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By Lyndsie Bourgon
Mitch Potter knows what not to write. In 2002, the Toronto Star journalist was ousted from his reporting position at Kandahar Airfield for publishing the number of guard towers that surround a nearby detainee centre: eight.
Potterâ€™s case is just one example of the militaryâ€™s control over reports that come out of
The military embedding program is controversial. Journalists need access to military officials when and where news happens. But military control and base rulesoften limit the information that comes out of
Jack Romanelli, who was editor-in-chief of the recently-defunct
â€œIf youâ€™re going to be controlled, whatâ€™s the point?â€ says Romanelli.
But Canadian Press reporter and editor Murray Brewster says there is value in going. He has been embedded with troops twice.
â€œBeing embedded doesnâ€™t mean you lobotomize yourself,â€ he says. â€œIt all depends on how you use it. If you just sit there and regurgitate what the army tells you, thatâ€™s not good.â€
Before journalists head to Kandahar Airfield, otherwise known as KAF, they must sign the militaryâ€™s â€œMedia Embed Programâ€ agreement, which prohibits journalists from reporting on 20 kinds of information, including:
- Specific geographic locations of military units;
- Information on troop strength, equipment, or critical supplies; and
- Any information on friendly fire forces or procedures.
The list has grown over the years. Les Perreaux, a Canadian Press reporter in
The restrictions now include a clause on â€œthe rules of engagementâ€â€”which includes anything from who fired shots, to the number of grenades thrown during a battle.
Military public affairs officers felt this revealed to enemies how Canadian soldiers act under pressure. The rules of engagement clause in the embed agreement was added soon after.
Perreaux says that during the three months he spent in
In his March 5, 2006 article, Perreaux detailed the axe used in the attack and the names of Canadian soldiers who killed the attacker. Instead of stating how many shots were fired, he wrote that the body was “riddled with bullets.â€
One month later, Globe and Mail columnist Christie Blatchford was taken out of Forward Operating Base Robinson by helicopter after a suspected friendly fire killing.
â€œI guess they didnâ€™t want journalists nosing around a very small base when investigative teams were coming in,â€ says Blatchford.
Romanelli thinks the dispatches Blatchford filed from KAF are indicative of why embedding doesnâ€™t work.
â€œTo me this is not the Christie Blatchford Iâ€™m used to reading at all. Sheâ€™s a great court reporter and fantastic columnist, but then she goes to
But Blatchford says you canâ€™t have it both ways. â€œYou canâ€™t criticize embedded reporting, and then not send over reporters unembedded.â€
Under the embed agreement, journalists canâ€™t stay at KAF for more than six weeks.
â€œThe less time you spend there, the easier it is to get fooled,â€ says Scott Taylor. He has reported from
â€œIâ€™ve been told that the six week limit gives the journalist just enough exposure, and then they leave and donâ€™t develop the need to go poking around for stories other than the superficial ones that are directed by public affairs officers,â€ says Dr. Bob Bergen, creator of the Canadian Military Journalism course at the University of Calgary and Centre for Military and Strategic Studies. The course aims to train journalists to specialize in military operations.
â€œYouâ€™re under their control when you move with the army,â€ says Perreaux. â€œItâ€™s like being in prison for six weeks. You are very limited in what you can do as a journalist.â€ He says that actually makes it hard to remain longer than six weeks.
But military control of information is nothing new.
During the Second World War, reporters went to the front lines with soldiers. Their material was censored by the military before being sent back to
Todayâ€™s military is also concerned that if Taliban leaders are monitoring the media, they may be able to gauge the strengths, and weaknesses, of Canadian troops.
But the media are much more complex today.
â€œThe medium is the message,â€ says political science professor and foreign affairs monitor Denis Stairs from
Capt. Adam Thomson, a public affairs officer with the Department of National Defence, says the rules established for reporters on base â€œprevent information from being released that may endanger the operation.â€
Embedded journalists have a responsibility to both soldiers and the public. But what information are we being denied at home in the name of troop security?
The six-week rule makes it hard to provide context to the situation in
â€œIn TV, everything is driven by the picture,â€ says the CBCâ€™s Nahlah Ayed. â€œContext is maybe the first casualty in broadcast journalism, unfortunately.â€ Ayed was embedded in
Despite the drawbacks of putting journalists under the militaryâ€™s thumb, some of it is for their own safety.
Last February, the door of Graeme Smithâ€™s
The incident persuaded the Globe and Mail reporter that independent reporting isnâ€™t such a great idea.
Smith says being under the military thumb is not as big an issue as many think. â€œI hear a lot of criticisms of the embedded media program,â€ he says. â€œFrankly, it comes from people who have no idea what itâ€™s like to report news in
Ayed also maintained a guesthouse in
â€œIt was much safer for us than it is now,â€ she says. â€œIt was expected that we would go in and do features, and we would go into townâ€¦Thatâ€™s much more difficult now.â€
Chris Lambie of the
â€œFor me it made good sense because Iâ€™d like to be alive, and I donâ€™t particularly want to get anyone killed,â€ says Lambie. â€œItâ€™s hard to find somebody to argue with that.â€