WASHINGTON — Military public affairs officials in Japan and South Korea blocked Stars and Stripes from interviewing troops on base about the elections as returns came in, citing Defense Department rules regarding political statements.
Pentagon spokesman Maj. Stewart Upton said officials decided not to allow any commercial media on military facilities to observe reaction to election results or discuss the election with servicemembers because "image and perception of the Department is to be one of nonpartisanship."
Policy released by the department in January prohibited troops acting in official military capacity from "public commentary, including speeches and written submissions offered for publication, concerning campaigns or elections."
The newspaper considered the interference illegal and ordered its reporters to continue to report from bases until they were forced to stop.
DOD spokesman Lt. Col. Les Melnyk said although troops are allowed to express their political opinions in a nonofficial capacity, defense officials are not obligated to give them a public platform to do so.
"Nobody wants to go out of their way to assist with a story that chips away at the fundamental apolitical nature of the military," he said. "We all took an oath, and we’re concerned that these stories could lead to the impression that we don’t like one [candidate] or another.
"It’s nothing but a gateway to trouble for us."
Stars and Stripes Editorial Director Terry Leonard said the newspaper did not need any assistance and did not ask Defense Department officials for any assistance to do a story on reaction to the U.S. election.
"Defense officials improperly interfered with the newspaper’s ability to carry out normal and lawful journalistic duties," Leonard said.
Melnyk’s comments made it clear that officials interfered because they did not approve of the story, Leonard said. That interference, he said, "amounted to official news management that is impermissible under regulation and illegal under federal law."
Melnyk said reporters are free to interview troops off-base and off-duty, but cautioned that "if those troops are stupid about what they say it could risk their careers."
If a servicemember speaks publicly about refusing orders or opposing the new president, that could prompt commanding officers to place a letter in that person’s record or seek further reprimand, he said.
Earlier this year the department denied requests from two other news organizations to interview troops on base regarding the election. Officials said Wednesday’s move against Stripes reporters follows the same decision-making process.
Melnyk said the policy does not prohibit troops from expressing their opinion on the election, "but we’d prefer they do it in a less public forum."
In Japan, Sasebo Naval Base spokesman Charles Howard said Stripes reporters would not be allowed on base for any election coverage, per instructions from the Pentagon.
In South Korea, Robert H. McElroy, public affairs officer for the U.S. Army Garrison-Humphreys, said Wednesday morning that a Stripes reporter would not be allowed on base for coverage as previously planned.
And U.S. Forces Korea spokesman Dave Palmer directed a Stripes reporter to stop gathering information on Yongsan Garrison early Wednesday afternoon.
The commands in both Europe and the Mideast, however, did not try to prevent troops from talking to reporters on base.
Floe Cameron, a civilian speech pathologist attached to the U.S. Navy at Sasebo, said the media should be allowed to speak to servicemembers and others about the election inside military facilities.
"Why should the base be any different than anywhere else? It’s free speech, isn’t it?" Cameron said. "I think we should be able to express our opinions and [the press] should be able to document it."