Commentary: Denial of Access: National publication picks up WHT/Army dispute

Editor’s note: This article appeared on The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker website May 23.

West Hawaii Today county and government reporter Nancy Cook Lauer was barred from attending a U.S. Army meeting that the newsroom contends was open to the general public in Hilo, Hawaii on May 16, 2019.

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Lauer was attempting to cover a meeting that outlined the Army’s resource management plants at Pohakuloa Training Area and the Kawaihae Military Reservation outside an Aupuni Center meeting room.

Lauer wrote in a West Hawaii Today article that she was told “the participating parties might not feel comfortable expressing their opinions in the presence of the media,” and that the meeting was not a media event, despite the public being allowed to attend. She told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that she pushed back, and asked for a citation of the legal authority that would allow the public to attend a meeting, but not the press.

She said that she left after being told by both a Pohakuloa Training Area public affairs officer and a cultural resource manager for U.S. Army Garrison Pohakuloa that she could not remain.

As reported by West Hawaii Today, an activist who attended the meeting said that attendance was initially to be limited to a list of consulting parties, but was later opened to the public altogether — before Lauer was told to leave.

Lauer told the Tracker that on the Monday following the incident the Army commander called her to apologize and claimed he was not aware that his staff had taken the action to ban her from the event. She said that the commander was present at the meeting, near the front of the room.

Although Lauer was not able to attend the meeting, she said she was later given video footage by one of the attendees, which she said could aid future reporting.

The public affairs office for the Pohakuloa Training Area did not immediately respond to request for comment.

On May 19, West Hawaii Today published an opinion piece arguing that the Army was wrong to boot its reporter from the event. It expressed concern about how extreme press freedom violations — such as those by President Trump — can seep into the conscious of everyday people.

“Some of it, like booting the media from a public gathering, we cannot write off as simply silly,” the piece reads. “Kicking a reporter out of a public meeting is a serious issue. It cannot become the norm. The United States military is a first-rate operation. If it says it wanted to err on the side of privacy and caution, we can take that at face value this time around, but still disagree with its decision. The information inside that meeting is meant for the public and WHT will get it and share it, regardless.”

Lauer said this was the first time she had been denied access to an event open to the public.

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“As a reporter with more than 25 years of experience, I am accustomed to various barriers being thrown up as I go about my job informing the public,” she told the Tracker. “This is the first time, however, I have been ousted from a meeting otherwise open to the public. It’s sad that I, who have worked diligently to portray all sides and prevent bias in my coverage, now have to rely on a video from a source with a known point of view in order to write about government actions that our readers deserve to know about. The media is not the enemy.”

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker catalogues press freedom violations in the United States. Email tips to tips@pressfreedomtracker.us.