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Pentagon expands journalist protections in revised Law of War manual

Reworded passages of the Law of War manual ensure journalists civilian status and freedom to meet with enemy combatants without being deemed a spy.

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    Foreign correspondents convene on the site of the ancient ruins in Palmyra, Syria, on April 8. The US Department of Defense has revised its Law of War manual to better protect foreign correspondents working in war zones.
    Russian Defense Ministry Press Service/AP
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The Pentagon released an updated version of it Law of War manual on Friday after receiving criticism that the current guidelines allowed commanders to question the legitimacy of foreign correspondents, put journalists working war zones in danger, and infringed on freedom of the press. 

The US Department of Defense originally released the manual, the first of its kind, in June 2015. It defined some journalists as "unprivileged belligerents,” which grants them fewer protections and makes them ineligible for prisoner of war (POW) status. It compared the work journalists do to enemy spying.

The revised text recognizes the civilian rights of journalists, the role they play in a free society, and the purpose they serve in a war zone. The report specifically outlined that free and unimpeded reporting, including the need to meet with enemy combatants, is consistent with the objectives of the military. In light of this, commanders are responsible for distinguishing between journalists and enemy forces so that journalists are not accidentally detained without charge by their own government.

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“These are major changes,” Frank Smyth of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) told Reuters. “This affirms the rights and the practice of open and independent reporting on the battlefield.”

The CPJ along with other press freedom advocacy groups and news organizations met with the Department of Defense following the manual’s release last summer to dispute the language used in the report.

"The manual was restructured to make it be more clear," Pentagon deputy general counsel Chuck Allen told CPJ prior to the revised manual's release. "Journalists are civilians and are to be protected as such."

Despite the changes to the manual, ambiguities. A journalist can still be given unprivileged belligerents status if they are part of an armed non-state group or carrying out propaganda or “other media activities,” a phrase that leaves a good deal of room for interpretation.

The distinction between unprivileged belligerents and POWs is important because the Geneva Convention grants POWs certain rights such as humane treatment while in captivity, having their status as prisoners reported to a neutral organization, and assurance of release once the hostilities end. Unprivileged belligerent status applies to spies, saboteurs, and guerrillas.

However, the Defense Department has stated that it would revise the Law of War manual again in the future if necessary.

"The department's mission is to defend the very freedoms that journalists exercise," the Pentagon's top lawyer, Jennifer O'Connor, said in a statement. "We have learned a lot during this process, and the department and the manual are better off for the experience."

Rhetoric in the United States that champions the First Amendment would have Americans believe that the US is the gold standard of press freedom around the world, but that is not the case, according to Reporters Without Borders.

The watchdog's 2016 press freedom rankings place the US 41st out of 180 countries – behind many northern and central European countries, but also countries from all over the world including New Zealand, Costa Rica, Jamaica, Namibia, Canada, and South Africa.

This actually marks an improvement from 2015 report when the US only just scraped into the top 50, settling for 49th place. The organization cites “the government’s war on whistleblowers who leak information about its surveillance activities, spying, and foreign operations, especially those linked to counter-terrorism” as the main factors infringing on press freedom in the US today.

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