Hypocrisy, Censorship and Denial: Military Journalism in the US

by Jasmine Bhatt

We’re used to hearing about issues of censorship in other countries; Pakistan and Iraq have recently been at the forefront of human rights campaigns, especially with Malala Yousafzai recently becoming the youngest Nobel Prize winner. My article last week highlighted the issues of censorship in India for example, with Modi intimidating journalists and editors into retracting articles or toning down their coverages, and even college presidents into resigning after sending out advice to students for the upcoming elections.

Yet why is this so shocking to us? Contrary to popular opinion, it is not so far from things that go on in the press in our society. Military journalism is a form of press that is consistently overlooked, yet it is one that is guilty of censorship in a rather worrying and increasingly sinister way. War is one of the biggest expenditures in the US, yet by the time the ‘realities’ of it get to the general public they have been severely twisted, or at least filtered, so that the gritty, disturbing and morally questionable acts are kept from being published. Of course, the situations in various other countries may be a lot more dire than what we endure here, yet how can we condemn others if we aren’t completely innocent ourselves? This article will focus on examples in the US, but this is not to say that the UK can take a moral high ground – as we are wont to do with issues like this.

In 2003, 770 journalists were embedded in the war in Iraq, similar to the freedom of press that we saw in the Vietnam War (which did, admittedly, come under a lot of criticism at the time), yet by 2008 only 12 remained. Not only did only 12 remain, but half of these were photographers. How can 12 journalists be expected to cover 150,000 troops – even if they were to have complete liberty? After five years of the war, and 4000 American combat deaths, only 6 graphic images can be found. Surely no one can claim that this is “free press”; we have no control over the information that we receive – indeed, they unashamedly indicate that “free and easy access to photographs, print journalism, and first-hand accounts of the war are a ‘vulnerability’” to the war efforts, as Naomi Spencer outlines, speculating that it is the fear of fuelling “antiwar sentiment in the population and within the military” that drives this overt censorship. It is forbidden for journalists to release anything the military deems to be “sensitive information”, which can include American weaponry or the aftermath of an insurgent strike – an important factor in determining the nature and moral status of a war.

In terms of photographs and images of the war, the restrictions on publication are no better. Wounded soldiers need to give written permission before photos are published (which to some extent can be understood), and while in the early years of the war, photos of detainees were widely circulated, this has been stopped by the Department of Defence. Going back to the mere 6 graphic images of combat fatalities out of 4000 deaths, it is obvious that what is being presented to the public is not the reality of war. Many journalists who transgress this rule, and publish “sensitive” information are “disembedded”, hence the sharp decrease in journalists on the front line. Stefan Zaklin was disembedded for photographing and publishing the photograph of a dead US soldier; Chris Hondros suffered the same fate after publishing one of the most famous and harrowing pictures of the war, a young girl screaming and covered in blood after US troops killed her parents; and two Times journalists were ridiculously disembedded for printing a picture of a fatally wounded soldier, who died a few hours after injury, for not getting his written position. What does this tell us about the reasons for censorship? They are not just restricting information for military reasons, but to stop any anti-war sentiment spreading – just as Spencer suggests.

American Censorship

Samar Hassan: The Photograph That Led to Chris Hondros’ Disembedding

One particular journalist who was disembedded made public what happened that led to this dismissal. Zoriah Miller took pictures of scattered body parts and the debris after a suicide bombing, and was told to “stop photographing, delete his memory cards, [and] surrender his cameras”. He published the images – after the families were notified – and was told by high-ranking Marine public affairs officers to remove them, yet it was upon refusal that he was disembedded. Shockingly, not even the shoes of the injured or killed marines were allowed to be photographed. Miller stated that “the fact that the images I took of the suicide bombing – which are just photographs of something that happens every day all across the country – the fact that these photos have been so incredibly shocking to people, says that whatever they are doing to limit this type of photo getting out, it’s working,” underlining the sinister truth that lies beneath the censorship of military journalism. It is censorship, and this fact cannot be avoided.

On a different, but similarly worrying note, the coverage of Malala Yousafzai, as well deserved as it is, may be being used to the government’s advantage, highlighting as it does the atrocities and evils committed in Pakistan. Stories like this are extremely beneficial to the war effort, heightening the negative feelings towards the opposing countries, and justifying what the US is doing. This would not seem so dubious if it wasn’t for the recent plight of Nabila Rehman, a nine year old girl who came to speak to the US about American drones killing her grandmother in front of her. Another young girl, scarred by what is happening at war, and do we know about her? Do we know her name? Hardly anyone even showed up to hear her speak, an appalling and frankly disrespectful act. Why is it that the coverage of these two people is so widely imbalanced? Because one puts Pakistan in a bad light, and one puts the US in a bad light. And putting the US in a bad light is exactly what the government is afraid of, and that is exactly why censorship of military journalism exists.

Naomi Spencer claims that the “military’s intent is to obscure from the American people the hellish reality in which prisoners and US soldiers alike have found themselves,” and I have to say that I agree. Luckily, an increasing number of people are taking a more active role in trying to find out the truths and realities of war, but this is still not enough. People rely on the press to find out these things, and if the press is completely unable to report some of the things that go on, then how are the public expected to reach an informed opinion about the reason for one of the government’s biggest expenditures? This to me is not moral, and something that people need to be more aware of. How can we judge others if we are flawed ourselves? Moral judgement has to start at home, and unless we can do this, we cannot judge anyone else.

Jasmine Bhatt is an English and Related Literature student at the University of York

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