Colombo, Human Rights, Media and Communications, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance

War and Press Freedom

The Media at a time of war
During the Second World War the German people tuned into the BBC for war news rather than their own radio managed by Goebbels who broadcast war propaganda as news. People under Communist rule listened to Radio Free Europe.

Last week the Secretary of Defense summoned the President and Secretary of the Sri Lanka Journalists Association and gave them a piece of his mind which the journalists have said were indirect threats to their lives. Whether it was a warning, an admonition or threat, the fact is that he expressed the view that during a time of war the media should not criticize the Armed Forces and that if they were to do so the Government would not be defending them from the attacks of persons who are loyal to the Armed Forces. Another worthy in charge of news has said that the two journalists being employees of a government owned institution- Lake House had no right to criticize the government. Critics point out that Lake House is not a state enterprise bound by the Establishments Code which he had quoted.

Is it important for people in a democracy to know what the government is doing? Can the media print or broadcast all information they receive? What press policy should the military use in wartime? This is an important issue. The freedom of the press is guaranteed in our Constitution. If it is to be curtailed it must be in terms of the Constitutional provisions. In USA where there is similar protection for freedom of the press in the First Amendment the press filed action in the US Supreme Court when the Pentagon interfered with the right of the press to collect and report war news. Some news organizations filed a lawsuit charging the military with violating the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of the press. They argued that a free press should have access to a war zone, because the people have a right to know what is happening. They won the lawsuit. They argued that the First Amendment’s protection of the free press should not be thrown out whenever the military starts shooting. People in a free society should decide whether to go to war, whether to stay at war, and whether a war is just. To decide, people need information from a free press, not from a press controlled by the military. Otherwise, Americans might fight wars knowing only what the military wants them to know. And the military might not want people to know any bad news, anything critical of the military, or anything that might turn them against a war. Americans could then find themselves in the position of citizens in a military dictatorship—like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. We need to tell the factual story—good or bad—before others seed the media with disinformation and distortions, as they most certainly will continue to do. Our people in the field need to tell our story—only commanders can ensure the media get to the story alongside the troops.”

The above sums up the case for freedom of the media during a war. It is not for the military or for the Secretary Defense to lay down policy on such an important issue. The President himself must say whether he accepts the view of his brother the Defense Secretary and if so explain his point of view to the people and to Parliament. “Over grown military establishments are under any form of government inauspicious to liberty, and are to be regarded as particularly hostile to republican liberty”: said George Washington. ”No provision in our Constitution ought to be dearer to man than that which protects the rights of conscience against the enterprises of the civil authority:” Thomas Jefferson: American 3rd US President (1801-09). The possession of unlimited power will make a despot of almost any man. There is a possible Nero in the gentlest human creature that walks.” — Thomas Bailey Aldrich (1836-1907) Source: Ponkapog Papers, 1903

Debates about freedom of speech and liberty are ultimately shaped by two contrasting views. Those who cherish liberty argue that free speech is not only a democratic right; it is also indispensable for the clarification of ideas and the conduct of civilized public life. It is the only barrier to the manipulation of the people by the government of the day. From the perspective of an authoritarian government however, free speech should not be used to blame the government or criticize it. Traditionally our ancient rulers did not stomach criticism of their actions. In China during the Qing dynasty, people who were more intelligent and knowledgeable were either exiled or executed if they spoke out their minds against the ruler. Even democratic countries have been tempted to curb fundamental freedoms of the people in times of war. When the criticism comes from its political opponents they consider free speech and expression as being subversive. The view that too much freedom is not good was enunciated by the late Felix Dias Bandaranaike, who was exasperated by the undisciplined actions of trade unionists and special interest groups. He called for a little bit of totalitarianism. But this is to mistake freedom for license. Some argue that too many civil rights are somehow inconsistent with waging a war. The government, if it wants to counter the views of the peace activists and those who seek a political solution instead of war must do so by debate and discussion in the media. That is what political leadership involves as shown by Tony Blair, who took several unpopular stands and convinced the people to even win a second and third term.

Whether you call yourself a totalitarian state or you call yourself a democracy, it works the same way, and that is, the leaders of the country are able to cajole or coerce and entice the people into war by scaring them, telling them they’re in danger, and threatening them and coercing them, that if they don’t go along, they will be considered unpatriotic.

Our liberal democratic values like freedom of the press are being undermined, because of the alleged necessity not to undermine the morale of the armed forces. Has democracy and liberal values to be sacrificed for the sake of war? We have to look these issues in the eye instead of sweeping them under the carpet in the name of patriotism.

  • The thing is, while press freedoms in Sri Lanka are woefully lacking, so is journalistic integrity and commitment to the truth. There is a glaring lack of professionalism among Sri Lanka’s journalists, ranging from the reporting of hearsay to the shameless colouring of writing according to political loyalty. In addition, even when journalists were allowed to visit the frontlines, very few of them did, preferring to file reports from places like Vavuniya and Batticaloa, and shooting pix of soldiers in training. Most useful frontline reporting in SL has come from foreign journalists. Even during the Eastern ops last year, the only true ‘free press’ combat footage was by Al Jazeera. I’ve routinely heard SL journalists give excuses like “couldn’t get a car” or “couldn’t book a hotel” for their inability to cover incidents (like the Trinco riots a year or so ago) in the NE. I think press institutions need to look at the quality of their product even as they demand the right to put out that product.

    Having said that, I find your example of the BBC in WW2 to be rather amusing. There really was no such thing as a free press on the Allied side, any more than there was one on the Axis side. The only difference was that the Axis populations were more isolated, and therefore the propaganda that targeted them was less ‘competitive’. Organizations like the BBC were subject to government censor, and were rarely allowed to criticize policy, strategy, or personalities.

  • Also, Alllied troops would routinely tune in to Lord Haw Haw and Tokyo Rose. This isn’t because either of those characters were telling the truth, but just for the chance to hear some criticism of one’s own side. The same is true of the Axis populations listening to the BBC, the SL population checking out Tamilnet, and the US population watching Al Jazeera. It’s nothing to do with freedom.

  • sham

    raja , wasnt the “offical secrets act” implemented in UK during world war 2 which was some sort of censorship?
    i guess some thing good for the british wouldnt be good for us !!!

  • As Blacker states, despite freedom of expression, particularly press freedom, being in a deplorable state, one cannot ignore the lack of professionalism and the constant usage of methods of sensationalism. Today, press sensationalism is partly responsible for harnessing the support for war, especially amongst the Sinhalese populous. The lack of professionalism and political bias further aggravate this situation making it really, a sordid affair. As the author states the press, and a free press at that, has the responsibility of informing the masses, which in turn should help them decide whether a war is justified. Unfortunately, in Sri Lanka the ethical standards of institutions and services that have been supposedly created for its people are in a state of decomposition with little hope of regeneration.

  • post-script to Sahasamvada’s comment:

    The era of manufacturing consent has given way to the era of manufacturing news. Soon media newsrooms will drop the pretense, and start hiring theater directors instead of journalists – Arundhati Roy

  • In any journalistic reporting, neutral and unbiased mind and thinking are essential. In Sri Lanka, those with education inside the country, are mostly biased because they have received biased education with racial tone and fabricated history.

    The truth is never valued to the extent it is valued in the west. Resultantly, what we read are biased reports on news and not real news itself.

    To make the journalists real, they should be taught to value truth and speak the truth and nothing but the truth. But surely they will face the “bullet” if they do that because the Sinhala society itself is dangerously biased and racial.