WASHINGTON — The Army’s decision to bar a Stars and Stripes reporter from embedding with a unit in Iraq because he “refused to highlight” good news drew a harsh rebuke from media watchdogs, who said the action compromises the integrity of the media embed program.

“If they put these kind of conditions on it, then I’d say the whole program will collapse,” said Kelly McBride, Ethics Group Leader at the Poynter Institute, a media training facility and think tank in St. Petersburg, Fla. “It’s not meant to be a public relations program for the military.”

Army officials said Stripes reporter Heath Druzin, who covered operations of the 1st Cavalry Division’s 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team in February and March, would not be permitted to rejoin the unit for another reporting tour because of complaints about his news stories.

“Despite the opportunity to visit areas of the city where Iraqi Army leaders, soldiers, national police and Iraqi police displayed commitment to partnership, Mr. Druzin refused to highlight any of this news,” Maj. Ramona Bellard, a public affairs officer, wrote in denying Druzin’s embed request. Officials also asserted that Druzin declined to answer a commander’s questions about his future stories and used quotes out of context.

Stripes officials called Druzin’s reporting consistently accurate and fair, and noted that, under the Pentagon’s rules governing the media embed system, reporters are not required to answer a commander’s questions or adjust their stories according to a commander’s preferences.

McBride agreed.

“The Army doesn’t have the right to decide what kind of coverage they want--not if they are dedicated to the freedoms outlined in the Constitution.” she said.

Officials from Multi-National Force-Iraq declined to release figures regarding how many reporters they have rejected from embeds in recent years, but did acknowledge a steep drop in participation in the embed program in 2008. Only 951 reporting embeds were conducted with U.S. forces in Iraq last year, down almost a third from 1,409 embeds in 2007.

So far in 2009, only 307 embeds have been granted.

Ron Martz, president of the Military Reporters and Editors association, said in the past his group has fielded minor complaints about freelancers facing trouble getting embed slots because of questions over their credentials. But he said the professional group has never encountered a dispute over editorial content like the one facing Druzin.

The Associated Press reported last summer that one of its correspondents, Bradley Brooks, was expelled from Iraq after speaking with soldiers about their anger towards political leaders. MNF-I officials said Brooks had violated a new rule prohibiting reporters from filing stories while in transit to their embeds.

CNN officials reported that they have had several reporters refused or removed from embeds, but only for security and logistics reasons, never because of the tone of their reporting.

In 2006, blogger Michael Yon related his experiences with the embed program in Iraq in a piece for the Weekly Standard titled “Censoring Iraq,” calling the process heavy-handed and too restrictive to permit many journalists to participate.

On Tuesday, military correspondent Thomas Ricks blasted the Army’s handling of Druzin’s embed on his blog, calling it a foolish move for public affairs officials to pick and choose which reporters they want to work with.

“[The] move is especially bad because Stars & Stripes lately has been covering the Iraq war outside Baghdad almost solo,” he added.

Martz, himself a former embedded reporter in Iraq, sent a letter on behalf of MRE to Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Bryan Whitman this week, calling the denial of Druzin’s embed request an “unacceptable” situation.

“Barring this reporter from an embed for what appear to be specious reasons violates both the spirit and the letter of the embed guidelines,” he wrote. “It appears ... that the commander of this unit is attempting to exercise editorial control over what stories are written and how they are written.”

The current ground rules given to reporters prior to embedding in Iraq include restrictions on covering U.S. troop casualties, troop movements and classified material. They also note that reporters are not allowed to conduct any news gathering while traveling to or from an embed.

However, the rules specify that the goal of the restrictions is related to safety only. On the first page, they note that, “These ground rules recognize the inherent right of the media to cover combat operations and are in no way intended to prevent release of embarrassing, negative or derogatory information.”

Related story:Army bars Stars and Stripes reporter from covering 1st Cav unit in Mosul

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