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Tuesday, 16 October, 2001, 16:18 GMT 17:18 UK
War View: 'If our national survival is at stake, censor us'
Author and journalist Phillip Knightley, who wrote the classic book about war reporting, The First Casualty, examines the pressures on journalists covering the war on terror.

At the height of the World War II there was a meeting of censors in Washington to decide what the United States Government should tell its people about the progress of the struggle against Japan.

One censor summed up the general feeling: "I'd tell them nothing until the war's over and then I'd tell them who won."

Of course, that did not happen and wiser counsel prevailed. But ever since there comes a time - as it has now in Britain - when the government wishes it could follow that anonymous American censor's advice.

I'd tell them nothing until the war's over and then I'd tell them who won

American censor
World War II
This is difficult to do in a democracy like Britain with its powerful press and even more difficult to do in the United States where freedom of expression is written into the Constitution.

But that does not stop our leaders from trying to get the media "on side", as it is now over the war in Afghanistan.


If appeals to patriotism, the national interest, security, and the need to support "our boys" do not work, then our leaders can always try intimidation and accuse the media of favouring the enemy, endangering the safety of our leaders, stabbing the troops in the back, falling for propaganda and sabotaging the whole war effort.

We have nearly reached that stage now.

The British and American governments want the media in both countries to agree not to re-broadcast messages from Osama Bin Laden or the Taleban.

Both accusations are ludicrous

They argue that the messages are provocative propaganda which may encourage Muslim youths in Britain to volunteer for service with the Taleban and may contain a hidden code ordering further attacks on the West.

Both accusations are ludicrous.

Of course, responsible broadcasters need to warn viewers that any reports originating from the enemy side need to be treated with caution and scepticism.

But if this is a battle of ideas, then it is up to us to come up with convincing counter ones, not simply try to silence the other side.

Hidden messages?

Hidden messages? The text of anything Bin Laden says is posted on the internet with hours so persuading broadcasters not to rebroadcast his videos would achieve nothing.

Actually Bin Laden's communications system is known.

His followers use e-mail with a buy-across-the-counter encryption package that they change frequently.

In an age of high technology surveillance, stone age communication is impenetrable

Or pay-as-you-go mobiles that they use for one conversation and then throw away.

Within Afghanistan, his messages are often carried by bicycle or on foot. In an age of high technology surveillance, stone age communication is impenetrable.

We have to look for other reasons for the government's stance.

The main reason is, of course, that it is worried that giving publicity to what he has to say might undermine support for the war against him.


The problem is that the Alliance put together by the United States and Britain was always going to be shaky.

The spectacle of two of the world's most powerful industrial nations bombing a Third World, agricultural one in the midst of a famine, was never going to be an edifying one.

Its success depended on convincing everyone, especially the Muslim world, that the strikes were aimed at the guilty men and those harbouring them and not at the suffering Afghans.

If the government believes this is a war of national survival, it should impose censorship

So what really worries the government is that the next video from Afghanistan will show the mangled bodies of Afghan women and children killed in raids by the Western Alliance.

This is why it is trying to intimidate the media into agreeing on a blanket ban on anything coming from Osama Bin Laden.

This is a dangerous step for freedom of expression.

In a war of national survival, like World War II, the media is expected to be on side.

If the government believes that is the case now, then it should impose censorship.

Otherwise it should keep quiet.

This is one of a series of differing opinions on the War on Terror which we shall be publishing in the coming days. You can send your view about this or other articles by using the form below.

Your comments:

I much appreciate this opinion. If you allow US and UK to argue on national security to censor the freedom of expression, what will you say tomorrows when our dictators will do so with the same arguments? Don't allow Ben Laden to help you in break what is essential to "the civilisation".
Zéphyrin Tshibambe, D.R. CONGO

I agree with your views about freedom of expression. Let the truth be told. Do not give to the people only the western or the eastern version of the truth. Let the world know about the short comings on both sides.
Safarali Senego, India

The author of this has presented some valid points and opinions, however by referring to censorship of pre-recorded tapes of Osama Bin Laden as ludicrous is extremely short-sighted and ultimately irresponsible. There have been many instances in which coded messages have been passed in this manner (ie: American hostages blinking the morse code).
C.Meyer, US

Osama Bin Laden has carefully prepared video tape releases to use as propaganda. By showing these tapes and his comments and those of his acolytes the Western media are clearly acting as mindless pawns in his campaign. Exactly what "public service" does this provide? By all means attempt to tell the TRUTH of what is happening, but just because the media might believe that the US is telling lies does not give them carte blanche to counter this by publishing an equal number of lies from the other side - just don't publish either!
Phil H, UK

The call by Washington and London to Western media institutions to censor Bin Laden video reports is an implicit admission of losing the propaganda war with the Taleban. President Bush needed brains not bullets in his fight against the terrorists. There is no way America can win in Afghanistan with bombs, well-tuned propaganda is the only way out.
Tom p Gorgla, Liberia

I believe the media circus is enjoying every minute of these 'Unhappy Days'. Whatever the media says regarding the terrible situation, the terrorist threats, the suffering etc. it is all 'Blah-blah-blah'.
Mal Walker, Australia

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