World Press Freedom Day: And how about (Western) Military Censorship?

(This post is in English, for reasons which will be obvious below.)

Today is World Press Freedom Day. And today I learned, coincidentally, from a Dutch colleague: Dutch journalists, when reporting from their military’s overseas missions, have to submit their stories before publication – to a military censor.

Hey, come on. Military Censor. The Dutch. Of all people.

But indeed, this seems true. And everybody I talked to about this today was puzzled.

So, I’m trying to find out, in the spirit of World Press Freedom Day: Where else do our Western democracies censor reporting from the battlefield? From wars which are not wars but, usually, peace missions under an United Nations umbrella?

(Well, I know, the UN does it the other extreme – even banning encrypted radio traffic in the field when it’s a Blue Helmet mission. But that’s not the question here.)

I’d like to have an overview how our – i.e. in the West, in NATO and EU – armed forces implement the idea of press freedom. Maybe that’s naive. But before we discuss what should be (or not), we should have an idea what is…

So, everybody’s contributions to this are welcome, especially from outside Germany (and that’s why this post is in English).

Let me make the start – of course, with GERMANY:

Germany’s constitution, the Grundgesetz, states in its Article 5: There shall be no censorship.  So, there is no legal reason for a journalist reporting from the Bundeswehr’s overseas missions (of course, Afghanistan comes to mind first) for the armed forces to demand submission of stories before publication.

(As always, common sense applies – a reporter who might be endangering the troops by reporting full names of military personnel, flaws in the design of armour or accuracy – or lack thereof – of recce equipment or weapons systems or similar things might find himself de facto banned from further field reporting. And I would consider this rightly so, although it might be difficult to prove.)

But common sense aside – what’s the regulation on this in other European countries, the U.S., Australia, to name a few?


Über wiegold

Thomas Wiegold
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6 Antworten zu World Press Freedom Day: And how about (Western) Military Censorship?

  1. Hans de Vreij schreibt:

    The Dutch constitution also bans censorship (printed media since 1848; audiovisual media included in 1983).
    In 2006, the Dutch armed forces for the first time in recent history allowed reporters to go ‚embedded‘ with troops on mission in a war zone (Afghanistan). In return for this opportunity, reporters have to take notice of a document in which they are requested not to publish information that could endanger Dutch or allied forces.
    In addition, reporters are asked to submit their articles to be filed from the field to a Public Affairs Officer (PAO), who screens the articles for any information that might compromise Operational Security (OPSEC).
    In practice, the limitations boil down to what you call ‚common sense‘. I have been working as an embedded reporter in Afghanistan four times so far, and never had anything removed. However, I have heard of some rare cases in which a Public Affairs Officer asked a colleague to change the ‚colour‘ of a given report. That would indeed boil down to censorship, but these colleagues have as far as I know refused to comply with the request – without consequences for their ‚embed‘.

    By the way, ‚preventive censorship‘ is also applied by NATO under operational circumstances.

    The United States forces in Afghanistan do not apply preventive censorship. Instead, any reporter going ‚embedded‘ has to sign a list (see below) of the kind of information that is not allowed to be published. If a reporter fails to comply, the ‚embed‘ is immediately ended.

    Personally, I prefer the detailed US list to the somewhat vague description used by the Dutch – especially for colleagues who have no military knowledge whatsoever and might, in their innocence, compromise security. Spelling out the details would certainly be helpful for them.

    Hans de Vreij
    Security and defence specialist
    Radio Netherlands Worldwide


    Regional Command East Media Ground Rules

    I, __________________________ of _____________________ understand that I am bound to the
    (print first, middle initial, last name) (media organization/affiliation)
    following RC-East Media Ground Rules and any violation of these rules will result in the immediate termination of coverage/access to RC-East units/installations and confiscation of my RC-East Media Badge.

    (Please initial) ____________.

    RC-East Media Ground Rules:

    1. Media on Bagram Air Field will not take photographs, video or conduct interviews unless escorted by Public Affairs personnel.
    2. All interviews will be on the record.
    3. During interviews, no questions will be asked about the politics of the military. (e.g. Iraq war, equipment, readiness, funding, etc.)
    4. When embedded with a unit, media must remain with that unit at all times.
    5. Media will not carry or possess personal weapons, knives, firearms or alcohol.
    6. The media is responsible for loading and carrying its own equipment at all times.
    7. Under no circumstances will media take photographs or video of detainees or persons in custody (to include recognizable face, nametag or other identifying feature), detainee or custody facilities or operations in Afghanistan. No interviews with detainees or persons in custody will be granted.
    8. Media will not photograph Special Operations Forces or their equipment. Only photos of personnel in U.S. uniforms will be allowed.
    9. The following categories of information are not releasable since their publication or broadcast jeopardize operations and endanger lives:
    a. Specific numerical information on troop strength, equipment or critical supplies (e.g. artillery, tanks, landing craft, radars, trucks, water, etc.) for U.S. or coalition units.
    b. Names of military installations or specific geographic locations of military units in the CENTCOM area of responsibility, unless released by the Department of Defense.
    c. Information regarding future operations, current operations or strikes including postponed or cancelled operations.
    d. Information regarding security precautions or force protection measures at military installations or encampments, to include video or still footage. RC-East PAO may allow photography/video on a case-by-case basis if footage is reviewed prior to release.
    e. Photography that shows level of security at military installations or encampments, especially aerial and satellite photography which reveals the name or specific location of military units or installations.
    f. Information on intelligence collection activities/operations compromising tactics, techniques and procedures to include targets, methods, analyses and/or results.
    g. Information and images of special operations units, U.S. or coalition, unless otherwise directed by the RC-East public affairs or granted prior approval by Combined Joint Special Operation Task Force (CJSOTF).
    h. Rules of engagement details.
    i. During an operation, specific information on friendly forces, troop movements, tactical deployments, and dispositions that would jeopardize operational security or lives. Information on ongoing engagements will not be released unless authorized for release by the on-scene commander.
    j. Information on effectiveness of enemy electronic warfare.
    k. Any additional guidelines the RC-East PAO determines necessary to protect tactical security.
    l. Photos of local nationals employed by the coalition may not be published without written consent of the individual photographed or the Commander of the unit the individual is supporting.
    10. Media will not be prohibited from covering casualties provided the following conditions are adhered to:
    a. Names, video, identifiable written/oral descriptions or identifiable photographs of wounded service members will not be released without the service member’s prior written consent. If the service member later becomes a KIA, Rule 9(b) applies.
    b. DOD will release names of KIAs. In respect for family members, names or images clearly identifying individuals “killed in action” will not be released prior to notification of next of kin and in accordance with current legislation. Names of KIAs may be released after the DOD announcement has been made – journalists may check the Web site for those announcements.
    11. If media decides to terminate coverage and/or embed opportunity before planned, they must coordinate with appropriate authority (unit commander, unit public affairs representative, PAO…) to properly end embed experience and make arrangements to exit the area of operation.
    12. As embedded media you will be treated with respect and dignity while with Coalition Forces, the same is expected in return. Failure to do so can and will result in an immediate termination of your embed. If you feel the same courtesies are not being offered to you, it is imperative that the problem or issue is raised through that unit’s Chain-of-Command. If an honest attempt to resolve the problem has failed, please inform the Media Operations NCOIC or the Media Operations Director of all facts surrounding the issue.

    Signature: _____________________________________ Date: ____________ Witness initials ______
    (MOC Personnel)


  2. wiegold schreibt:

    Hans, thanks a lot.

    I have to admit that the part reporters are asked to submit their articles to be filed from the field to a Public Affairs Officer (PAO), who screens the articles for any information that might compromise Operational Security (OPSEC) is irritating. That’s a fine line indeed – and depends very much on the experience of the PAO and his knowledge how the media work…

  3. Gruendlich schreibt:

    I don’t know if this helps you, but if I remember correctly American blogger / retired SOF soldier Michael Yon had his embed with the British Army canceled because of his reporting/blogging. I can’t give you any more details because I don’t follow his blog, but of course you can check up on that yourself.

  4. wiegold schreibt:


    Bei Michael Yon lag das alles bisschen anders, wie man hier nachlesen kann:

  5. wiegold schreibt:

    oops, this post is in English…

    repeating in different language:
    The Michael Yon case seems to be a bit different, as you might see here:

  6. Hans de Vreij schreibt:

    The sentence is mine, sorry for the irritation ;-). In practice, it works fine. The difference between PAO’s is not in the screening (or interpretation) of OPSEC-related information, but the extent to which an individual PAO is thinking pro-actively on how to get the most out of an embedded visit. These have a standard duration: two weeks (and that includes the flights to and from Uruzgan province).

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