Communications in a Time of Conflict

In a time of war, whether declared or not, how much access do you, as a citizen, have to critical information? After the recent debacle in the Central African Republic there was an outcry from the general public that they should have had greater access to sensitive information relating to the SANDF operations in the CAR. But where is the line. How much information can you share with the general public to keep them happy while still ensuring the safety of the troops on the ground?

This is a question that has been asked many times but at the beginning of the twentieth century it wasn’t too much of a focus, but as technology advances so does our thirst for knowledge.

During the First World War (1914-1918) media reported on the conflict from a distance, the news was days late and very biased based on who was sending the news. The conflict in Vietnam (1965-1973) was the first time that the media was on ‘the front line’ with the troops and were sending ‘live’ images back to the United States as and when it happened. Although this was a dramatic shift in how the media conducted themselves during a conflict it ultimately turned the tide on the war with regards to public sentiment. Instead of the usual propaganda filled rhetoric the public saw countless images of body bags being loaded onto helicopters.  It was images such as these that helped push the public against the war in Vietnam.

Since the Vietnam conflict governments have tried to censor the media’s actions under the banner of national security. But where do you draw the line? As a democratic country you, as a citizen, have the right to access information, information that you deem critical. But with the rapidly advancing technology the so called ‘enemy’ of your armed forces could be picking up the same information that you are demanding.

Communications during a time of conflict can be very tricky. When is it in the public interest and when isn’t it and who makes that decision? Broad access to information has the potential to change the way governments negotiate (in the case of WikiLeaks) and the way that armed forces conduct battles.

It is in my opinion that access to information needs to happen before a conflict arises. The public has a right to know why their sons and daughters are being sent to countries such as the CAR but once on the ground the information needs to be carefully managed for the sole purpose of protecting the lives on the ground.

Part of belonging to a democratic society is the ability to ask questions and be openly critical of our government’s choices but this right should not come at the expense of our soldier’s lives. The critical part is for governments to be clear on the reasons for silence. The reasons for conflict should, and can be, clearly communicated to the public, but let’s leave the battle strategies to the experts.

Written by Caryl Kolk