Why isn’t the media allowed to talk to Guantanamo detainees?

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba It’s been 12 years this week since the first terror suspects arrived at what was then a makeshift, open-air military prison at Guantanamo Bay. Since then, thousands of journalists have been allowed to visit the Cuban base and ask why the government is still holding most of these men without charges and to see what their detention conditions are like.

Most, if not all of these reporters, have asked the military if they could speak to a prisoner. They’ve all been denied. In 12 years, no reporter has ever been allowed to interview a prisoner at Gitmo, as the prison is often called, though some detainees have spoken to the media after they were released.

On a Guantanamo media tour last week with two other journalists, I took a shot and asked for an interview with a prisoner. The answer was an emphatic no. The military cited the Geneva Conventions to explain why. Article 13 of the third convention, adopted in 1949, says prisoners of war must be protected from “insults and public curiosity."

“They can’t be used as a spectacle,” said Cmdr. John Filostrat, the head of Guantanamo’s public affairs team.

Many legal experts disagree with this interpretation, arguing that Article 13 was designed to protect prisoners of war from being paraded around by the state and humiliated — not from telling their stories to journalists.

“Article 13 protects against insults, intimidation and public curiosity, with the clear intent being directed against humiliating displays,” said Linda Malone, an international law expert at William & Mary. “It should not apply to legitimate journalists as opposed to state displays, or to respectful reporting to which a prisoner agrees.”

The military hasn’t always embraced the Geneva Conventions at Guantanamo. Until 2006, the U.S. government argued that terror suspects were “unlawful combatants” — not prisoners of war — and thus were not protected by the treaties. The Supreme Court rebutted this in 2006, ruling that terror suspects held by the CIA and at Guantanamo must be treated as prisoners of war under international law. That means Gitmo prisoners cannot be compelled to provide information or be mistreated in any way.

Some detainees are clamoring for access to reporters. Shaker Aamer, a 44-year-old British resident who is among the nearly 80 prisoners who have been cleared for transfer from the prison since 2009, shouted at a “60 Minutes” film crew through his cell door in September that he wanted the world to know about his plight. “Let the world hear what’s happening,” he yelled, as the crew walked through a part of Camp 5 reserved for trouble-making prisoners. Since the clip aired, the public affairs team has denied journalists access to that cell block, and another official said that allowing journalists to be in the prison at all makes detainees “mad” and breaks their “trust” with the guards.

The military insists that allowing journalists to talk directly to prisoners would be exploitative, even when detainees have asked through their lawyers to talk to the media.

“It becomes a show and tell,” Sgt. Cody Stagner, a public affairs officer, told me and the two other journalists on our media tour last week. “It’s not a zoo. You can’t just come in and look at them.”

Oddly enough, the actual experience we were allowed to have with the detainees felt much more safari-like than any interview I’ve ever had. A group of guards in Camp 6, a $37 million facility that houses “compliant” prisoners, ushered us into an area where we could look at prisoners in their communal cell through a one-way window. If we got close to the glass, we could see the prisoners, but they couldn’t see us. The guards warned us to be quiet and not use any flashes on our cameras, so that we’d remain unseen and unheard. (Another legal scholar, Michael Byers of the University of British Columbia, said that the military may be violating the Geneva Convention by allowing photos to be taken of detainees without their consent. Permitting them to talk to journalists, he says, would not.)

I pressed my face against the glass, and saw a middle-aged, bearded man shuffling around in flip-flops and tan scrubs. He was holding a remote control, flipping through channels on the TV in the center of the room, which was shared by approximately 20 prisoners. Meanwhile, a photographer on the media tour tried frantically to get a good shot of the man in the low light with his telephoto lens pressed against the window. At one point, the prisoner absently opened a Styrofoam container of food on the metal picnic table in the center of the room and picked up what appeared to be a bread roll. “Look, he’s eating!” I heard myself whisper.

Allowing journalists to see the detainees does give the world more information about their living conditions than if all access were denied. At some points over the past 12 years, journalists were only allowed to look at empty sample cells and had no way of verifying with their own eyes what the prison was like. The International Red Cross also makes frequent visits to deliver mail and interview detainees about their living conditions, and the detainees’ defense attorneys provide information to reporters about how their clients are coping.

Still, more than five years after President Barack Obama promised to close Gitmo down, the prison remains largely obscured to the outside world. Photos wouldn’t have told you much anyway, but the ones I tried to snap of the aging detainee eating a bread roll behind bars didn’t come out. I accidentally photographed the reflection in the glass.