The Media & the Military: A Question of Access

Guatemalan troops patrol during an anti-drug sweep in 2008.

by Rick Rockwell

Why does it matter who is considered a journalist?

This author was confronted with that question during a recent seminar session with high-ranking military officers, members of defense ministries, military experts, and diplomats from Latin America.* (For more on that session, please see, “Re-Examining the Media & the Military in Guatemala.”)

During seven years of giving similar sessions on the need for further understanding between the media and the military in regards to free speech, this was one of the most thought-provoking sessions, and one of the groups that had definitely prepared well to engage the topic.

My point during a speech to the group was if they think that embedding journalists with military units, holding highly detailed briefings, and carrying on slick public relations campaigns to support military operations were enough to maintain support in democratic countries, then perhaps they should think again. That’s like fighting the last war. That’s using the tactics of the Iraq War to deal with what is coming next, whatever that might be.

Those strategies for engaging the public and explaining what the military is doing are fine, but they don’t account for a world filled with social media, citizen journalists, and bloggers. The military institutions throughout the hemisphere will need to be even more transparent in the future if they truly want to support democracy. Of course, this message is not well received by institutions that want to make their messages opaque for a variety of reasons, many of them rightly related to force security and the need to mislead their enemies. And when their enemies are usually the various drug cartels of the hemisphere, who can blame them?

The military representatives have all the macho points to demean anyone who dares suggest they change:

  • We put our lives on the line and will gladly die for your rights, even if we disagree with you. What have you journalists done for us?
  • If you question us, aren’t you actually showing disloyalty? Doesn’t that mean that you aren’t supporting the troops in whatever mission they are trying to accomplish? Isn’t this an example of how the media abuse their freedoms and if it gets out of hand can’t that lose a war? Like, for instance, the Vietnam War?
  • Aren’t most journalists out just to get a headline to sell advertising in whatever platform they are pushing? They are in it for the money and sensationalism, not really for any high-minded goal.

Those arguments are good tactics. They fog many of the real issues at hand. Answering those questions is certainly part of any basic negotiation with military institutions, so media representatives often have to slog through those basics. But that means never getting to the higher, more advanced issues, which will deal with the on-going friction between these important institutions in most democracies.

That can be summed up in one word: access.

Yes, embedding journalists with military units was supposed to solve that issue. Some journalists believe there is a sort of Stockholm-syndrome that happens to embedded journalists: they stop being objective and protect the units they are covering. There are examples on both sides of that delicate relationship, from those who abused their privilege and access, to those who did become advocates for the military rather than advocates for the public.

This is the issue that some in the military don’t understand. In a democracy, yes, the military protects the public (and some democracies function without military institutions, as in Panama and Costa Rica) but the media are charged with also protecting the public by asking questions of those in government, those in the military, those in corporate offices, and those in power. The public’s right to know in a democracy is the right to question those who are doing the business of the people in the democracy, because that’s how such a democratic system is supposed to work. If there is no transparency and the ability to question those at the top, then there is no real democracy.

U.S. founding father and former president James Madison says it more eloquently: “A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy or perhaps both.”

This brings us back to access.

How will military institutions in the hemisphere begin to cope with credentials and access for bloggers, citizen journalists, and others who provide journalistic viewpoints but may not be considered traditional journalists? Latin American governments and institutions may have a better track record of this sort of access than their counterparts in the U.S. Although the U.S. military has extended embedded credentials even to journalism students, just try getting access to cover the Pentagon. Or try getting access to a U.S. State Department briefing or to cover Congress, for that matter.

In Latin America, independent journalists who are unattached to large newspapers or radio-TV networks have a track record of not only getting access but also setting the agenda for a national discussion, unlike the media tradition in the U.S. For instance, in Guatemala and Nicaragua, independent journalists have produced what became the most popular television news programs. Imagine if 60 Minutes was produced not by CBS News but by a team of independent producers. That day may yet be coming in the U.S.

But this raises the issue that if military institutions have trouble dealing with journalists who adhere to a code of ethics and are often highly trained (sometimes in journalism schools) what will they do when confronted directly with citizens who may have very different views about what should be reported via social media? How will they deal directly with those who may follow no such codes?

Answering those questions will not be easy. And it is already necessary. The drug cartels have already targeted bloggers and those who use social media as their enemies in Mexico. (For more, please see “Mexico: Journalists & the Drug War.”) They know criminal enterprises work best when the public remains terrorized and in the dark. Almost equally troubling, the Zeta cartel controls a sophisticated radio network for internal communications and intelligence stretching throughout Mexico and into Guatemala. These examples show the cartels have strategies using traditional and newer untraditional media.

Immediately, how will the Mexican military respond to protect citizens who use social media? How will they restore order? Will they allow journalists and independent bloggers alike to embed with them or have access to their campaign against the cartels? And as internet access expands in Central America and other fronts in the Drug War, how will the military institutions in those countries respond? Will military institutions expand their definition of who is considered an independent journalist and allow them access?

These are no longer hypothetical questions. They are questions that must be answered now.

*This post has been altered from its original form because leaders of the seminar program felt posts in this blog may have been too descriptive and included information that could identify participants, even if they were listed anonymously in the original version.  The intent of this short series of stories was never to single out individual participants for their views but rather to make general comments on these themes.

(The photo is from the Guatemalan government and is in the public domain.)

About rickrockwell2011

Rick Rockwell is the Director of the School of Communication’s International Media program at American University. Rockwell is an award-winning journalist and author. His book, Media Power in Central America, won an award from the American Library Association. Please see the additional links for a full profile.
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5 Responses to The Media & the Military: A Question of Access

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