The Military and the Media, a Clash of Missions


By: Warner Todd Huston

The AP is protesting a decision made by U.S. Military officials in Afghanistan claiming an oppression of a free press and saying there was “not a reasonable justification” for erasing an AP photographer’s pictures taken of the aftermath of a suicide bombing in Barikaw, Afghanistan. The decision protested by the AP was made March 4th by officers on the scene of a bombing that killed 8 Afghans, wounding 34. But, is the AP correct that this was somehow an outrage against a free press?

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The U.S. military asserted that an American soldier was justified in erasing journalists’ footage of the aftermath of a suicide bombing and shooting in Afghanistan last week, saying publication could have compromised a military investigation and led to false public conclusions.

“Investigative integrity is one circumstance when civil and military authorities will reluctantly exercise the right to control what a journalist is permitted to document,” Col. Victor Petrenko, chief of staff to the top U.S. commander in eastern Afghanistan, said in a letter Friday.

The AP didn’t take kindly to the military erasing the photos.

“That is not a reasonable justification for erasing images from our cameras,” said AP Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll in New York. “AP’s journalists in Afghanistan are trained, accredited professionals working at an appropriate distance from the bombing scene. In democratic societies, legitimate journalists are allowed to work without having their equipment seized and their images deleted.”

The incident prior to the photographs being taken is currently under investigation by the military to determine if the resulting firefight was justified and the given reason by authorities for erasing the photos was a fear that the reporters could have impeded that investigation. But another reason given is the more probable one.

Petrenko said that taking pictures could also misrepresent what had happened in the incident.

“When untrained people take photographs or video, there is a very real risk that the images or videography will capture visual details that are not as they originally were,” he said. “If such visual media are subsequently used as part of the public record to document an event like this, then public conclusions about such a serious event can be falsely made.”

Very well put, Colonel.

U.S. Civil War General, William Tecumseh Sherman once said of the press, “I hate newspapermen. They come into camp and pick up their camp rumors and print them as facts. I regard them as spies, which, in truth, they are.” It seems from coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that the press has little changed in the last 140 years — in fact, it has gotten worse if only because the speed with which facts can be checked out gives the press no excuse for its slipshod work. The reliability of modern communications lends credence to claims that the media really aren’t interested in the truth but is only interested in their agenda.

So, the tension between the Press and the military is legend and here we have another case of that clash of missions. Of course, in a war zone it is particularly difficult to decide who is “right”. Should we give the military the benefit of the doubt? Should we always side with the “truth”, which is how the media sees the results of their work? Is there someplace in the middle?

And the struggle we now have is what to do if the freedom of the press endangers security? Naturally, the Press maintains that nothing is more important than a free and open press, but we have seen many examples where that freedom is gratuitously abused, and abused to advance an agenda damaging to the country. Consequently, the answer seems to trend away from the side of the press. In this war we have ample proof that the media is not interested in presenting facts or truth about the efforts of the military in this War on Terror of which both Iraq and Afghanistan are a part. This is precisely what Colonel Petrenko is worried about and who can blame him?

There absolutely must be a middle ground, one where both interests are assured.

Still, the Colonel pledged his interest in a free press.

Petrenko justified that action on the grounds of “operational security” exercised when “equipment, aircraft or component parts are classified.”

He maintained that the U.S. military had no intention of curbing freedom of the press in Afghanistan.

“We are completely committed to a free and independent press, and we hope that we can help encourage this tradition in places where new and free governments are taking root,” Petrenko said.

The question becomes, how many times in the last four years have military officials denied the press clearance to report on the news in war zones? In fact, the military has gone out of its way to allow unprecedented access to our forces during this war.

I think we can safely assume that, at least at this point, that the government is not suddenly out to destroy our free press as the evidence thus far argues against it.

In the final analysis of this incident, the AP looks to be over reacting.

I wonder if this incident will get wider notice?

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