The Trials of Covering Gitmo’s Justice

Despite restrictions, foreign media follow the story at detention center

GUANTANAMO BAY, CUBA – Christoph Von Marschall was waiting for a hearing to begin at a military courtroom in Guantanamo Bay when a beefy security guard called him out to inspect his writing pad.

The German correspondent for Der Tagesspiegel had been looking around and taking notes, causing the guard to suspect he might be violating the ground rules for reporters at Gitmo by doodling a picture of the courtroom. “It shows a sense of over-nervousness,” said Marschall.

The episode is a small reminder that representatives of the overseas press face the same kind of scrutiny and restrictions on access that American and Canadian reporters struggle with. But even as those difficulties continue—and as the storyline shifts—foreign reporters keep making the trip to cover the latest developments from Guantanamo Bay.

For some members of the foreign press, an interest in the fate of the detention center and the treatment of its detainees continue reflects the dangers they see in their own state apparatus. “We have the same illegal processes to deal with terrorists in my country,” said Yildiz Yazicioglu, a Turkish journalist, referring to treatment of the Kurdish Worker’s Party. “But journalists cannot cover this freely.”

Others are drawn for different reasons—to make sense of what became an icon of American overreach in the war on terror, and the ways it is and isn’t changing, for readers back home.

A few years ago, Guantanamo Bay presented a gripping narrative about a “legal black hole” where dubious interrogation methods were used on detainees. As the Bush administration’s “unlawful combatants” have become the “unprivileged belligerents” of the Obama administration, some legal protections for the prisoners have increased, and the storyline has shifted to incremental developments in the hearings of three men: Omar Khadr, a Canadian who came to the detention facility at age fifteen, and Sudanese suspects Ibrahim al Qosi, who recently pleaded guilty, and Noor Uthman Mohammed.

At the same time, the center remains open, and the prospect of transferring the cases to civilian courts, as Obama promised, seems remote.

“As a foreign correspondent you have to be a translator,” said Marschall. “People have a much more negative view than what is really there, but at the same time it is not close to shutting down, which the people in Germany expected from Obama.”

While torture allegations have faded from the headlines, journalists from many countries—especially Muslim nations—are impacted by the explosive effect Guantanamo Bay continues to have on its readers.

“If anyone says they can write objectively about this, then it is a lie,” said Yazicioglu, who writes for “It sets an example for every country, and unfortunately a bad example.”

Whatever their approach, one common experience for all journalists is the constraints and limited access they encounter at the detention center. Representatives of non-governmental organizations, who are hosted by the military during the detainee hearings, are typically the only willing interview subjects. But even these human rights observers have minders who accompany them, and they are equally frustrated by the limitations on the base.

“There is nothing that I got here that I couldn’t have found sitting in my office using the Internet,” said Ahilan Arulanantham, director of national security at the American Civil Liberties Union, Southern California.

Television journalists are especially at a loss because of the broad restrictions on what can be filmed and photographed. Images of antennas and other key locations are deemed to be a security threat, the military provides b-roll footage, and material that is considered to pose a security risk is deleted.

“It is not possible to work like this,” said Elin Sorsdahl, a correspondent based in New York for TV2, the largest television station in Norway. “It is another side of all the hysteria….only the NGOs here saved my trip.”

“We can’t work with just their b-roll… How do we know it is true?” said Rodrigo Bocardi de Moura, who works for TV Globo Internacional, part of the largest television network in Brazil. “They are trying to show that only good things are happening here.”

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Betwa Sharma is the New York/United Nations correspondent for the Press Trust of India. She also blogs for the Huffington Post and is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in, The Hindustan Times, The Indian Express, and The Daily Beast.