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article imageOp-Ed: After Sri Lanka: Questions on media access to war zones

By Michael Cosgrove     May 18, 2009 in World
The conflict in Sri Lanka is the latest in a series of modern wars in which the press has found itself increasingly unable to report as it did in the past. In cases where it has had access to combat zones, manipulation and control have been rife.
European Union nations called today for an independent war crimes investigation into the killing of civilians in Sri Lanka, particularly during the last weeks of the war, and that the conduct of both sides in the conflict be examined.
This was a predictable and laudable move, but the problem is that there will be pitifully little hard evidence to present to the investigators due to the Sri Lankan government’s refusal to let the press enter combat zones. Now that the fighting is over they will be allowed to access combat areas, but much of the evidence will have disappeared.
It can be safely said though, that abuses did take place. Stories abound of the use of civilians as human shields by LTTE fighters, and it seems probable that the LTTE forced civilians to stay in combat zones during the fighting until just before the end.
The Sri Lankan Army’s widespread use of artillery and air bombardment have almost certainly caused many civilian deaths. The army’s artillery equipment was already inaccurate and outdated when it was bought in the 1990’s and the Air Force’s main strike aircraft, the Israeli-developed Kfir, was withdrawn from service in the Israeli Air Force in the 1990’s, partially due to it’s inadaptation to more modern rocket and missile systems.
And the beach upon and around which the final combats took place must have been a horrifying spectacle once the firing finally stopped. A doctor, present up until the very last days of fighting, spoke of the presence of thousands of bodies lying around unburied. Many of them must have been civilians, seeing as the LTTE did not even have as many as one thousand combatants deployed there.
However, almost none of the combat was witnessed by independent sources, notably the press. This has been an invisible conflict for all but the two sides and their victims.
It has been the same story in other recent conflicts. The Swat Valley, the latest round of Gaza fighting, Lebanon in 2006, Chechnya, the Pakistani border and certain combat zones in Afghanistan are some examples.
The reasons for this are complex, and are largely due to the changes in the methods used by reporters, as well as the emergence of asymmetrical wars, in which propaganda is widely used.
The military has never been the best friend of journalists, unless it needs them of course, but, even so, things were easier until the Vietnam war and subsequent conflicts.
During the second world war, for example, although war correspondents were mostly attached to military units, they were given more freedom to report, if only because reporters in those days felt a sense of duty towards their respective countries and they tended to follow the official idea of what should, or should not, be reported.
Another crucial factor in older wars is that they did not have the technical means, and nor did their editors, to diffuse news before it had been censored. The BBC and the government did as much censoring as did Goebbels, even going so far as publishing or broadcasting deliberately false information in order to mislead the enemy. This went along with Churchill’s maxim “In war, the truth is so crucial that you have to lie to protect it.”
The BBC even used to broadcast coded radio messages to the French Resistance over public airwaves. Messages were sent in the evening, and consisted of sometimes comic phrase such as “Matilda is bringing in the washing because of rain.”
Journalists were the last to complain.
Things changed with the Vietnam war however. This war became highly controversial in the United States, and journalists would send back reports that ulcerated the military and ultimately helped to undermine what public support the war had had up until then. My Lai coverage enraged the military, for example. Vietnam thus saw the first examples of what would become an issue that has haunted relations between the press and the armed forces all over the world ever since. As the military saw the results of what they saw as being negative reporting by journalists who they considered as being anti-war, they cracked down heavily on their freedom to travel unaccompanied, and their reports were checked much more often.
Many in the American government and military subsequently blamed their failure in Vietnam on the freedom of the press as much as on military shortcomings.
The fact that reporters were no longer content to be mere mouthpieces for governments in conflict has lead to an inevitable situation of mutual animosity. Several British journalists were refused permission to cover the Falklands conflict from the islands following their outspoken opposition to the declaration of war by the British.
The same has happened all over the world, and many countries have severely curtailed press freedom in war zones. Some reporters are on blacklists and have no chance of being allowed anywhere near war zones by their governments. This is true all over Africa, in Russia and many other countries.
The Second Iraq War saw the embedding of journalists into front-line combat units. This move was quite well received by journalists, and even Reporters without Borders praised it, although it was highly critical of the US Army’s harassment of independent journalists.
The French press has never forgotten the killing of a French journalist in a tank attack in Baghdad. He had been highly critical of the war, and his death was read in Paris as being a sign that French journalists were no longer welcome. France got the message, and pulled all its accredited reporters out of the country. Other independent journalists also died in combat zones, in circumstances that will probably never become clear.
British journalists also had a hard time. They came under intense pressure from the Government, which did not hide its intentions.
This is because one of the reasons for the modern military’s mistrust of media is the ability of journalists to send images and, more particularly, video and sound recordings, of events in real-time. This is done using web-cams, telephones and cameras which, because they transmit their data in real-time, are seen as a menace to the lives of personnel. This information can be picked up by enemy formations and used as intelligence.
This constitutes a real problem and is a new phenomena. The military does not consider independent journalists as being able to know what may constitute the compromission of sensitive information or events such as troop movements, troop morale, attack preparations and execution.
The Foreign Secretary during the Iraq war, Jack Straw, said that certain live reporting sent during the Iraq war would have made World War II more difficult to win had they been used at the time. He told a meeting of the Newspaper Society that it "Might have been much harder to maintain the country’s morale after Dunkirk if live reports had confronted the public with the brutal reality of German technical and military superiority."
All military formations, from Hamas to the IDF, the US Army to the LTTE, have been very wary of independent journalists for this reason.
During the Lebanon offensive of 2006 for example, Israeli forces shot at journalists and even bombed their clearly marked vehicles. Several journalists were killed. Hezbollah, for its part, did not hesitate to intimidate foreign journalists in Beirut, and refused them access to many areas of the city, even confiscating their passports and press credentials, which meant that they could not move freely around the city.
Another phenomena that journalists have to overcome is manipulation. Conventional armies limit reporters’ movements due to what they see as unsympathetic reporting and dangerous live reports. This means that what we see on our screens is partially controlled. This manipulation is carried out by all military formations.
Hamas, for example, is well known for manipulating journalists.
Examples include the world-famous video by a French reporter in Gaza which was flashed around the world.
It was of a young boy cowering in his father’s arms as a battle raged around them. This video is now generally accepted as being misleading. The journalist concerned later admitted that he didn’t shoot it himself (he lent his camera to a Palestinian reporter) and the nature of the weapons heard firing the shots makes it highly unlikely that the IDF was involved. It has even been claimed to be a video shot entirely by Hamas.
Another famous Hamas move was to announce to journalists that the Israeli decision to stop oil deliveries meant that people had no fuel at the end of last year. They didn’t mention that, before they turned off the pumps, the Israelis had filled up the Palestinian reservoirs. Hamas knew, of course, but didn’t allow access to the fuel until well after the world had roundly criticised Israel’s ‘cruelty’.
The Americans led journalists up the garden path with the infamous story of their soldiers apparently rescuing their comrades from an Iraqi hospital in what is since being seen as a staged mission.
The challenge facing journalism in war zones will not be easy to overcome. It is evident that press freedom is being restricted in war zones, and that journalists are being manipulated by both sides in most conflicts. It is also evident that journalists these days do not necessarily consider that they should only report what they are asked to, and quite rightly so.
There are legitimate concerns for military organisations too. Antipathetic reporting and real-time diffusion of sensitive information are real problems that cannot be denied and must be addressed. Press freedom does not include the right to put the lives of combat troops, on whichever side, in danger.
It’s time that the soured relations between the press and military organisations were turned around. The public has a right to know what is happening, the military has the right to protect the lives of its combatants, and journalists have the right to report.
The question is, of course, how can all this be coordinated within the context of the ever-changing face of war and war reporting?
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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