Sunday, May 6, 2012

Embedded Reporting: the pros and cons of travelling with security forces


Note: I am posting this piece, written for a media seminar in 2010 only because last week several queries were posed to me on the issue at a talk on Military and the Media during Senior Armed Forces Officers' Conclave at the College of Air Warfare in Hyderabad. 
My basic point was the military and the media come from two different backgrounds; the upbringing and the outlook of soldiers and media practitioners differ substantially. Historically, the two have had a love-hate relationship which continues to this day. And yet, both need each other.
Read on.

Those newly invented curse to armies who eat all the rations of the fighting man and do no work at all
Field Marshal Joseph Garnet Wolsley in 1869 

The “curse” that the Field Marshal was talking about more than 140 years ago was the War Correspondents who reported on the military campaigns of Victorian Britain.

Among the first to live and march with combat troops, William Howard Russell reports for the The Times of London during the war in Crimea in the 1850s highlighting the shortcomings and bungling in the war were not liked by the authorities but the people were outraged leading to reform and correction in the military.

The Field Marshal’s ire was primarily directed at Russell but by the time he wrote his famous treatise The Soldier’s Pocketbook in 1869, several other “War Correspondents” had made their way to the battlefield, stayed with the troops, braved the bullets and bayonets and brought home the real picture of the battles.

Clearly, journalists have been billeted with troops for over 100 years before George Bush’s war against Saddam Hussein in 2003 brought the term ‘Embedded journalism’ into the popular lexicon. 

In the 22-day campaign that followed, a unique access to the battlefield was granted to embedded journalists for war news coverage…The United States (U.S.) Department of Defense (DoD) authorized the embedding of more than 500 journalists in their military fighting units.  The ‘embeds’ (as the journalists traveling with the army units were called) were defined by the Pentagon as: “A media representative [that lives, works, and travels with a military] unit on an extended basis -- perhaps weeks or even months... [in order to] facilitate maximum, in-depth [news] coverage of U.S. forces in combat and related operations.”  

This decision stirred up a lot of controversy relative to the type of news content that was being reported by embedded versus non-embedded journalists.  
As a result, the issue of embedded versus non-embedded war journalism has fueled much controversy and debate (http://knol.google.com/k/the-embedded-war-journalism-controversy).

There are those who believe that the American decision to embed journalists with frontline combat units stemmed from the US military’s two contrasting experiences—one bitter, the other sweet.
The first was in Vietnam when the antipathy between the military and the media reached its peak.

In a detailed study on the military-media relationship during that period, a US Army War College researcher came to a conclusion: “Prior to the Vietnam War, the American press had generally supported national war efforts and the national leadership with positive stories. The Vietnam war was the first time that reporters reported on American units that lacked discipline, used drugs on the battlefield, and had US soldiers questioning war aims while the war was ongoing.  These stories, though factual, were viewed by the military as ‘negative.’ Moreover, the uniformed leadership viewed these stories as a major reason they were losing the war at home while they were winning the battles in Vietnam.” (The CNN Effect: Strategic Enabler or Operational Risk? by Margaret H. Belknap, United States Army, 2001) 

By the time the US was ready for the Gulf War in 1991, it had learnt its lessons well. The military had judged the needs of the media and also worked out the ways to control the flow of information in its favour. 

As Belknap said, “Operation Desert Storm “was the most widely and most swiftly reported war in history.”

In addition to being the first “CNN War”, this war also marked a turning point in military-media relations and a turning point for Americans’ view of that relationship.

Colin Powell, by than an important figure in the US military hierarchy, had learned his lesson from the Vietnam mistakes and the subsequent Panama invasion episode. He ensured not only media access but that the “right” kind of spokesman stood before the camera lens before the American audience.

Powell recalled, “We auditioned spokespersons. … We picked Lieutenant General Tom Kelly, as our Pentagon briefer because Kelly not only was deeply knowledgeable, but came across like Norm in the sitcom Cheers, a regular guy whom people could relate to and trust.” 

Belknap says Powell also understood that live press conferences meant that the public would see both questioner and responder. Ever since the Vietnam War, the public viewed the media as fighting to get “the truth” from a military hiding behind a cloak of secrecy During the Gulf war, Americans saw both media and military on the TV screen.

Powell later wrote: “When the public got to watch journalists, even the best reporters some times came across as bad guys.” Perhaps the strongest evidence of the shift in American perceptions was a Satruday Night Live, a popular American TV programme.

Toward the end of the Gulf war the media was ridiculed on Saturday Night Live. Belknap’s study notes: “They were (reporters) portrayed as enemy Iraqis trying to wrestle Americans war plan secrets away from an Army spokesperson.”

THE SUB-CONTINENTAL EXPERIENCE 

The Americans have further refined the concept of embedded journalism in Afghanistan but in India, it is still a halfway house.

There is no official embedding as such but the Indian military takes reporters on official guided tours to various facilities and events, fully on government expense. So, most of the reports are episodic, event-based in nature.

There is another kind of arrangement that exists between the media and the Indian military. 
Reporters’ travel to border areas or insurgency hit areas where the Indian army is deployed in large numbers. The Army than ‘facilitates’ their visits, shows them around, briefs them about the tasks, talks about the difficulties and achievements and then reporters write about or broadcast what they witnessed and understood during the trip.

It is a ‘loose’ arrangement, but the only one that comes close to the ‘embed’ arrangement in a semi-war situation. I say semi-war since the Indian army is continuously involved in counter-insurgency in Kashmir and the north-east.

Old-timers in India however recall that in 1965 and 1971 wars with Pakistan, select reporters did travel with the Indian military. Indeed, an All India Radio journalist is famously in the frame of an iconic photograph of the Indian general accepting the surrender of 90,000 Pakistani POWs at the end of the 1971 war!

In the most recent war in Kargil over a decade ago, there was no formal embedding but most of us who reported that war, interacted closely with the troops and many a times depended on their support for sustenance in the war zone. Volumes have been written about the synergy between the media and the military in Kargil and its contribution in whipping up a patriotic fervour across the nation that time but all of that was happenstance not design.

Currently, there is an intense discussion on in the higher echelons of the Indian military on how to deal with the media at large and whether to have a policy that will allow embedded journalists in future conflicts.

But elsewhere in the sub-continent, notably in Sri Lanka, I personally experienced the reality of embedded journalism.

Eelam War IV, (2006-2009) will in fact is remembered for the flawless execution of information warfare techniques by the Sri Lankan state.

Embedding journalists was just part of the entire Information Warfare strategy.I found the Sri Lankan methods both effective and offensive. Effective, purely as a battle strategy.  Offensive, to my sensitivity as a journalist.

The idea was to create a firewall around the battle zone.The objective was two-fold: control and denial. Control the flow of information and deny access to unpalatable journalists.

Simultaneously, the Sri Lankan government created a one-stop shop for information from the battle zone.

The Media Centre for National Security (MCNS), which functioned from a small, non-descript building in the heart of Colombo’s high security zone but outside Defence HQs, became the most important address for visiting and local media during the war. You went here to register yourself for a trip up north, into the battle zone. You asked for and got war footage here and you got your latest information from this centre.

The weekly briefing by a cabinet minister, Keheliya Rambukwella, who’s sole task was to interact with the media, were held here; the army, navy and air force spokesperson, all senior serving officers, worked under a Director-General, a civilian trusted by the President and his brother, the defence secretary, functioned out of this building.

The DG, MCNS, Lakshman Hullugalle, a pleasant, accessible man, became the most well known face and voice from Sri Lanka during the war since all TV channels went to him for a phono-in and a byte whenever they needed an official update. And he obliged everyone. The MCNS worked 24x7, updated defence.lk, an information-rich website, almost every hour and all key personnel, including the DG, remained accessible round-the-clock.

By putting in place this system, Sri Lanka virtually eliminated the possibility of any other source giving news to the information-hungry media. Even the trips to the battle zone—I went on three of them—were beautifully orchestrated. We were always asked to report at the airport before dawn.

There, after a thorough security check, we would board a Russian-built AN-32, land at Anuradhapura, a historic town in central Sri Lanka, and then get transferred to two waiting Mi-17 Helicopters. Cameras would start rolling the instant we were on board the choppers. A piece to camera(PTC) or a standup to use an American term, on board a helicopter after all gives that sense of realism to war coverage!

So inevitably, most of us TV reporters would record at least two or three PTCs before we landed at either Kilinochchi or Paranthan, close to the battle. Another very subtle arrangement used to be in place at those locations. An assortment of armoured personnel carriers (APCs) and jeeps would be waiting for us to be taken to the brigade headquarters or a location closer to the actual fighting zone.

Now, a ride atop an APC is a television reporter’s delight. A piece to cam aboard an APC, which looks like a tank, but is not really a tank( but then how many people can discern or distinguish a tank from an APC) would do very well for your own as well as the channels image, thank you. The viewer will certainly be impressed!

So all of us TV reporters used to clamber atop an APC, do our PTCs and then go for a briefing, which from TV’s point of view, are boring anyway. A formation commander at a lectern, explaining tactics on a map is not great television, so we would wonder out in search of images that conveyed a war zone. Invariably we would find soldiers in various stages of battle readiness outside the briefing rooms: some would be resting, some others would be cleaning their weapons; APCs and jeeps full of soldiers in their fatigues would be whizzing past. So cameras would be busy recording those images.

The point is: the Sri Lankan military had worked out what TV crews need and provided the props accordingly. I am not saying any other military would not have done it. But most military planners in the world would have been less subtle.

The Media handling by the Sri Lankan state would in fact make for a fascinating study. Having realized that the LTTE in the past had made very good use of its access to international media in projecting its image as an outfit fighting for a separate homeland for Tamils, Sri Lanka decided to cut off the oxygen supply of media support to the LTTE cause and instead deluged journalists with timely information and restricted access.

The local media was tamed through twin methods of coercion and chauvinism. Those who refused to fall in line, were coerced, threatened and even killed (14 journalists lost their lives in Sri Lanka in the last four years) and all others were won over by a simple appeal: it is as much your war as ours, so please cooperate. Simultaneously, pro-LTTE blogs and websites like Tamilnet.com were made inaccessible inside Sri Lanka.

The result: a completely lop-sided coverage of Eelam War IV.

As a student of media, the Sri Lankan strategy has fascinated me. They have refined the lessons and practices adopted by the Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan and evolved their own model that shuts out every other contrary view. But war is a dirty business and nations adopt tactics that suit them.

As a journalist, I was not happy being part of a one-sided coverage, but to be fair to the Sri Lankan state,  winning the information war was as essential as gaining a military victory. That a section of the Western, bleeding heart liberal, media is now targeting the Sri Lankan state for what it calls war crimes committed by the Sri Lankan army, is in a way, a left handed compliment to its strategy of creating a bubble around the war zone in which no one could enter without the permission of the Sri Lankan military.

So is embedded journalism or traveling with the military good or bad for journalists?
Many news media experts believe that embedded journalism provides a more accurate story of a war when compared to the traditional approachof news gathering via military briefings prepared for the press.  
In contrast with this perspective, however, many other broadcast media specialists believe that embedded journalists who travel with military units become too emotionally bonded to the troops after long periods of time and will therefore lose objectivity in their news reporting.  

I personally have a mixed feeling on this one.

Some times, as in Sri Lanka, there is no other way but to travel with the security forces and so you do it with great reluctance. In some other cases, like in Kargil or in counter-insurgency areas, it is better to travel on your own.

Whatever the method of interaction between the security forces and the media the relationship, at the end of the day, must remain adversarial.

Fortunately, given the cultural divide between the two, it will always be so.



1 comment:

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