Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Mike Blanchfield, "Canada bars Dutch reporters from Afghan base," CanWest News Service; Ottawa Citizen, December 6, 2006.

OTTAWA - The Canadian Forces barred Dutch journalists from reporting from the Canadian military base in Kandahar at the request of the government in the Netherlands, according documents obtained by the Ottawa Citizen.

The media ban came earlier this year after Canada consulted with the Dutch government about its "comfort level'', say documents obtained under Access to Information legislation. At the time, the Netherlands, a key Canadian ally in war-torn southern Afghanistan, was on the verge of sending 1,400 troops to join their Canadian and British allies.

The Dutch deployment came after a long, painful national debate that nearly blocked military involvement, which would have left NATO significantly shorthanded in its deadly fight against the Taliban insurgency.

The revelation comes as Canada's former Afghanistan commander, Brig.-Gen. David Fraser, blasted Canadian journalists Tuesday in a speech for focusing too much on the combat operations that have claimed a record 37 Canadian lives this year instead of all the positive things Canada is doing to rebuild the country.

On March 16, the Canadian Forces public affairs team in Kandahar received an inquiry from a Dutch journalist, who worked for a major daily newspaper and news magazine, asking that he and a photographer be embedded with Canadian troops in Afghanistan for three to five days.

The request set off a flurry of e-mails, first to Defence Department headquarters in Ottawa, and then to a NATO spokesman back in Kandahar.

"His interest is based on the future Dutch deployment to Uruzgan province. Lt.-Col. LePage suggests we investigate the comfort level of the Dutch with this journalist's request," said Capt. Doug MacNair, of the Forces expeditionary command branch in Ottawa, referring to his boss, Lt.-Col. Rita LePage, the branch's lead spokeswoman, and a former aide to defence chief Gen. Rick Hillier.

"We would not want to be seen to be facilitating Dutch media pressure on the recent decision, etc."

The Dutch had much to be wary about after its parliament voted in early February to deploy to Kandahar, overcoming massive public opposition.

In late 2005, Dutch opinion polls showed 70 per cent opposition to sending troops to Kandahar, a wariness stoked by the country's last experience on a major international mission in 1995, when Dutch peacekeepers were unable to stop the massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the UN-protected haven in Srebrenica, Bosnia.

On March 23, Canadian Maj. Scott Lundy, who had been seconded to NATO as a public affairs officer, wrote MacNair that the Dutch Ministry of Defence did not support the journalist's request and "that he was not welcome to visit at this point in mission."

Lundy said the Dutch and NATO command would revisit the request "later his summer" once the Dutch troops had moved into Uruzgan.

The 500 pages of documents suggest why Canada deferred to the Dutch government:

"We are the only nation to have adopted an embedding program," Maj. Marc Theriault, a senior Canadian military spokesman in Kandahar, wrote on April 2. "Despite our explanations, most allied nations consider our media posture as very progressive and risky."

Since Canadian troops first went to Afghanistan four years ago, this country's military has grown more sophisticated in how it embeds journalists.

While documents show no evidence of Canadian journalists being refused entry to Kandahar Air Field, the Forces public affairs section monitors their activities closely, producing weekly summaries and assessments of coverage.

One summary, ending March 30, concluded "a considerable number of positive articles and reports profiled various members of the CF serving in Afghanistan," but also singled out one report that was "in a slightly more negative tone, detailing the CF involvement in the capture of four suspected Taliban fighters."

On Tuesday, Fraser devoted half a speech to a symposium on Afghanistan criticizing how Canadian journalists covered his troops in the nine months he spent in Kandahar commanding Operation Enduring Freedom and its transition to a NATO operation.

"I can tell you right now that the story Canadians are receiving is like an iceberg,'' said Fraser, noting that Canadians are only seeing a fraction of what the troops are doing.

Frasier said, "nobody reported" that he spent $20 million building roads, schools and wells. He chided journalists to "tell the whole story, not just the snapshot."

Ottawa Citizen

© CanWest News Service 2006

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Jim Terral said...

When the dust settled after the election last January, the new Prime Minister, Stephen Harper made it clear that his government's relations with the press would be significantly less open than those of governments past. The press would have dramatically reduced access to information about when and where cabinet meetings would occur.

Reporters grumbled but admitted that the PM's tightly controlled press conferences were an efficient way of getting stories.

Then in mid-March, the Globe and Mail reported on an internal email from the Prime Minister imposing central control over all comments to the public issued by government officials including cabinet ministers.

"Prime Minister Stephen Harper has imposed central control over all information and comments to the public issued by government officials and even cabinet ministers, directing them to have everything cleared by the Prime Minister’s Office, according to an internal e-mail and government sources.

"The orders, described in an e-mail to bureaucrats, indicate that ministers have been told to avoid talking about the direction of the government, and that the government wants them to be less accessible to the news media. And all government officials are instructed to avoid speaking about anything other than the five priorities outlined in the Conservative campaign."

The decision by the defence minister, Gordon O'Connor, to ban reporters from the tarmac of CFB Trenton for the return of the four soldiers killed in Afghanistan last weekend (April 21-22)

Michelle Mann, "Government has to be an open book," CBC, April 4, 2006.

"...secretive cabinet meetings, combined with no or limited press access to ministers afterwards, threaten the ability of the media to hold the government to account.

"Disdain for the media is exemplified by Okanagan-Shuswap Conservative MP Colin Mayes' recent newspaper editorial proclaiming that some journalists should be thrown in jail. "Boy, would the public get accurate and true information if a few reporters were hauled away to jail!" he wrote."

Larry Zolf, "Harper's distrust of media not helping him," CBC, March 28, 2006.

Ira Basen, "Spin class: Harper's attempt to exorcize the press corps," CBC, May 26, 2006.

Recommends Jay Rosen's "excellent media blog,"

Larry Zolf, "Harper wins war with media," CBC, June 7, 2006.

From a comment: "the P.M.'s refusal to take questions spontaneously.

"Mr Harper instead dictated that the Press Gallery's questions must be submitted ahead of time and Harper (or his staff) would choose the questions that he will answer. "

Ted Byfield, "Those poor, poor reporters,", April 1, 2006.

An article by Geoffrey York in the June 3 Globe and Mail described the rules for journalists working in Afghanistan who choose to “embed” with Canadian forces.

“The restrictions warned sternly that I could be ejected from the military base if I spent 'an inordinate amount of time' covering non-military activity. The Department of National Defence doesn’t want the embedded reporters to write much about refugees, schools, health care or electricity – all the basic realities of life for Afghans” ("Dispatches From an Embedded Life" qtd Annis and Beeching)

In an article for the Dominion discussing the implications of the York piece, Dru Oja Jay writes, "Short of falling out with their employers and writing a tell-all memoir, journalists like York will likely never reveal the tension between what they see on the ground, what they write, and what actually gets printed. And there is tension."

On October 27, Stephen Puddicome (sp?), a CBC correspondent reporting on civilian deaths from a bombing mission in Panjwai District, said in passing, "I have to access to the local people." Puddicome did not belabour or even elaborate on the point, but it is clear that the Harper government's restrictions on the press mean that citizens will have to go elsewhere for the information they require to make the necessary political judgements.

Since so much of the criticism of media is highly ideological, it's important to point out that restrictive government policies impair the functioning of both private and public media. The question is who has eyes and ears out in the field with access to the information that people require?