Dr. Prem Singh Basnyat

Armed forces of many democratic nations have recognised the power of the media to influence and even determine popular support as well as government policies. During World War II the Allied as well as Axis Powers made good use of media for propaganda and psychological warfare. A major reason for the defeat of United States of America in Vietnam was the loss of popular support at home. During the recent Gulf War armed forces of the same nation turned the corner and made the very best use of media as a weapon of war. Also the war Afghanistan, the media used as a weapon.

Wars of the 21st century are being referred to as information wars. The recent Gulf war, which the whole world followed on their television screens, was a good pointer of things to come. According to Gen. Glenn Otis, "Many lessons have been and will be derived from 'Desert Storm'. Some are not new, others are. One, however, is fundamental: the nature of warfare has changed dramatically. The combatant who wins the information campaign prevails. Information is the key to modern warfare - strategically, operationally, tactically and technically."

That the management of media by the Army today is sub-optimal cannot be denied. This is obvious by the indifferent coverage of news and features about the Army by the media, lack of understanding of the Army by the common man and unnecessary one-sided publicity attracted by a few sudden changes in Army's otherwise fine actions, especially while fighting low intensity conflicts. Current military-media relationships are characterised by mutual distrust, lack of empathy and antagonism.

It is the prime business of armed forces to win wars. Therefore without public support wars fail. Public support is required to field strong forces, to keep up moral of troops and most important of all to convert combat success into political victory. While combat success wins battles it is the political impact of combat that wins wars and political impact of combat depends on how well it is communicated to the people by the media.

The foregoing, which is even more true in the case of democracies, goes to prove that today media is an effective weapon of war that is available to both the adversaries. Commanders must appreciate the impact that media can make on military operations and factor it into their strategic plans and goals.

Thus it is seen that while both the military and the media need each other to perform their respective roles effectively, there is a serious problem in their mutual relationship. The issue is contentious and demands comprehensive study and urgent remedial action to improve matters.

The impact of media, especially visual media on military operations is becoming increasingly more important. The higher the arrangement of command, are more likely and more effective is the impact of media coverage. Dramatic visual presentation can rapidly influence public and therefore political opinion so that political assumptions of war and low intensity conflicts may suddenly change with no prior indication to the commander in the field. Therefore, strategic, operational and even tactical commanders need to be aware of the potential of media so that they can better anticipate adjustments to their operations and plans. Even within the command an effective internal information programme enhances morale, reinforces training and safety messages and corroborates foreign media reports for both troops and their families.

The military wants the media to sustain and improve public support for war / low intensity conflict, maintain high state of public morale, maintain troop morale including families of soldiers, inform the citizens of the activities of their military, deceive the enemy of own intentions, capabilities, plans and losses, act as a weapon of psychological warfare and prevent the enemy getting the benefit of the media by failure. The media also has a duty to perform and wants the military to fulfil its role in the following respects:-

  1. It has a duty to inform the public of all activities of their elected government, of which the military is an important component.
  2. To fulfil its role of being an independent recorder of history.
  3. To gain access to the scene of military operations.
  4. To file its stories from remote scenes of military action such as battlefronts, ships and air crafts.
  5. Military stories are big news and sell well.
  6. To steal a march over its rivals by getting 'scoops' and 'exclusives'.

That the military - media relationship is not a happy one is a known fact. It is mainly characterised by mutual in the sense that both need each other to perform their respective roles. In a democracy it is complementary in the sense that both have the common aim of upholding the constitution - the military protects the sovereignty by winning wars and the media protects the citizens rights by keeping them informed. It is collaborative in the sense that there are many specific aspects in which they can cooperate and collaborate for the mutual good of both. It is adversarial in the sense that while the military attempts to support its operations by restricting and modifying the flow of information, the media willing by bears no constraints in its working. There is a general lack of understanding and empathy for each other's roles, motivations, strengths and weaknesses and mutual distrust of each other's intentions and capabilities.

Differing Positions

On account of their conflicting philosophies as well as different outlooks and experiences both the institutions have come to hold differing positions on some basic issues. Some of the important issues are:-

  1. Operational Security and Troop Safety: Both agree that media must cover war and low intensity conflicts while ensuring that media reports do not spoil operational security and troop safety. However, the media feels that since it is responsible for informing the public and has the requisite expertise; it must be trusted not to impair these key issues. But the military feels that it is up to the operational commander to decide which piece of information impairs operational security and troop safety.
  2. Access to Battlefield: By virtue of its 'watch dog' and 'recorder of history' roles, the media considers that it has a right to be at the site of conflict and report independently. While accepting the inevitable media presence in the battlefield the military feels that the presence of a large number of independently moving reporters on the battlefield is not only a drain on military resources and time but also inadmissible in certain military situations.
  3. Military Image: While the military considers that the media must assist in projecting a good image, as it is necessary for winning wars, the media feels that it must report both good and bad news, irrespective of the results.

Justification for Media Access

Why the military needs the media has already been explained earlier. In addition to those essentially military reasons there are some more basic reasons as to why the media needs to be given access to the battlefield in a democracy. These are freedom of speech and expression is guaranteed by the constitution, citizens' 'right to know' is now accepted in all democracies, it must be assisted in performing its crucial role if democracy is to thrive and soldiers who die in war represent the values of their societies and in democracies these include the values mentioned above.

Having said so much for a free media on the battlefield it remains to be said that every freedom has certain limits. The main reasons for imposing certain controls over the media on the battlefield are to ensure that operational security and troop safety are not weakened, ensure that conduct of operations is not impeded needlessly by the presence of a large number of journalists moving about on their own, ensure that proper perspective is maintained while miseries of war are being reported, especially in the visual media and sustain the national determination to win.


Although the American Civil War had resulted in a debate over publication of news, which endangers the success of military operations , it can be said that the modern history of media in battlefield commenced with the Crimean war. Sir William Howard Russel covered it for 'The Times' of London in 1854. It resulted in the fall of the British government, reform of British Medical Services, Florence Nightingale's entry into the war and the foundation of the 'Red Cross'. During the Spanish War in 1898, media was accused of stirring up a war fever.

The use of media as an additional weapon of war assumed significance during the First World War and it reached a level of higher sophistication in the Second World War. Use of media, particularly radio and news agencies, for dissemination of information and disinformation by the Allies as well as Axis powers became very significant in the latter. During the two World Wars the war correspondent regarded himself as a loyal auxiliary to his nation's armed forces and even wore uniforms, although he was a non-combatant. Hence media - military relationship was full of cheerfulness.

The use of media for propaganda by Hitler's infamous minister Goebbels is well known. However, the Allies in the two wars have written not much about similar manipulation though it was no less. At the end of the First World War, C P Snow, editor of the 'Guardian' said, "If people knew the truth the war would be stopped tomorrow. But of course they don't know, and they can't know". During the same war the Chief of British Military Intelligence described the ideal war correspondent as, "He is a man who writes what he is told to be true, or even what he thinks to be true but never what he knows to be true." The Americans were equally adept at using media for propaganda. Kent Cooper writes in his autobiography, "I never thought that American Government would ever secretly scheme to plant propaganda for war in the news at home. I was wrong. In 1912, our own Government followed the German lead and became the second in the history to successfully use news to incite the people to demand war.

The era of partiality to the home team ended during the Vietnam War , which was also the 'TV's first war'. It was characterised by relatively free access to the media and limited restrictions on it, though Americans made much use of media for propaganda. The most glaring success of American news management was the suppression of the truth about the massacres during 'Operation Speedy Express' in 1971. US Ninth Division killed 11,000 people in a so called 'pacification campaign' in this operation in Vietnam. Though two diligent reporters of the 'Newsweek' discovered that this was a mass slaughter in which almost half of these were civilians, only a weak version of the story was allowed to appear six months later. The persistent US propaganda that 'the Vietnam war was a conflict of Vietnamese against Vietnamese into which the Americans threw their weight on the side of democracy and freedom' was utterly dishonest and became untenable after the fall of Saigon in April 1975. However, media was blamed by the military for its failure, apparently with little justification. In fact during the last five years, the war was covered by some 2000 reports, of which only four or five violated the ground rules. Perhaps as a consequence of Vietnam, the British Government would tolerate only propaganda sent from the Task Force during the Falkland war in 1982. Each report was censored and delayed and the fair name of BBC was spoiled because of its obvious eagerness to be on the right side of the Government.

During the US invasion of Grenada in 1983, the media was totally excluded in the initial stages, probably due to the residual impact of the Vietnam War. Furious protests by the media led Gen John W Vessey Jr, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to appoint a commission of leading journalists and Public Affairs officials of the US Department of Defence headed by Maj Gen Winant Sidle to consider future media-military relations. A result was introduction of the 'Media Pool' system and a pool was fielded for the first time during the US Escort Operations in the Persian Gulf in 1987. A second attempt at using the media pool during the US invasion of Panama in 1989 failed miserably as the pool was flown to Panama late and then virtually barred from witnessing any fighting for fear that details of civilian casualties would be reported.

The Gulf War of 1991 proved that the media have a tremendous advantage over the have-nots in modern warfare. It became the 'best covered war' as a result of the sophisticated US media policy and fine-tuning of the media pool system. Twelve media pools were formed to cover the war in accordance with the guidelines issued. Two pools of 18 reporters each specifically covered the ground combat. Eight pools of seven reporters each covered the four US armed services. The media pools comprised mostly of members nominated by American news organisations though there were slots for one Saudi and one foreign journalist in each of the 18-member pools. Stories and video shots produced by the pools were made available to any interested agency after a joint security review by the media and the US military at various levels. In addition Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf or some other senior officer at Riyadh held daily press briefings. At the Pentagon also Pete Williams, the Assistant Secretary of Defence for Public Affairs, who brought in senior commanders to answer reporters' questions, held briefings every afternoon. Finally, the US led invasion over Iraq in March 1903, operational named "Liberation Iraq" have proved the grater value of mass media in high tech battlefield too.

The result was an artificial coverage of the war, the way that the military desired. The news management was successful in conveying the impression that enough is being told without giving the real picture of the war. There was precious little coverage of the unpleasant aspects of the war such as death, injury and destruction, whether of the Coalition or the Iraqis. Instead the focus was entirely on the accuracy and sophistication of a few new weapons.

A mixture of polished methods achieved this. These included censorship through access control, flooding the reporters with information and irresistible video recordings, subtle propaganda and disinformation.

Effects of Media on Operations

Effects of the glare of media on planning and execution of military operations can force the leaders, both political and military to consider the impact of operations on public opinion as an important factor, initial public support for the operation cannot be taken for granted due to the capability of media to rapidly alter public opinion by its graphic and near real time coverage of operations, impact on outcome of operations is even greater in respect of low intensity conflicts and the military commanders and staff at various levels are forced to plan and prepare for handling media by way of staff work, security measures, logistics and allocation of resources including transport and communications.

Low intensity conflict. The profound impact of media on low intensity conflicts has been explained with clarity by the well known German-American publisher John Most in these words- "... We have said a hundred times or more that when modern revolutionaries carry out actions, what are important are not solely these actions themselves but also the propaganda effect they are able to achieve.

Because of the irresistible news value of terrorist actions a symbiotic relationship tends to develop between the rebels and the media. During the hijacking of the Lufthansa Airlines jet to Mogadishu in 1977 a journalist broadcast over radio that the Captain of the jet was passing messages in the garb of normal transmissions, leading to the execution of the pilot by the hijackers.

Exploitation of Media by Militants: The militants seek to achieve their goal of breaking the spirit and will of the government by creating sensation in the ranks of security forces, public and international media. The media consider it their duty to report all that they see or perceive, not only to satisfy the 'citizens' right to know' but also because stories of militant actions sell well. Such a naturally symbiotic relationship between the media and militants sometimes leads to empathy among the journalists (for the militancy) and is often used fully by the militants.

Media Management

Having seen the profound impact of media on almost all aspects of low intensity conflicts the must of effective media management by the security forces needs no emphasis. However it would be naive and disastrous to mistake 'media management' for 'news management' and attempt the latter. Media should be selected with care to cover operations keeping in mind their circulation, class of audience and credibility. Regional and vernacular media should not be overlooked.

In the interest of operational security and troop safety certain restrictions have been laid down. Following are some of the important items of information forbidden for both correspondents as well as photojournalists. Which are operational plans and intentions, details of defences, description of classified weapons and equipment or proposed modifications, details of weapons and equipment received from foreign countries, except when officially cleared, naming system of units and formations and their deployment, names of commanders and principal staff officers and operational capabilities of airfields.

Media Training for the Armed Forces

Even though media training is a much talked about subject, there is very little of actual training that an officer undergoes let alone troops. Even the officers selected for tenure in the DPR undergo only familiarisation training for six weeks including a brief period of attachment with news agencies or leading news papers. As yet there is no formalised system of training formations in media handling during exercises. On the other hand, in USA, the Joint Readiness Training Centre, Fort Chafee has been conducting 'Media on the Battlefield' training for soldiers since 1990. Media training has been included into their combat training. Media representatives (played by their Public Affairs personnel) appear during exercises to interview soldiers and commanders. The interviews are videotaped and played back later to bring out lessons.

A beginning was made in this direction when the DPR started the War Correspondents Course of six weeks duration for the national media. From 1995-96 onwards this course has been thrown open to the regional media too. The course provides a primer on the three services, which is not really adequate for a defence correspondent. Field training by way of incorporating the media in exercises is not conducted. There are some practical difficulties too which are considered as under:

Lack of Transparency: This is apparent from the fact that media is not permitted to cover the various exercises and tactical operations during low intensity conflicts.

Command and Control: It is a universal principle in management that the provider of a service is answerable to the receiver. However, the PRO (Public Relation Officer)s are not accountable to the local formation / station commander on the premise that their services are also meant for other services and departments under the Ministry of Defence (MOD). As a result their command structure is too loose and ineffective particularly for the crucial media coverage of operations of the services.

Coordination: Recent coverage of certain developments indicates a clear and perceived lack of coordination between PROs of different organs of the MOD.

Training: World over, glare of media on the military is on the increase and its impact on the outcome of operations has also increased. However, the level of media training imparted to the PROs, commanders, staff and troops in the Army has not kept pace. Even the training of war correspondents is quieting inadequate.

Viable Suggestions

The media policy must address the main issue of defining the degree and kind of restraints to be placed on the media during peace, low intensity conflict and war in order to ensure positive media coverage without loss of credibility, while not endangering operational security and troop safety. It must lay down the media objectives, priorities, methods, means and constraints for the three situations.

It is important that the media itself be taken into confidence while evolving such a policy. Considerable and as far as possible open debate and discussion with famous media persons, PR experts from the industry, institutions and academic bodies involved in teaching mass communications must precede declaration of the media policy.

The Army must institute a regular feedback system to gauge the effect of media coverage of defence related issues on different categories of audience viz citizens from different regions and strata, troops and families of troops. Well-known private organisations may have to be demanded to conduct opinion polls amongst the people at intervals of time. Military Intelligence (MI) Directorate must institute measures to get direct feedback from troops and their families. This information must form the basis for formulation of media objectives and selection of propaganda themes and media.

Self-restraint by media is any day preferable to pre-censorship and will only enhance media credibility. A list of sensitive issues on which the media must exercise restraint and different sets of security guidelines for covering defence matters during peace, exercises, low intensity conflict and war must be evolved in consultation with the media and notified to the media and their organisations.

A system of joint security review must be worked out in consultation with the press and eminent media persons to replace the system of pre-censorship during peace and operations. This will go a long way towards enhancing the credibility of the armed forces.

A conscious effort needs to be made to build up a rapport with media at all levels and more so at the level of senior commanders and staff officers. Interaction by way of organising seminars and guest lectures, mutual visits, inviting articles of eminent media persons in professional military journals and contribution of papers for professional media journals by service officers must be encouraged at all levels as a matter of policy. Such a policy will pay handsome dividends in the longer perspective.

Recognising that today media is a battle-winning factor, media management should be treated as a combat support activity, which is a function of command, and staff at all levels. Therefore there is a need to reorganise the Department of Public Relation ( DPR) into a uniformed joint service organisation called the Corps of PR and placed under the Chiefs of Staff Committee, on the lines of the Directorate General of Medical Services. PR units should be raised at the scale of one per command of each service. The subunits could be allotted to the corps and area headquarters on as required basis. The PR units should be fully equipped and empowered to produce multimedia publicity material and communicate these to various media organisations in addition to assisting the media representatives in covering operations. In addition, PR staff officers should be placed at all headquarters down to brigades.

A Directorate of Military Intelligence or additional branch under the Chiefs of Staff Committee should head the Corps of PR. The PR staff at each headquarters should form a part of the General Staff branch and function in close coordination with intelligence and operations staff. The argument that DPR serves all departments of the MOD in addition to the services and therefore cannot form part of the services does not hold good because there are other such organisations under the services headquarters such as the Military Engineering Service, Medical and Nursing services which also serve all the three services and other departments of the MOD to some extent. This step is bound to produce a quantum jump in the media coverage of the services.

A paragraph on media must be made part of the operational Instruction' and 'Operational Orders' for all operations. This paragraph must include essential aspects such as number of media persons that can be accommodated, restrictions on their movement, emphasis in coverage, responsibility for the conduct of media parties etc.

Media and its handling must form part of the curriculum at all stages of an officers career starting from pre-commission training in the academies to post-commission training in all arms courses right up to senior levels. Army and Divs must also hold cadres and seminars on this subject for the benefit of other officers. New & creative methods of media training must be incorporated in all exercises and war games for commanders and staff officers.

Dealing with media must form a part of various promotion cadres for Non Commissioned and Junior Commissioned Officers. In addition troops must be briefed regularly and practiced in handling media persons during exercises.

Efforts must be made in consultation with the, various media organisations, University Grants Commission and leading universities conducting courses in journalism to incorporate defence awareness programmes and specific aspects of defence journalism in their curricula. Scope of the War Correspondents course must be enhanced and it should be made a compulsory prerequisite for accreditation as a defence correspondent. An advanced/ refresher course should be designed for interested senior defence correspondents. Training should also be imparted by incorporating media in various formation level exercises and war games.

The Government must appoint a multidisciplinary committee comprising leading personalities of different media, academicians in the fields of sociology, psychology and political science, senior retired service officers, bureaucrats and police officers to advise it on effective media and information policies. Such a committee will prove to be of immense value in fighting the low intensity conflict on a psychological plane effectively. The media, both private and government controlled, must cooperate whole-heartedly with such a committee.

Dealing with Media

While media should be encouraged to report one sent at the scene of action, certain ground rules must be remembered by the units and escorting officers in such situations. The immense value are; no access to classified information for media persons, always escort media persons in sensitive areas such as air fields, defended positions, assembly areas etc., do not release tactical information, media persons must adhere to unit standards of camouflage and concealment, media persons will not stray away from their escorts when organised in pools. Similarly, study 'news copies' for violation of security guidelines and if differences with the media person persist then report up the chain of command, operational considerations must dictate granting of permission to media persons to accompany any specific combat mission and personal safety of media persons is neither a responsibility nor the primary concern of the army.

To conclude, firstly, military leaders have always acknowledged impact of media on the conduct and outcome of modern day wars. Revolutionary developments in mass communications technology and the resultant capability of the media for instant and graphic coverage of operations coupled with increasing democratic demand for more information on all spheres of governmental activity including military have transformed media into an important war winning factor, like never before in history.

Secondly, establishment of mature military - media relationship is a necessary condition for the success of any information / media campaign, which will of necessity, be a part of any military campaign in the future. Both military and the media must recognise that it is not combat success alone but the political impact of combat that wins wars . Political impact depends to a large extent on the communication of combat to the citizens by the mass media, which happens to be part of its primary role. Thus military and media should see themselves as equal partners in successful conduct of wars. However, media is vulnerable to manipulation by the militants and sometimes an illicit relationship develops between these two.

Thirdly, the nature of military - media relationship is a complex one. It is simultaneously complementary (in contributing to the outcome of wars), symbiotic (both need each other to fulfil their roles) and adversarial (while military protects information and attempts propaganda / deception, media attempts to pry open the shroud of secrecy and see through propaganda). Although it can degenerate into a subversive one in that the military can prevent effective media coverage while the media can assist the enemy and adversely affect the outcome of battle, it has the strong potential of being cooperative, collaborative and mutually beneficial.

Finally, media management, today, is a combat support activity and as such is an essential function of command and staff at all levels. This is the basis of the major recommendations for improvement of media management. A major recommendation is for restructuring the Directorate of Public Relations into a uniformed joint service organisation called the 'Corps of Public Relations' under the Chiefs of Staff Committee like the Directorate General of Armed Forces Military Intelligence. Its units and subunits must be placed on the 'Order of Battle' of various commands and corps. Other suggestions are for a media policy that encourages transparency to the maximum extent possible, establishment of rapport with media at all levels, enhancing the quality and status of PROs, posting PR staff officers in General Staff branches of all formation headquarters down to division/ sub-area and intensive training measures.


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