International

Gitmo media blackout hopes to undermine hunger strikers

Official at detention facility tells Al Jazeera new policy aims to curb favorable attention for prisoners' campaign

Detainees in a communal block in Camp 6 at Guantanamo Bay.
Jason Leopold

GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba — A media blackout on detailing the exact number of prisoners on hunger strike at Guantanamo Bay has been put in place because the protest was too successful at generating media attention, a public affairs official has told Al Jazeera.

Detainees at the controversial detention center launched the strike to protest their conditions and the fact that many of them have been held without charge for more than a decade, though scores have been cleared for release.

The dramatic protest has been successful in generating headlines across the globe, and at one time more than 100 prisoners were involved as daily updates were issued by camp officials. But with the number of protesters dwindling, military officials last week made the decision to stop releasing figures for those remaining on hunger strike — even when specifically asked by journalists.

“It’s been a self-perpetuating story,” said Cmdr. John Filostrat, director of public affairs for Joint Task Force-Guantanamo, in an interview with Al Jazeera at the base. “It’s (the strikers') desire to draw attention to themselves, and so we’re not going to help them do that.”

The hunger strike, which peaked in June, helped pressure President Barack Obama into repeating a previously stated aim of shutting the prison, which now holds 162 inmates.

“Everybody knows this place is here, and everybody knows the president wants to close it, and we support that,” Filostrat said. “But in the meantime, we’re focusing on the mission and not letting the issue (of the hunger strike) continue to be out there. There’s a lot of negative news about this place, and that’s going to continue whether we report or not how many refuse to eat on a daily basis.”

Filostrat said the decision to end daily reports about the number of hunger strikers was made by his superiors at United States Southern Command, which has oversight of the joint task force that operates Guantanamo, and he is simply carrying it out. 

Sgt. James Boudreau
Sgt. James Boudreau oversees Camp 6, where hunger-striking prisoners are not permitted to remain.
Jason Leopold

The public affairs director took issue with critics who say the policy change contradicts transparency promises by Guantanamo officials and the president. “Everyone is saying, ‘You’re trying to shut down reporting on this,'” he said. “That’s not true. We’re not here to drive the message. We’re not trying to drive the agenda. We’re here to show you the facility.”

Filostrat would neither confirm nor deny a claim by British prisoner Shaker Aamer, who said last week that the “Guantanamo hunger strike is back on” and that there are now 29 prisoners protesting, of whom 19 are being force-fed. Aamer made the claims during a phone call with his attorney, Clive Stafford Smith, director of the U.K.-based human rights charity Reprieve. Stafford Smith gave Al Jazeera a copy of his notes from his Dec. 5 phone call with Aamer. The last official tally, released on Dec. 2, was that 15 hunger strikers remained — all of them force-fed.

“We’re not going to run this place through the media,” Filostrat said. “We’re not here to hide anything. In the end, when this is all said and done, the numbers, whatever they may be, will come out or they won’t come out. We’re just not going to report it.”

During a tour of the two main detention camps Tuesday afternoon, Al Jazeera observed a communal block in Camp 6 where five prisoners interacted with each other, watched television and picked through meals served earlier in the day.

“At 6, we have no hunger strikers whatsoever,” said Sgt. James Boudreau, a guard in charge in that section of the facility.

But Boudreau did confirm that in recent weeks some prisoners have announced they were launching a hunger strike and were moved to Camp 5, which houses noncompliant prisoners, isolated in single cells. Prisoners are not permitted to remain in Camp 6 if they refuse to eat.

“When they are not getting exactly what they want when they want it, they’ll announce they’re hunger-striking,” said Boudreau. “But it hasn’t been big numbers. I haven’t noticed any kind of elevation or spike.”

Aamer, who hasn’t eaten solid food for three weeks, told Stafford Smith that “five new strikers” were transferred to Camp 5 last week.

While declining to comment on the most recent number of hunger strikers, Filostrat said there are about a dozen hard-core strikers who refuse to eat on a regular basis.

“That probably won’t change,” he said. “They’ll continue to find ways to draw attention to themselves, and we’ll continue to monitor it.” 

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