Serving the cause of truth: Why nations at war need freedom of the press

Serving the cause of truth: Why nations at war need freedom of the press

Borzou Daragahi- International Correspondent- The Independent

It was probably during the United States’ war in Vietnam that the value of a free press in an armed conflict first came to light. American generals and their political boosters in Washington kept extolling victories and pumping up “body counts” of enemy dead. But journalists covering the conflict heard glaring contradictions from the soldiers in the field, as well as from Vietnamese civilians. Not only was the US losing the war, but it was inflicting horrific damage against Vietnamese people in what many would come to believe was a misguided and disastrous armed conflict.

Before Vietnam, war correspondence in much of the world mostly amounted to stenography, perhaps with splashes of daring-do by correspondents working alongside soldiers of their own countries. But it was during that conflict, the first to be broadcast regularly on television, that journalists in the battlefield began to question the soundness of the war’s tactics, results, and ultimately, moral underpinnings

Government officials argue that war is a time for everyone to rally around the flag and support the effort, for the sake of the morale of the troops. The problem is that generals lie. Politicians lie. They concoct casus belli that ensnare nations in conflict. They make up body counts. They fashion victories out of draws and cover up defeats. They hide their mistakes and misdeeds. They waste public resources and, more gravely, sacrifice the lives of young men and women doing the fighting, as well as civilian bystanders.

A free press ferrets out corruption and incompetence and holds leaders accountable. That role, history has shown, becomes more and not less crucial during wartime. Journalistic crusaders uncovered misdeeds in the Israeli-backed invasion of Lebanon in the 1980s and the 1990s wars that followed the dissolution of the former Yuguoslovia, as well as the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq of the 2000s.

Governments instinctively clamp down on the press during times of war, almost always citing national security. That may serve the interests of the ruling elite, for a short time at least. But a free media, abiding by security concerns that include not disclosing operational details of ongoing battles, provides an essential service for a nation risking blood, treasure and reputation in an armed conflict.

Armed forces tend to be among the most stubborn types of government bureaucracy. Functionaries constantly attempt to deflect criticism, blame underlings or superiors for their own shortcomings, and resist taking the initiative for fear of taking heat when things go wrong.

Developing nations aspiring to modernity can do no better for the sake of their ambitions than to encourage a free, critical, and sometimes even harsh press — especially during crucial and politically charged moments such as armed conflict. A government’s knee-jerk reaction to negative press might be defensive, to deny the allegations of misdeeds at times of war, or even to silence the messenger through censorship, criminalisation and lawsuits.

But though that may temporarily serve a leader, a nation is better served by an honest, rigorous and aggressive press.

Recently, as war raged in the Caucasus both Armenia and Azerbaijan gave an object lesson in the value of a free press during an armed conflict. News outlets and journalists were intimidated, hindered, hounded and ultimately forced to toe the government line. In the end, when Yerevan capitulated, the Armenian public had little idea that their war effort had been going badly, and that the generals and politicians had been lying to the time, aided by a complicit media.

A free press keeps generals and politicians who lie about battlefield successes accountable, and acts as a check against field commanders and soldiers who might sully a nation’s reputation by engaging in war crimes and atrocities. More importantly, it can ask the most important wartime question: Are human lives being needlessly lost?