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Reporters Committee urges Defense Department to improve record access during Bradley Manning court martial

WASHINGTON -- The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has written to the U.S. Department of Defense, urging it to implement regulations providing for timely access to court records during the court martial of Pfc. Bradley Manning, who is accused of giving thousands of classified documents to the website WikiLeaks.

The letter, co-signed by 46 news media organizations and associations, was sparked by reporter complaints that they have been unable to view documents from the proceeding, including the court docket, “meaning that journalists covering the proceedings are often unaware of what is being discussed therein.” The letter was given particular urgency by a hearing scheduled for this week.

Last year, a similar group of news media organizations appealed to the Defense Department for more access to military commission trials of suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay. The military responded affirmatively, establishing a website for documents filed in the proceedings, setting up a remote viewing site at Fort Meade and adopting updated regulations concerning governance of the commissions.

“As such,” the letter says, “the coalition respectfully urges the government to implement similar reforms in its regulations governing court-martial proceedings generally and that of Manning specifically to ensure that military personnel tried stateside have the same rights to a public trial as those afforded accused terrorists.”

The media coalition is asking the Defense Department to: post online within one day the filings and decisions that do not require classification review and within 15 business days (except in “exceptional circumstances”) those that need review; post unofficial transcripts as soon as possible after the end of the day’s proceedings; authorize military judges to rule on disputes over the designation of “protected” documents; and allow an interlocutory, or interim, appeal by the prosecution on any order regarding closure of proceedings or restriction of access to documents.

“The oversight of our judicial process through unfettered public access to courtroom proceedings and documents is a cornerstone of our constitutional system of checks-and-balances,” said Lucy A. Dalglish, Reporters Committee executive director. “We hope the Defense Department recognizes that the need to protect classified information neither precludes nor clashes with the vital function of the press to report to the public on these trials, whether of suspected terrorists overseas or courts martial on American soil.”

The letter was signed by: ABC News; Advance Publications; A. H. Belo Corp.; Allbritton Communications Co.; ALM Media; American Society of News Editors; The Associated Press; Association of Alternative Newsweeklies; Atlantic Media; Bloomberg News; Cable News Network; CBS News; Cox Media Group; Digital First Media; Digital Media Law Project; Dow Jones & Company; The E.W. Scripps Co.; First Amendment Coalition; Gannett Co.; Hearst Corp.; Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association; The McClatchy Co.; Meredith Corp.; Military Reporters & Editors; MPA – The Association of Magazine Media; The National Press Club; National Press Photographers Association; NBC News; New York Daily News; The New York Times; Newspaper Association of America; The Newspaper Guild – CWA; The Newsweek/Daily Beast Co.; North Jersey Media Group; NPR; Online News Association; POLITICO; Radio Television Digital News Association; The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press; Reuters News; Society of Professional Journalists; Stephens Media; Time; Tribune Co.; USA TODAY; The Washington Post; and WNET.

About the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

Founded in 1970, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press offers free legal support to thousands of working journalists and media lawyers each year. It is a leader in the fight against persistent efforts by government officials to impede the release of public information, whether by withholding documents or threatening reporters with jail. In addition to its 24/7 Legal Defense Hotline, the Reporters Committee conducts cutting-edge legal research, publishes handbooks and guides on media law issues, files frequent friend-of-the-court legal briefs and offers challenging fellowships and internships for young lawyers and journalists. For more information, go to www.rcfp.org, or follow us on Twitter @rcfp.