ICYMI: Information is a weapon, says the Department of Defence

One of the first casualties of increasingly dictatorial governments is plain, honest language. Everything becomes wrapped in euphemism. Illegal bombing campaigns become non-combat operations. Rights-violating laws become safety-enhancement measures. Shooting wars become kinetic operations. Recessions become merely technical and are better left unmentioned.

So it’s refreshing, in some senses, that Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. John Vance eschewed euphemism in describing his plans for his department’s plans vis-a-vis public information – he intends to “weaponize” it.

That’s about the only encouraging aspect of this story, which David Pugliese at the Ottawa Citizen broke last week and which didn’t get nearly as much attention as it deserved.

Some key quotes:

There will be more strategic leaks by the Canadian Forces/DND to journalists who are deemed “friendly” to the military. Such leaks will consist mainly of “good news” stories or positive initiatives and the journalists will be required to heavily promote those.

Equally important, is the flip-side of this “weaponization” strategy. That is the targeting of journalists who are writing or broadcasting the stories that the CF/DND don’t want out in the public domain.

Journalists seen as “trouble-makers” are those producing stories about failed equipment purchases or uncovering details about severely injured soldiers not being treated properly or individuals being sexually harassed, etc., public affairs officers tell Defence Watch.  In other words, reporters who are producing what the CF/DND views as negative or embarrassing news stories.

The “weaponization” aspect will come into play with phone calls to media bosses, letters to the editor, etc. – anything to undercut the credibility of such journalists in the eyes of readers and their employers, NDHQ public affairs sources say. Other tactics aimed at these journalists could also be developed.

In other words: journalists who do their jobs by uncovering newsworthy information and sharing it with the public will be treated as pesky “trouble-makers” by the Department of National Defence, which will do anything in their power to “undercut their credibility” in the eyes of the public. 

This speaks volumes.

First of all, it says that rather than, say, provide adequate care to injured soldiers or address the pervasive culture of sexual harassment and assault within the military, DND would rather cover up any and all scandals and demonize any reporter who dares to ask uncomfortable questions, all the while providing a grossly distorted rosy view of life in the Canadian Forces to sycophantic suck-up “reporters” who are happy to act as unofficial stenographers for the military.

Second, the open-ended nature of the discrediting of “trouble-making” journalists is kinda frightening. To what lengths, exactly, is DND willing to go?

Pugliese provides us with one recent example that may well prove to be a template:

Defence Watch readers might recall that it was revealed in 2013 that Canadian Forces military police launched an investigation regarding CTV journalist Bob Fife.

Fife’s “crime” was that he had dug up embarrassing information about [former Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Walter] Natynczyk who in 2011 spent more than $1-million using government aircraft to jet to hockey games and to a Caribbean vacation spot.

Nothing ever came of the probe by the Canadian Forces National Investigation Service. But critics saw the move as an intimidation tactic by the NIS against a journalist who was clearly not playing military cheerleader.

Can we expect more of this sort of thing going forward?

How about behind-the-scenes chicanery? Would the military be willing to dig up dirt on “pesky” journalists and use it to extort them into dropping sensitive stories? How about threats? You could make the case that DND tried to intimidate Fife into self-censoring his coverage of the military; to what lengths are they willing to take that tactic?

Obviously there’s no direct evidence that the military is planning to do such things, but the terminology they’ve selected for this program naturally leads to speculation. You don’t just throw around words like weaponize.

Unless, of course, you do. Gen. Vance spoke with Pugliese after his article was released, and said that he doesn’t plan any offensive operations against the media, although “It’s no surprise to me that there are those who would see weaponization as an aggressive, attack mode.”

Uh-huh. Ya think?

The DND saying they want to aggressively sell their version of events while making it a career-threatening move for journalists to report uncomfortable truths is something that should be worrying to everybody. The demonization of journalism is a major threat to all of our freedoms.

The fact that writing a story critical of the military could leave you facing editorial intimidation, smear campaigns, police investigation and even possible charges is enough to give any journalist pause, and this climate of journalistic repression could mean that vitally important stories of military misdeeds will never see the light of day.

Under Stephen Harper, the federal government has already become extremely stingy with the press, reluctant to hand out even the most basic of publicly available information. The belligerent pursuit of any investigative journalist with the temerity to question the official version of events would escalate this conflict drastically, and leave us all worse off.

To quote Mohamed Fahmy, the Canadian journalist recently released from over a year in Egyptian prisons for his coverage of their military regime, ”Media is really our last line of defence…The ‘war on terror’ across the world has now partially become a war on journalism.”

 

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