nearly one month, according to an October release. Journalists are subject to the department's rules and regulations and are never allowed to be unsupervised while on site.

New York Times reporter William Glaberson covered two trials and several hearings at Guantanamo over a period of three years — including the trial of Salim Hamdan and David Hicks. One major obstacle in the special courtroom of the early 9/11 trials, he said, was the Plexiglas window that divides the court from reporters. A military judge has the power to push a button that cuts off sound to the courtroom, a tactic Glaberson said was often used when "torture" was mentioned.

He said about nine reporters could fit into the room and the others sat in an overflow room. Recording equipment is not allowed in the overflow room.

Contractors often sat in the room with reporters and followed them to the press tent where reporters filed their reports, Glaberson said.  Those contractors, he said, filed reports on reporters.

Eating at Guantanamo, Glaberson said, was also a "big issue." If reporters wanted meals, they’d have to eat at the military mess hall. Dinners were served between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m., the time most filed their stories. Some reporters brought frozen foods and cooked in the make shift kitchen, he said.

There is a hotel on the island, but it's for lawyers only.

There is Internet access, but it can be spotty Glaberson said.

The Department of Defense did not return an email for comment.

A man who answered the phone at the number listed to the press office for the Department of Defense said he did not deal with the press.

This article has been updated on 4/11/11 to note that Glaberson covered Guantanamo for three years, not a year and a half, nine and not 20 reporters fit in the courtroom and recording equipment is not allowed in the overflow room or the courtroom. The Plexiglass window is used in the special courtroom for the 9/11 trials, but not all courtrooms at Guantanamo and recording is not allowed in any of the courtrooms.

 

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