A Lesson in Military Censorship

CAIRO, EGYPT -- Operation Bright Star '97 comprised the biggest war games the Middle East has ever seen. Before it ended in December, the U.S., Egypt and five other nations deployed a nuclear carrier, dozens of ships, hundreds of aircraft and 58,000 troops across the eastern Mediterranean and Egyptian desert.There were also uncounted military PR flacks on hand. These days they go by the title of "Public Affairs Officer." Their job was to make sure an estimated 250 journalists got good pictures, authoritative facts, faxes, coffee and access to the McDonald's at Mubarak Military City.They also apparently had time to prevent some student journalists invited to Bright Star from reporting some bad news. The students, from The American University in Cairo, came upon a fatal road accident involving American and British soldiers. The U.S. military was appalled when students starting talking to people, writing notes, taking pictures, and -- well, acting like real journalists.There's only a vague estimate of how much Bright Star cost the taxpayers whose military took part. One official said a $100 million estimate was "on the low side."Probably nobody knows how much went for public relations. A multicolored press packet from the Coalition Media Center proclaimed "Welcome" in Arabic and English. There were lots of press releases, briefings and brochures. Some lucky people got helicopter flights out to the George Washington, the U.S. nuclear carrier off the coast. Clearly, the military wanted wide media coverage of Bright Star. "The primary purpose is to showcase military capability," U.S. Army Major Dewey Ford told Egyptian journalists. The showcasing sometimes seemed more important than the show.One journalist asked if it were realistic to have photographers beside commandos creeping up a beach. "This is an unopposed landing," explained U.S. Lt. Mark Bayd.Every U.S. soldier in Bright Star certainly knew the media were part of the show. Before the "battle," each was issued a "Media Reference Card." The card, carried in pocket or pack along with other survival gear, provided "Guidelines for Dealing with Civilian News Media During Bright Star '97."The guidelines included some sensible PR advice such as "Never lie to the media." Soldiers were told to expect lots of journalists. The goal, said one U.S. Army Public Affairs officer, was to have journalists "embedded" in each military unit. Journalists "are allowed and encouraged to record your activities," said the guidelines. "You should not think of the media as the enemy."In the darkest type -- and underlined, too -- the guidelines warned, "Under no circumstances should you try to take notes, film or equipment from a reporter."Well, so much for the public relations part of Bright Star. The American University student journalists got to experience "the real world," as students call anything outside the groves of academe.In this real world, an armed U.S. MP demanded video and still film from the student journalists at the accident. When students asked to speak with a superior officer, the MP refused their request and again demanded the tape and film. The students felt threatened and surrendered them.Later, some students received calls from Egyptian Security. Someone had learned that other journalism students had film of the accident. The film was not to be shown. With Egyptian Security apparently involved, neither the campus TV channel nor the student newspaper used any pictures of the accident.The campus TV channel did interview Lt. Col. Ron Williams, an Army Public Affairs Officer. He told how the U.S. military helps the media do its job. When students tried to question him about the seized film, he said he was not involved. An Egyptian host cut off further questions.A student editor, invited to Bright Star personally by Williams, could only report in the campus paper that she saw "an accident" on her trip but had no photos "because of security reasons." The frustrated editor added that she did manage to bring back "a nice sun tan." The headline on her campus paper story: "Bright Star Loses Its Sparkle." Journalism students and faculty at The American University know as well as Dorothy did in The Wizard of Oz that they are not living in Kansas, U.S.A.Egypt may have the freest media in the Arab world, but journalists regularly suffer problems with the government. In September, six journalists got jail sentences after a court said they had libeled President Mubarak's sons. In October, the Prosecutor General ordered the media to stop "chasing after crime." He was particularly upset over stories linking two Egyptian film actresses with a prostitution ring. A foreign editor returning from vacation got turned away at the Cairo airport.Still, U.S. professors at The American University talk about the First Amendment. Egyptians may have too many serious social and ethnic problems to enjoy the full joys of a press free from government interference, but there is that bright shining U.S. model.Well, the American University professors may not be emphasizing that for a while. Instead, they may switch to that old lesson all journalists must learn and remember: Authority in any uniform and in any society does not want the public to learn about bad news -- corruption, incompetence, failed programs or even unfortunate accidents. If a government can get away with censorship or threats, it will censor or threaten.If you can't do that, well, there's always the more genteel form, "Managed News." When the glow of the Gulf War victory dimmed, it turned out that Pentagon reports about the expensive electronic equipment were somewhat exaggerated. Some of it just didn't work. Despite official denials that it ever happened, large numbers of Gulf War veterans showed signs of exposure to toxic chemicals. People also began to wonder how the military could film all that wrecked Iraqi equipment but never show any unsightly dead bodies.The Pentagon wants to control and manage the news. It prefers to do it with a Public Affairs Officer. If he's not around, an MP will do.James Scotton, former journalism dean at Marquette University, is on leave from Marquette and is chairman of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at The American University in Cairo, Egypt.


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