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How Canada's military shapes media coverage of deployments

Chief of the Defence Staff Jonathan Vance. Photo: Gatis Dieziņš/Latvijas armija/Flickr

For the military, shaping media coverage of deployments is what roasting a marshmallow is to a summer camper's S'mores; there isn't one without the other.

Even before beginning a small "peacekeeping" mission, the Canadian forces have an elaborate media strategy.

At the end of June, Chief of the Defence Staff Jonathan Vance brought journalists with him on a visit to Mali. They toured the facilities in Gao where an advance team was preparing for Canada's UN deployment to the African nation. An Ottawa Citizen headline described Vance's trip as part of an effort at "selling the public on the Mali mission."

The tour for journalists was followed by a "technical briefing" on the deployment for media in Ottawa. "No photography, video or audio recording for broadcast purposes" was allowed at last week's press event, according to the advisory. Reporters were to attribute information to "a senior government" official. But, the rules were different at a concurrent departure ceremony in Trenton. "Canadian Armed Forces personnel deploying to Mali are permitted to give interviews and have their faces shown in imagery," noted the military's release.

None of these decisions are haphazard. With the largest PR machine in the country, the military has hundreds of public affairs officers that work on its media strategy. "The Canadian Forces (CF) studies the news media, writes about them in its refereed journals -- the Canadian Army Journal and the Canadian Military Journal -- learns from them, develops policies for them and trains for them in a systematic way," explains Bob Bergen, a professor at the University of Calgary's Centre for Military and Strategic Studies."Canadian journalists simply do not access the Canadian Forces in the scholarly fashion that the military studies them. There are no peer-reviewed journals to which they contribute reflections on their success or failure as an industry to cover the 1991 Persian Gulf War or the 1999 Kosovo Air War."

While the tactics have varied based on technologies, balance of power and type of conflict, the government has pursued extensive information control during international deployments, which are invariably presented as humanitarian even when motivated by geostrategic and corporate interests. There was formal censorship during the First World War, Second World War and the Korean War. In recent air wars the military largely shut the media out while in Afghanistan they brought reporters close.

Air wars lend themselves to censorship since journalists cannot accompany pilots during their missions or easily see what's happening from afar. "As a result," Bergen writes, "crews can only be interviewed before or after their missions, and journalists' reports can be supplemented by cockpit footage of bombings."

During the bombing of the former Yugoslavia in 1999 the CF blocked journalists from filming or accessing Canadian pilots flying out of Aviano, Italy. They also refused to provide footage of their operations. While they tightly controlled information on the ground, the CF sought to project an air of openness in the aftermath of the Somalia scandal. For 79 days in a row a top general gave a press conference in Ottawa detailing developments in Yugoslavia. But, the generals often misled the public. Asked "whether the Canadians had been targeted, whether they were fired upon and whether they fired in return" during a March 24 sortie in which a Yugoslavian MiG-29 was downed, Ray Henault denied any involvement. The deputy chief of Defence Staff said: "They were not involved in that operation." But, Canadians actually led the mission and a Canadian barely evaded a Serbian surface-to-air missile.While a Dutch aircraft downed the Yugoslavian MiG-29, a Canadian pilot missed his bombing target, which ought to have raised questions about civilian casualties.

One reason the military cited for restricting information during the bombing campaign was that it could compromise the security of the Armed Forces and their families. Henault said the media couldn't interview pilots bombing Serbia because "we don't want any risk of family harassment or something of that nature, which, again, is part of that domestic risk we face."

During the bombing of Libya in 2011 and Iraq-Syria in 2014-16 reporters who travelled to where Canadian jets flew from were also blocked from interviewing the pilots. Once again, the reason given for restricting media access was protecting pilots and their families.

Since the first Gulf War the military has repeatedly invoked this rationale to restrict information during air wars. But, as Bergen reveals in Balkan Rats and Balkan Bats: The art of managing Canada's news media during the Kosovo air war, it was based on a rumour that antiwar protesters put body bags on the lawn of a Canadian pilot during the 1991 Gulf War. It likely never happened and, revealingly, the military didn't invoke fear of domestic retribution to curtail interviews during the more contentious ground war in Afghanistan.

During that war the CF took a completely different tack. The CF embedding (or in-bedding) program brought reporters into the military's orbit by allowing them to accompany soldiers on patrol and stay on base. When they arrived on base, senior officers were often on hand to meet journalists. Top officers also built a rapport with reporters during meals and other informal settings. Throughout their stay on base, Public Affairs Officers (PAOs) were in constant contact, helping reporters with their work. After a six-month tour in Afghanistan PAO Major Jay Janzen wrote: "By pushing information to the media, the Battalion was also able to exercise some influence over what journalists decided to cover. When an opportunity to cover a mission or event was proactively presented to a reporter, it almost always received coverage."

In addition to covering stories put forward by the military, "embeds" tended to frame the conflict from the perspective of the troops they accompanied. By eating and sleeping with Canadian soldiers, reporters often developed a psychological attachment, writes Sherry Wasilow, in Hidden Ties that Bind: The Psychological Bonds of Embedding Have Changed the Very Nature of War Reporting.

Embedded journalists' sympathy towards Canadian soldiers was reinforced by the Afghans they interviewed. Afghans critical of Canadian policy were unlikely to express themselves openly with soldiers nearby. Scott Taylor asked, "what would you say if the Romanian military occupied your town and a Romanian tank and journalist showed up at your door? You love the government they have installed and want these guys to stay! Of course the locals are smiling when a reporter shows up with an armoured vehicle and an armed patrol."

The military goes to great lengths to shape coverage of its affairs and one should expect stories about Canada's mission in Mali to be influenced by the armed forces. So, take heed: Consume what they give you carefully, like you would a melted chocolate and marshmallow-coated graham wafer.

Photo: Gatis Dieziņš/Latvijas armija/Flickr

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