Reporters Without Borders greets with qualified satisfaction a decision by Col. Denise Lind, the judge in the court martial of Bradley Manning, to authorize two private stenographers to transcribe the proceedings.
When the trial opened on 3 June at Fort Meade, Maryland, the Freedom of the Press Foundation joined with 22 journalism and freedom of information organizations in a letter to the judge, requesting approval of the transcription initiative. The letter noted that the transcription initiative would represent at least a partial solution of the problem presented by limitations on trial coverage.
Seventy journalists have been accredited to cover the court martial, though 350 accreditation requests had been filed.
“A court martial cannot be exempt from the requirement that trials be open to the public in all countries that aspire to democratic status”, Reporters Without Borders said. “That is all the more true in a trial of such public importance. It is incomprehensible that no official trial transcript of these proceedings will be available. The presence of two stenographers does allow compliance with the open-trial requirement, though just barely, considering the restrictions surrounding this case.”
The military court will not pay the stenographers, whose work will cost between $60,000 and $120,000. A call for donations by the Freedom of the Press Foundation has brought in $70,000 to date.
Meanwhile, the stenographers are working from outside the courtroom itself. And they will have no access at all to the testimony of 24 of the 150 prosecution witnesses. Under a decision by Judge Lind, they will be testifying in closed session.
Charges against Manning, the alleged source of the WikiLeaks documents, include disclosure of a notorious video of a fatal attack by U.S. military personnel on a Reuters news agency crew in Baghdad in 2007.
Manning is among the six “whistle-blowers” charged by the Obama administration under the Espionage Act of 1917 with leaking confidential information. His court martial is scheduled to run through 23 August.
“The hunting of news sources has reached unprecedented intensity in the country known for the First Amendment”, Reporters Without Borders said. “The disastrous effect of the revelation of the seizing of telephone records of the Associated Press has reopened debate on the need for a federal shield law for journalists’ sources. But even if a shield law is enacted, what sources would dare disclose sensitive information on important issues given the example set by the Manning court martial?”