CBS news journalists prepare their equipment, including helmets and flack jackets, in Baghdad on April 13, 2004
Washington (AFP) - The Pentagon is drawing fire for new legal guidelines that liken war correspondents to spies and says that in some instances they can be treated as "unprivileged belligerents."
The guidelines received little notice when they were published in June in the Defense Department's new Law of War Manual, a compendium of legal advice for commanders and others in the US military establishment.
But, in an editorial on Monday, New York Times called for their repeal, warning they would make the work of journalists covering armed conflict "more dangerous, cumbersome and subject to censorship."
The manual's section on the treatment on journalists says that, in general, they are civilians who should be protected from attack.
But, in some vaguely defined instances, it says journalists may be "unprivileged belligerents," the same category assigned to guerrillas or members of Al-Qaeda.
"Reporting on military operations can be very similar to collecting intelligence or even spying," the manual says.
"A journalist who acts as a spy may be subject to security measures and punished if captured. To avoid being mistaken for spies, journalists should act openly and with the permission of relevant authorities."
The manual also supports censorship of journalist's work.
"States may need to censor journalists' work or take other security measures so that journalists do not reveal sensitive information to the enemy.
"Under the law of war, there is no special right for journalists to enter a state's territory without its consent or to access areas of military operations without the consent of the State conducting those operations."
- 'Severe damage to press freedoms' -
A Pentagon spokesman insisted the manual is "not an authorization for any person to take any particular action related to journalists or anyone else."
"It is not policy and the manual is not directive in nature," Lieutenant Colonel Joe Sowers said.
The Times warned that allowing the guidance to stand "would do severe damage to press freedoms."
"Authoritarian leaders around the world could point to it to show that their despotic treatment of journalists -- including Americans -- is broadly in line with the standards set by the United States government," it said.
Conflating espionage with journalism, it argued, feeds into the propaganda of authoritarian governments that attempt to discredit Western journalists by falsely accusing them of being spies.
And it criticized the manual's suggestion that war reporters should operate only with the permission of "relevant authorities," and its broad assertion of a need for censorship to prevent sensitive information being revealed to the enemy.
"This unqualified statement seems to contravene American constitutional and case law, and offers other countries that routinely censor the press a handy reference point," the Times said.
Sowers responded: "We do not believe that the guidance in the manual will be used by authoritarian regimes in the way suggested in the editorial, and that was certainly not our intent.
"The Department of Defense supports and respects the vital work that journalists perform. Their work in gathering and reporting news is essential to a free society and the rule of law," he said.
He added that the Pentagon would take comments into account "as we review and seek to improve and clarify matters addressed in the manual."
The Committee to Protect Journalist also criticized the guidelines, warning last month of the negative impact they will have at a time when record numbers of journalists are being detained or killed in conflicts from Ukraine to the Congo.
"At a time when international leadership on human rights and press freedom is most needed, the Pentagon has produced a self-serving document that is unfortunately helping to lower the bar," it said.