Egyptian fighter aircrafts involved in operation Sinai 2018 – courtesy of Military spokesperson official Facebook page – February 9, 2018
CAIRO – 13 February 2018: Military communication with the national and international public is vital during any combat operation inside or outside any country. However, it remains critical to understand how the reported news will be used and how to protect the involved military forces' privacy and security.
Countries adopt different policies and regulations to manage and organize the flow of information on its military operations, as well as the level of access provided to the press in covering any ongoing combats. Some countries guarantee - by constitution - the freedom and full access of press to report on any actions by the government or the military, others restrict information on ongoing operations and some allow certain media agencies to access military locations for logistical and safety considerations.
It is a fact that the relationship between press and military is always controversial in any area around the world. Journalists demand full and unrestricted access to all military locations, operations, plans even during the combat – but the situation on the ground does not always go their way and such access becomes rare.
According to a paper prepared by the Defense Information School in Maryland to discuss Media Coverage of Military Operations in the U.S., “the media may see limited access simply because the command is trying to be respectful of their service member’s privacy and ensure that open dialogue in command and staff meetings is not restrained by having members of the media present.”
Development of press access to military operations:
A solid example of the development of policies regulating the press access to military operations is the U.S. It was not until 1984, after the U.S. invasion of Grenada in 1983, when the U.S. made recommendations to provide access to military operations for news organizations. However, the recommendations made it clear that “military security would remain the paramount consideration in guidelines for news coverage”. It was stated that there might be instances when the press would be barred from covering a military operation, such as the attempt in April 1980 to rescue the Americans hostages in Iran.
But policies around the world change to respond to developments on the ground. Following the Desert Storm (17 January 1991 – 28 February 1991), the news media representatives expressed dissatisfaction with their treatment by the U.S. military. As a result, in 1992 a committee representing the major news media and the U.S. government agreed on some press rules to ensure independent reporting for all wars and military operations. These rules also allowed the government to accredit independent journalists who must observe "a clear set of military security guidelines that protect U.S. forces and their operations. One principle remained un agreed upon which was about military reviewing the news material when operational security is a consideration.
On the public level, Americans supported the military's control of the press during the Gulf War. According to a public-opinion poll that run after the Gulf War, 68 percent of those surveyed believed military control of the news was about right, 17 percent wanted more control, and only 13 percent wanted less control.
In 2009 the news media were allowed to photograph the flag-draped coffins of American military forces killed during wars if their families agree. This decision cancels a ban on such photographs adopted in 1991 under former U.S. president George Bush to protect the privacy and dignity of families of the dead. Journalists considered this ban as a way to mask the truth about the cost of war in Iraq and Afghanistan and therefore they welcomed the ban left.
Strategies to ensure press access to military operations against terrorism are still in process:
The war on terrorism by the Egyptian military in the Sinai peninsula, a war that Egypt is fighting on behalf of the world according to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, is a unique and sensitive war. The army is fighting against militants who would never consider the safety or security of civilians in the fighting areas. They even would consider using civilians as shields to protect themselves and to limit the army’s strikes – as the army would never risk the lives of Egyptians who are caught in the middle of this combat. Therefore, including media personnel, other than the military co-responders who are specifically trained to be part of such operations and who obtained a written permission from the army general command to regulate their presence, would jeopardize the security and safety of the troops and the journalists themselves.
Also, considering the rapid developments in communications, control is necessary as current communication means allow direct broadcast from the battlefield which can allow the enemy to see reports that can unintentionally compromise the military forces security.
In accordance with the needs and security considerations on the ground, the military in Egypt adopts a “media pool” policy where a group of agencies and journalists, not limited to Egyptian media agencies serve as the source of information to their news organizations and other non-pool reporters. This approach is an international approach that follows a number of rules including; applying a military security review on all media pool members and that the military has the right to review all dispatches and could delete or change any military sensitive information.
Egypt is keen to inform the public of the progress made on fighting terrorist groups as it contributes to enhancing the popular confidence in the army and also increases the sense of security among the Egyptian people. Therefore, the army public affairs officer, army spokesperson and the State Information Service (SIS) regularly update the public with information on the ongoing combat using clips and statements that sometimes also counteract rumors. Moreover, the Egyptian army utilizes radio, television and social media to broadcast information on the ongoing combat.
The case is not limited to Egypt, a similar recent scenario was adopted during the Operation Iraqi Freedom, when media pools embedded with the combating forces of the U.S. army to cover the progress during the operation. Members of the media pool were screened and accredited according to specific criteria set by the U.S. command in charge of that area of operation in Iraq.
All states involved in combating terrorism around the world are still in the process of developing strategies on various levels to contend with terrorism. The discussed strategies include media and press censorship or access to areas of operations; what information about terrorists and combat strategies should or should not be released to the press? It is a very important yet complicated process to reach the balance between what people should know about their governments’ actions and what can be shared during combat or wartime.