Military censorship refers to requirements imposed by military officials upon journalists that the latter submit their dispatches to military censors so that the dispatches can be reviewed for material the content of which the military does not want to see published. Depending upon the nation and the circumstances, military censorship can be imposed for legitimate reasons of protecting the secrecy of military activities that would cost lives if exposed to the enemy, or it can be imposed for political reasons when the military and/or the government it represents wish to conceal illicit activities or potential war crimes, such as a massacre of civilians.
Examples of military censorship abound. During every war in which the United States has been engaged at least since the early 20th Century, journalists covering war zones were required to submit their “copy” to military censors to protect against the accidental exposure of information regarding troop movements and plans. As the political contentiousness of military conflicts grew, beginning with the war in Vietnam, disagreements between journalists and military officials became more confrontational, a problem that peaked with the Persian Gulf War of 1991. Walter Cronkite, the long-time reporter and broadcaster for CBS News and one of the most respected journalists in the nation’s history had this to say regarding military censorship:
“[In Vietnam] we were fight with the soldiers – no problem with access whatsoever. . .The military did not make any attempt to monitor the interviews we got with the men. There was nothing like we had in the [Persian] Gulf War, where they had a senior officer standing by whenever we talked to a G.I. or an officer. In the evening we got back to press camp and wrote the story. We had to file it with the intelligence officer . . .Then that went to the Army G-2 [intelligence] officer, and he would pass it for transmission, or sometimes made deletions and changes. The copy was passed back to us to see whether we wanted to transmit it that way.” [www.pbs.org/weta/reportingamericaatwar/reporters/cronkite/censorship.html]
If the 1991 Persian Gulf War is considered by many journalists and analysts as the start of a troubling new emphasis by the military and government on censorship of journalist reporting, the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the United States represented its zenith. The scale of the problem was highlighted when the Pentagon’s own newspaper, Stars and Stripes, began to complain about the level of censorship to which it and other media outlets were subjected. CNN reported on the issue as follows:
“In a story on its Web site, the newspaper known as Stripes said the military violated a congressional mandate of editorial independence by rejecting a request to embed reporter Heath Druzin with the U.S. Army's 1st Cavalry Division, which is attempting to secure the city of Mosul.
The military cited various problems in Druzin's reporting on previous embed assignments with units of the division, according to the story.”
The sight of the military restricting a reporter from its own paper because it resented that reporter’s coverage of the ongoing war highlighted the extent of the problem. Similarly, the government’s restrictions on reporting on the return of the remains of American soldiers killed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan constitutes a form of censorship to the degree that the restrictions were imposed to lessen the political impact of U.S. casualties in a controversial war. One of the methods the military used to control the press during the Iraq War was the requirement that journalists select among themselves to form “pools” that would have the official imprimatur of the government to accompany military units in the field. Additionally, individual reporters were officially “embedded” with units under the understanding that they would comply with basic rules regarding their dispatch of information.
The war in Afghanistan presented similar problems for the military and reporters alike. In any war, civilian casualties are certain. In a guerrilla war or insurgency, they are guaranteed, as the insurgents hide among civilians and often wear civilian clothing. In Afghanistan, where traditional dress made identification of potential “hostile” individuals extremely difficult, the problem was compounded. In addition, press coverage of a conflict that risks agitating hundreds of millions of readers or viewers, such as occurred following release of embarrassing and highly-demeaning photographs of Iraqi prisoners in an American-run prison, which instigated wide-spread outrage throughout the Muslim world (as well as the non-Muslim world), can present a special problem in this age of instantaneous “tweeting” and social-network posting of photographs. The result, then, is increased censorship of potentially embarrassing information, which is very distinct from information the release of which could threaten American soldiers or undermine military operations. Consequently, we now run into problems like that discussed in a March 10, 2007 report published in The Huffington Post. This report focused on the U.S. military’s censoring of a reporter’s photographs of the aftermath of a suicide bombing in Afghanistan. In this case, an American soldier seized and erased a journalist’s video of the aftermath of one such incident. Quoting a military official regarding that example of censorship:
"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.
He added that photographs or video taken by "untrained people" might "capture visual details that are not as they originally were."
The military is correct that there have been instances, dating to Vietnam, in which journalists manipulated images for the purpose of getting “better” photographs. It also correct, however, that the military often censors journalists because the exposure of information will embarrass the military and the government, and this was one such case.