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The war in Afghanistan was a major event in Canada’s history. The conflict has significantly impacted government policy and, in particular, the communication practices of the Canadian military. Since the early 20th century, modern militaries have largely sought to control the flow of information from the battlefield to ensure informational superiority and public support. Media relations planning is part of a framework in which information management is a crucial part of warfare.
Integrating journalists: a new experience
At the beginning of the first deployment to Kandahar during Operation Apollo in 2002, a few Canadian journalists covered special operations against Osama bin Laden’s fighters in the Afghan mountains. Public affairs planning was still minimal, and relations between the officers in charge and the media were generally cold. During this period, the death of four Canadian soldiers as a result of friendly fire from an American aircraft attracted the most media attention. From that point on, Canadian media began to send more correspondents to the region. Thus, the first contact between the military and the media was an informal one with impromptu rules for casual visitors.
With the redeployment of troops to Kabul in 2003 at the beginning of Operation Athena, the Canadian military set up its first media integration program in September 2003. A first group of eight journalists was welcomed at Camp Julien. Following the successful experience of embedding (a journalist integrated into a military unit or headquarters) by the U.S. Army in Iraq in 2003, the Department of National Defence’s directorate general of public affairs issued a directive to embed journalists in the field with Canadian soldiers.
This directive, the first experiment in embedding with formal media accreditation, was the formalization of public policy through operational communications planning. During this period, relations between the military and the media were generally cordial, despite some irritations on both sides, notably when coverage of certain multinational operations was not allowed.
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The Canadian government’s decision to participate in a combat mission in 2006 provided an opportunity to strengthen the communications policy and revive the media integration program. Some commanders still had reservations about the media presence, but Canadian Expeditionary Force Command (CEFCOM) moved forward with a new public affairs directive and committed resources to the field accordingly. We then saw the institutional and operational consolidation of the integrated media program with new guidelines and ground rules.
For the Canadian media, the redeployment of Canadian troops to Kandahar in southern Afghanistan, the sanctuary of the Taliban, was of great interest. They covered the major offensive against the Taliban in the Panjwai region during Operation Medusa in large numbers and were mostly well-received. The collaboration between journalists and public affairs officers during Operation Medusa was generally considered a success.
In general, the Canadian integration program was seen as very accessible and flexible in its operation. Among other things, journalists appreciated the fact that they were not forced to cover only the military aspect and that they could leave the military base and return afterward, which the Americans did not allow their embedded correspondents to do.
The dangers of war journalism
In August 2007, an incident involving a crew from Radio-Canada on Ghundy Ghar Hill caused a crisis in the integration program. An armoured vehicle was blown up by an improvised explosive device. Two Canadian soldiers and an Afghan interpreter were killed. A Radio-Canada cameraman was seriously injured and his right leg had to be amputated.
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This incident created a big commotion in Kandahar. Only one French-language network had been invited, and the English-language media denounced what they called favouritism. After the incident, embedded journalists violated protocol that requires waiting until next of kin have been notified before contacting them. The public affairs department experienced its most difficult period of internal management and media relations at this time. For newsrooms, this incident was the first serious reminder of the need to consider the risks of war journalism.
From the year 2007 until the end of the combat mission in 2011, several challenges put sand in the gears of the relationship between the military and the media. The onset of Taliban guerrilla warfare posed an enormous challenge to NATO forces and resulted in a significant increase in the number of Canadian soldiers injured and killed. The IED war had an impact on journalists’ sorties, with increased danger on IED-infested roads and in an environment where the military could not provide safer transportation. Many journalists were shocked by the mine explosions. Michelle Lang of the Calgary Herald, however, was the only journalist killed during the entire war in Afghanistan.
The media pool
This unhealthy environment coincided with the creation of a media pool by the four major Canadian television networks (CBC, Radio-Canada, CTV and Global). The decision of their bosses was mainly motivated by the desire to minimize the costs of coverage in a conflict that was beginning to drag on. This decision to reduce media coverage also reflected a certain media fatigue with a feeling of repetitiveness of war news.
The Canadian military, which had previously enjoyed sustained media coverage and generally good visibility at home, was naturally concerned about the decline in coverage and attempted to increase its journalistic presence by offering media and opinion leaders military transport to Afghanistan.
Throughout the conflict, the Canadian military waged an information war, with commanders and other military and civilian officials as the primary relays, supported by the public affairs department. Embedded journalists provided extensive coverage of shuras, meetings between military officials and local leaders whose support NATO was trying to enlist in its counterinsurgency war against the Taliban.
The media referred to a “war of hearts and minds,” where the Canadian military sought to showcase its achievements (roads, schools, dams, etc.). This was the case in the famous “model village” of Deh-E-Bah, where journalists were invited to extol the virtues of the “oil stain” strategy in the Dand district. While the Harper government’s public relations campaign to promote development and reconstruction projects has had some positive effects, mainstream media interest generally focused on military operations and security issues.
A communication war
Public affairs officers and commanders have been highly critical of a phenomenon called “death watch,” in reference to journalists who refused offers to go out and report on the ground for fear they would be unavailable to cover the death of a soldier, and the ensuing ceremony. The phenomenon was observed as early as 2006 with the increase in the number of deaths of soldiers. The arrival of the pool accentuated the problem, with only one television crew for the four networks. For the media, the death of a soldier is a powerful symbol of national sacrifice, and covering the farewell ceremony has become a television ritual. Journalists in the print media who do not necessarily need images were less involved in this phenomenon.
The war in Afghanistan has been a war of communication. Communicating war means implementing public policy supported by practices that aim to generate and channel discourses and representations to targeted audiences. The mobilization of public affairs resources and the implementation of the integrated media program have been elements of a larger governmental informational apparatus designed to make military operations and government action visible, while trying as much as possible to render invisible anything that might generate negative publicity.
This article, translated from French, is a condensed version of a book titled Communiquer la « mission ». L’armée canadienne et les médias intégrés en Afghanistan, published in 2022 by the Presses de l’Université du Québec and available for free.