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Media under fire: reporting conflict in Iraq by S Miskin et al

Current Issues Brief No 21 2002-03
Media Under Fire: Reporting Conflict in Iraq
Sarah Miskin
Politics and Public Administration Group
Laura Rayner & Maria Lalic
Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Group
24 March 2003
Department of the Parliamentary Library of Australia

Executive Summary

News that the United States military has 'embedded' 500 journalists in its fighting units to cover the conflict in Iraq suggests that the public will receive a fuller picture of this conflict than it received of both Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm (the 'Gulf War') of 1990-91.

In that conflict, journalists were confined to 'pools' over which Allied forces exercised complete control. 'Pool' journalists were scattered among the Allied military units and fed their stories and pictures back to a rear headquarters where they were shared among the world's journalists. Reporters who broke the rules were threatened with losing their accreditation, being held in military barracks and being deported. The result was limited coverage that was heavily censored.

A major concern with such coverage is that it contravenes a basic tenet of democracy: that the press must be free to provide information so that people know, understand, and can make informed judgments of the actions undertaken by the government on their behalf. In times of conflict, a free media ensures that the public are not dependent on the military or political view of the campaign, but receive an independent description of events in order to make an informed choice as to whether or not to support the conflict.

The problem is that the media's claim to right of access to information on the basis of the public's right to know conflicts with the military's desire to win a war and to do so with minimum casualties. 'Bad' press, especially of bloody engagements and body bags, may cost the military valuable public support. A common explanation in the United States military for its disastrous loss in Vietnam in 1975 is that the war was lost at home before it was lost in the field.

The consequences of losing public support for any war can be severe and long-term for both a government and the military. Thus, in wartime, a new battle emerges on the home front-that for public opinion. Information is an essential weapon in this battle and whoever can control what 'facts' the public receives has a distinct advantage. It is here that the clash between the military and the media becomes apparent: it is, essentially, a battle between the right to win-and win with the support of the people 'back home'-and the right to know.

A key element of the conflict between the media and the military is that their underlying 'reasons for being' as well as their motivations and aims are quite different. While the military and the media both consider themselves professions, they have very distinct-and some might argue opposing-characters and professional attributes, not least of which is that the military values patriotism and loyalty, while the media's loyalties can be variable, depending on the ownership of-and the nationalities that make up-the news organisation.

Since the Vietnam War, various militaries have experimented with controls over the media in times of conflict in order to win the battle for the hearts and minds of the public. These were perfected by the 1990-91 Gulf conflict and critics argue that little has changed in the subsequent conflicts in Kosovo and Afghanistan.

In 2003, the United States military has decided on a more open approach to media reporting of the conflict, partly in an attempt to 'counteract the potential for Iraqi disinformation that could be distributed by Arab news outlets'. Some have argued that 'embedding', combined with smaller, better digital cameras hooked to portable satellite dishes, may result in viewers and readers receiving 'some of the most graphic and revealing war footage and reporting ever'.

However, 'embedding' can have a significant effect on journalists, resulting in feelings of camaraderie that may affect a journalist's ability to be independent and objective. The potential for the public to be subjected to an 'information war' to win over their opinion suggests that it would be prudent to maintain a level of scepticism about the aim of the 'embedding' of journalists with military units.

News organisations have acknowledged that 'embedding' may 'raise questions' about journalistic independence, but they argue that these frontline reports will form only part of much broader coverage that will incorporate expert analysis and reports from non-'embedded' journalists. It appears there will be few restrictions imposed on these reporters. While this suggests that non-embedded journalists will remain free to go where they want and report what they want, there are concerns that American officials have given 'no convincing guarantees' that non-embedded journalists will be allowed to report without interference.

A difficulty for both 'embedded' and non-'embedded' journalists is that there are no guarantees of safety. At least four journalists, including an Australian cameraman, have been killed in the opening days of the war.

Outside Iraq, the number of journalists in the region is high, with one report claiming that there are 7000 journalists and crews scattered throughout the Middle East in Kuwait, Jordan, Turkey and Israel. It is hard to know how much of what happens inside Iraq these journalists will be able to report, given that their knowledge will not be obtained 'first-hand', but will have to be gleaned from a variety of sources who may have their own information-or misinformation-agendas.

What does all of this mean for the Australian public? Can Australians expect to be more fully informed of the 'truth' in the conflict in Iraq? Will 'embedded' journalists ensure a more complete picture that allows the public 'back home' to 'know what their sons and daughters are doing on behalf of the nation'?

The Australia military has taken a different approach to the United States military in handling the media, partly because many of Australia's troops are top secret ground forces, such as the Special Air Service personnel. Whereas the American military is 'embedding' journalists and is talking of supplying the maximum amount of information possible, the Australian Defence Force has rejected 'embedding' on the grounds that it is 'impractical'. Those journalists reporting on Australia's contribution to the conflict will have to follow some 'ground rules', although it appears that these have not been made public.

Overall, however, the restrictions may mean that Australians receive an overwhelming amount of information from American sources about the war in Iraq, but little information about Australia's contribution to the conflict.

Meanwhile, the modern technologies available to today's reporters raise another issue that, thus far, has received little attention: that the technology that gives journalists mobility and allows them to record every aspect of a conflict opens the possibility of their being called as witnesses in any subsequent war crimes trials.

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