Vol. 5 Num 1037 Thu. May 03, 2007  

The media and the military

The press is the watchdog over the institutions of power, be they military, political, economic or social. Its job is to inform the people of the doings of their institution"-- B E Trainor.

The occasion of the World Press Freedom Day may be a fitting moment to dwell on the relationship between the media and the military in Bangladesh. Having spent 35 years in uniform and the last three years as a journalist, and having lived on both the sides of the fence, I perhaps have the benefit of looking at the issue from both sides of the divide, with greater objectivity, and with more dispassion.

To some it may appear that inquiring into the media-military issue is an acknowledgement of a continuing tension that underlines the relationship between the fourth estate and the military. That is actually so. However, such an environment is not unique to Bangladesh -- it exists in all countries where the military has a significant influence in the country's policy prerogatives, in both peace and war.

In Bangladesh, the divide has sometimes been more pronounced, while at other times there was a realisation of the real nature of the two institutions and acceptance of the fact that the two must play a supportive role in order to attain national aim and preserve national interest.

Let us also acknowledge the fact that both, the media and the military, are national institutions that must work under a definite regime, for the military that regime is more codified, in order to deliver the public good to the people. Therefore, the situation can brook no adversarial relationship between the two.

According to military historians, the "first real confrontation between the military and the media was in the Crimean War, when William Howard Russell of the London Times exposed gross incompetence within the British high command -- and brought down the government.

He proved that an unfettered journalist is a burden to the military in the field, anathema to a government at home, but essential to a free society." And we have evidence to believe that the pressmen were the most unwelcome creatures in the military camps during times of war.

This is what General William Sherman, the famous general of the American Civil War, had to say of newsmen. He said: "I hate newspapermen. They come into camp and pick up the camp rumors and print them as facts. I regard them as spies, which, in truth, they are. If I killed them all there would be news from Hell before breakfast." (Such a perception about the media had preoccupied the mind of the military in Bangladesh since the inception of the country, and the tussle has continued ever since. However, the fault was not of the military establishments alone).

Apparently, the Unionist general had very little idea about the magnitude of the media's role, and of the newsmen's in the successful pursuit of military campaigns. It has, after almost 150 years, been articulated by another scholar of the American military fraternity that "The media, in the modern era, are indisputably an instrument of war. This is because winning modern wars is as much dependent on carrying domestic and international public opinion as it is on defeating the enemy on the battlefield. And it remains true regardless of the aspirations of many journalists to give an impartial and balanced assessment of conflict."

While that illustrates the media's obligation in war, the obligation extends equally, in our case in particular, to fulfilling the peacetime obligation of nation building, an effort of which the military is also an indispensable part.

The media-military relationship resides in the realm of civil-military relations, and when that is handled proficiently one can manage the media and its role in the pursuit of the national aim more efficiently.

I think the tussle arises from the compulsions of the two, that are seen as being mutually exclusive. While it is the responsibility of the media to keep the public informed, it has been the military's effort to give out as little as possible. That is also a feature of the media-military relationship in other countries too.

And this phenomenon, as an American scholar puts it while describing media-military relations in his country, occurs when the "members of the fourth estate seek to obtain and report the truth, while the military seek to control the flow of the truth.

This tension, combined with goals and unique personality traits of those called to each profession, has been cause for a multitude of disagreements and high level of distrust." This proves that truth is not only contemporary it is also universal.

The military psyche was a legacy of the colonial rule that was difficult to shrug off. The military during the colonial rule was part of the colonial power, forming a coercive arm of the state, and was used as an instrument for suppression of the people.

The Pakistan Army, before and upto 1971, displayed a similar psyche, and preferred to be treated like a holy cow. The existence was that of a creature living in a watertight compartment, isolated from the outside environment, hoping that no news would prove to be good news for the media and the military. But, in fact, the underlying compulsion was perhaps an intense lack of trust in the media, either to be able to project the military in the right manner or to deliberately misproject it.

The consequence was inevitable. Lack of information was the mother of all speculations. In fact, the attempt to distance the media was seen as an effort to keep the people from knowing what the military was up to, and there was plenty to keep away from the public.

In Bangladesh, the typical military psyche inherited from the Pakistan military determined its attitude towards the media. An attitude of remaining in isolation was the order of the day, where the military was distanced not only from the media but also from the society at large during the very early period of our existence.

What the leadership at that time, both at the political and military levels, overlooked was the fact that information was power, and one of the four constituent elements of Grand Strategy.

A classic example of not disseminating information and failing to take the media and, consequently, the public opinion along was during the early period of the counter-insurgency campaign in the CHT. Failure to keep the public informed not only hampered operations, it gave rise to many half-true, and speculative, reports.

However, it would be wrong to put the blame for the state of the military-media relations on the shoulders of the military alone. Misreporting, speculation, padded report by journalists with very little background knowledge of the issue, and even poorer knowledge of the military, among other things, were responsible for much of the tension between the media and the military. There is no reason why that should continue to be so. In fact, one is very encouraged to see the very positive trend in this regard at the moment.

There is no doubt that our military leadership is well aware of the fact that in the age of information technology, and in the conduct of military strategy, the mass media has been added as the tenth Principle of War. And perhaps they need no reminding what General Eisenhower had to say on the eve of the Normandy invasion.

The truth that, "The first issue in military operations is that no information of value is given to the enemy. The first issue in newspaper work and broadcasting is wide-open publicity. It is your job and mine to reconcile those sometimes diverse considerations," holds true even today.

And while we are sure that the military leadership will continue to reconcile the diverse requirements, the media for its part must understand the various constraints and compulsions the military has to work under. It will be well for us to remember that both, the media and the military, are essential for maintaining the republican character of our state.

The author is Editor, Defence & Strategic Affairs, The Daily Star.
Photojournalists of different newspapers and news agencies put their camera on the ground of national press club as a protest against the attack by some members of the Rapid Action Battalion on their fellow photojournalist S M Gorki of Dainik Jugantor on June 22, 2002. Photo: Azizur Rahim Peu, DrikNews