WASHINGTON — New Defense Department guidelines allow commanders to punish journalists and treat them as “unprivileged belligerents” if they believe reporters are cooperating with the enemy.

The Law of War manual, updated to apply for the first time to all branches of the military, contains a vaguely worded provision that military commanders could interpret broadly, experts in military law and journalism say. Commanders could ask journalists to leave military bases or detain journalists for any number of perceived offenses.

“In general, journalists are civilians,” the 1,180-page manual says, but it adds that “journalists may be members of the armed forces, persons authorized to accompany the armed forces, or unprivileged belligerents.”

A person deemed “unprivileged belligerent” is not entitled to the rights afforded by the Geneva Convention so a commander could restrict from certain coverage areas or even hold indefinitely without charges any reporter considered an “unprivileged belligerent.”

Defense Department officials said the reference to “unprivileged belligerents” was intended to point out that terrorists or spies could be masquerading as reporters, or warn against someone who works for jihadist websites or other publications, such as al-Qaida’s “Inspire” magazine, that can be used to encourage or recruit militants.

A spokesman said it was not the Pentagon’s intent to allow an overzealous commander to block journalists or take action against those who write critical stories.

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