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Opinion: Media Censorship in time of War

This article was written in 1998 and has not been edited or revised since then. In light of events in recent years, I think it makes an interesting read. It's easy to assume that the world has changed completely, and yet so much is still the same...

Information is power. But just as information is power, power confers responsibility.

The freedom of the news and information media gives us the power to make up our own minds. It is our responsibility, as the recipients of this information, not only to act on it in a responsible manner, but also to safeguard it's provision.

Complacency about our freedoms is a major problem of prosperous Western societies. We are often so fixated on our immediate personal wealth, our own narrow lives, that we fail to realize that our granted freedoms are not built into the fabric of the universe. They had to be fought for, and they were won, in many cases, by another generation. Those of us who have grown up with them rarely realize quite how precious they are, or how fragile they can prove to be. We all have a responsibility to those who won them in our name to do all in our power to protect them.

Can it ever be acceptable to limit the freedom of the press?

It is telling that since the start of NATO's air campaign in the Balkans, governments have leveled criticism at journalists reporting, from Belgrade, on the war from the Serb perspective. The veteran BBC reporter John Simpson was the subject of very personal criticism from the British government recently over his TV news reports from Belgrade.

His crime was daring to report that rather than weakening the Yugoslav people's support for Slobodan Milosevich, the Allied air strikes had strengthened the citizens' resolve. What caused the most anger, however, was his report that civilians had been killed by 'Collateral Damage' from a strike in a built up area.

The British government considered that he had been influenced in his reporting by the Serb government's 'News Management'. They also argued that the report was untrue. Most likely, it was simply unpalatable. By attempting to suppress it, they were as guilty of attempted News Management as their adversary was.

I'm not arguing for freedom of information zealotry. Clearly, some information should not be in the public domain, for instance, in military campaigns, the exact location of troops or specific strike targets. Clearly the first would put the troops at risk and the second would make positioning strategic 'Human Shields', yet another of those lovely military euphemism, little more than child's play. Both cases share one defining feature:

The suppression of the information is justified because its revelation would put human life at risk.

As far as I can see, risk to human safety is the only justifiable motive for censorship. Clearly, this is not only limited to war, but also extends into other areas. The recent American predilection for allowing freedom of public access to all scientific research paid for from the public purse, even when that research is unfinished, strikes me as possibly needing reining back. Without even considering the difficulty presented to scientists when they are forced to release their data in mid-research, forcing them to give details of their projects could put them at risk. Much pharmaceutical research involves animals. Some medical research uses material from aborted fetuses. Revealing this could put the scientists at risk from extremists in various 'welfare' organizations. Transparency in the spending of government cash is one thing, but putting people's lives at risk is unjustifiable.

Maintenance of public morale is the often-quoted motive for gagging the press in wartime. It is argued that it is so important to keep the public behind the action that this justifies denying them access to information which may lead them to question its value or its justification. This is supposed to be for the sake of our brave fighting men and their families etc., but is actually just party politics. For proof of this, watch the approval ratings of the ruling parties of the NATO Allies fall in parallel with those for the military action as the Kosovo campaign drags on.

As citizens of the NATO democracies, we have to be aware that this campaign is being carried out on our behalves. If, as seems increasingly certain, our actions are leading, directly or otherwise, to the death of tens of thousands of innocent civilians, then we need to know this, and we need to know that these deaths are occurring in our names.

In a situation like this, I believe that it is acceptable, in fact, essential, for reporting to include an element of conjecture and opinion, because in such situations, conjecture and opinion are often all we have. Inconsistencies of reporting are bound to appear during military conflict, and this should be accepted and any misconceptions corrected, instead of governments coming down on the unfortunate reporters with personal abuse and accusations of intentional misinformation. We're not talking about libelous behavior here - information is hard to come by and, if it is important, should be reported, with the necessary caveats, even if it is impossible to corroborate it absolutely.

For democracy to operate with any degree of success, information has to be available, since public opinion should inform every government action. Ideally, of course, every citizen should have intimate knowledge of the complexities - and trust me, they are very complex - of Balkan politics to provide a background for their opinions. Every citizen doesn't, however, and this is why democracies operate via governments rather than by endless referendum, protecting us from ill-informed knee-jerk public reactions.

This should not, however, be held to be an excuse for not keeping the public informed. Government may exist to stop us from doing something in a flurry of good intentions or rabid self-interest which we might regret later, but they have no mandate to suppress the information which might make us want to do it in the first place, on the basis that it might cause a surge of public opinion with which they might disagree.

As ever the argument comes down to rights and responsibilities. Since the right not to be unnecessarily killed is probably an even more fundamental right than the right to freedom of information - or indeed the right to bear arms - and since any right by definition ends where it impinges on another, a fact often forgotten by 'rights zealots' of various hues, it is not unreasonable that there should be a limited possibility for the control of the media. However, it is to be hoped that most journalists wouldn't be so stupid as to report troop movements or other such information anyway. The kind of 'censorship' that is justified shouldn't need to be imposed from above.

It is our enduring responsibility, as beneficiaries of rights and freedoms, to ensure that we retain our skepticism and know when to question their curtailment. We must also remember however that rights and freedoms are artificial constructs of civilization, not ultimate truths. Most of the rights we take for granted are not, if you study religious texts, even 'God-given' - I'm thinking here of democratic government, freedom of speech, universal suffrage, freedom of information, right to bear arms, etc., many of which are explicitly forbidden by the established religions.

At the end of the day, our rights will always be a compromise with other conflicting rights and with the rights of others. As long as we remember this, and remember our responsibilities, we may get through okay.

Update, May 15, 1999.

As I write, NATO has undertaken a concerted program of destroying and blocking transmision by the Serbian Media, starting with a strike on the Belgrade TV studios last month.


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