CDA and Matthew Fisher rush to military's defence

Press Freedom Day arrived this week (May 3), and it came just as a storm is brewing about new restrictions that the military is putting on journalists trying to report on the war in Afghanistan.

Last week, Canadian Press reporter Murray Brewster wrote a story about security changes at the Kandahar Airfield that are dramatically curtailing journalists’ mobility, and hence their ability to report on the war to Canadians.

But the defence lobby is coming to the military’s defence. The DND-funded Conference of Defence Associations (CDA), and a military friendly-reporter who took an award from the CDA in 2007, are trying to discredit Brewster’s report. Here’s why:

According to Brewster’s story:

The security office at Kandahar Airfield has stopped accrediting reporters at the base and only issues them visitor passes, which require they forfeit their passports for duration of their stay and mandates they be escorted by the military.

When the changes were introduced by U.S. security officials, Canadian public-affairs officers were forced to escort newly arrived journalists everywhere on the base, but the practice has since been temporarily suspended. […]

The absence of accreditation makes it almost impossible for Canadian journalists to leave the airfield to report independently and then return safely to confines of the base – something the Opposition and a journalist’s organization say is unacceptable. The accreditation directive was issued by U.S. military officials, who are currently in charge of the security office at Kandahar Airfield.

But CanWest’s Matthew Fisher, speaking through the CDA which distributed his email all over Ottawa this week, essentially accused Brewster of dredging up news and complaining too much:

“The upshot of this new temporary measure is that it is a nuisance and a mild inconvenience to reporters…it has in no way prevented them from doing their work…It was so trivial I never bothered to report on it.”

I post the Brewster article and the CDA’s release containing Fisher’s email below.

On reading this, I can’t help but wonder if these security restrictions were never an issue for Matthew Fisher because he is so close to the military.  The fact that he took an award from the DND-funded CDA indicates the mutual admiration that he and the military hold for each other. 

Fisher boasts that he has “been embedded more in Afghanistan than any other reporter.” Maybe this is the problem, and why I am so glad we have days like Press Freedom Day.

 

Ottawa to examine NATO media restrictions in Kandahar: MacKay
The Canadian Press
Wednesday, April 29, 2009
Section: National General News

Byline: BY MURRAY BREWSTER

OTTAWA _ Defence Minister Peter MacKay says he will look into restrictions NATO officials in Kandahar have placed on journalists covering the war in southern Afghanistan.

The security office at Kandahar Airfield has stopped accrediting reporters at the base and only issues them visitor passes, which require they forfeit their passports for duration of their stay and mandates they be escorted by the military.

When the changes were introduced by U.S. security officials, Canadian public-affairs officers were forced to escort newly arrived journalists everywhere on the base, but the practice has since been temporarily suspended.

“Each country examines these decisions independently,” MacKay said Wednesday, adding the matter had just been brought to his attention.

The absence of accreditation makes it almost impossible for Canadian journalists to leave the airfield to report independently and then return safely to confines of the base _ something the Opposition and a journalist’s organization say is unacceptable.

The accreditation directive was issued by U.S. military officials, who are currently in charge of the security office at Kandahar Airfield.

“As far as I know, there is not a NATO-wide policy and I’m looking into what the Americans are doing versus what we are doing,” said MacKay.

Canada for the most part has run one of the most open and accessible media embedding programs among the 41 allies fighting in Afghanistan.

Through the Canadian military, NATO officials in Kandahar were asked repeatedly for comment and interviews when the policy change was implemented in early March. The requests were denied.

The Defence Department in Ottawa was also asked this week to explain the rules and how the changes affected the embedding program. Military officials, who have been trying to get the policy reversed, replied they could not answer questions on the record.

On Wednesday, senior officials managing the federal government’s Afghan file and speaking on background said the Canadian embassy in Kabul was seeking more information from NATO headquarters in Kabul.

Since the kidnapping of CBC reporter Mellissa Fung last fall, many media organizations in Kandahar have barred their reporters from travelling outside the confines of fortified bases without military protection. Even though Fung was released unharmed, the self-imposed editorial restrictions have remained.

NDP Leader Jack Layton, whose party campaigned to withdraw Canadian troops from Afghanistan, waded into the debate Wednesday.

Regardless of self-imposed restrictions by news organizations, he said the precedent being set is troubling.

The rule changes establish a framework and give NATO a greater ability to clamp down on journalists and stories it doesn’t like, Layton said.

“This is the kind of policy that was adopted in Iraq by the Americans; it’s the kind of policy we’ve seen in Sri Lanka and it shouldn’t be happening in Kandahar,” he said.
It puts embedded journalists, who are already criticized in some quarters for being too much under the military’s thumb, on a even more slippery slope, he suggested.

“This should be a no-brainer. The Canadian government should be saying it is important for the freedom of the press and for the truth to come to Canadians.”

Liberal defence critic Denis Coderre said the Conservative government promised Canadians through the Manley commission report that it would be more forthcoming with information about the war.

He described the rule changes as a step back from that pledge and said there is nothing stopping the introduction of further restrictions.

“That’s why it is so unacceptable,” said Coderre.

 

—— Forwarded Message
From: Executive Director <director@cda-cdai.ca>
Date: Mon, 04 May 2009 15:28:23 -0400
To: <Undisclosed-Recipient:;>
Subject: Canadian Press Story about media Passes at KAF

All
A CP story,written by Murray Brewster about media passes at KAF generated quite a bit of interest in Ottawa ( http://www.google.com/hostednews/canadianpress/article/ALeqM5gXHes62vbQP-5axfjuEYw2Bk-_2w).
A similar story written by Scott Taylor appeared in today’s Halifax Chronicler (http://thechronicleherald.ca/Opinion/1120061.html)
Matthew Fisher just returned from Kandahar. I asked him about the impact of these reported restrictions. He provided the following response.
I leave it to you to draw your own conclusions.

Alain Pellerin, Colonel (Ret’d)
Executive Director, CDA-CDAI / Directeur exécutif, CAD-ICAD
222 rue Somerset Street West / Ouest, Suite 400B
Ottawa, Ontario K2P 2G3
 
T: (613) 236-1252
F: (613) 236-8191
director@cda-cdai.ca
www.cda-cdai.ca <http://www.cda-cdai.ca>
 
 
—– Original Message —–
From: Matthew Fisher <mailto:fisherrmatthew@hotmail.com
To: Alain Pellerin <mailto:director@cda-cdai.ca
Sent: Monday, May 04, 2009 12:08 PM
Subject: from Matthew Fisher

Alain,
About 8 weeks ago the office that gives out badges at KAF said the rules had changed and that pending clarification journalists would be issued orange visitor tags that do not have photos on them. This, in theory, means you are to be escorted. Canadian forces protested this rule and refused to escort us. So, we continued as before but without photo id’s. Never were we escorted to showers or our tents. Never were we confined to quarters by these rules. The one thing that was a bit of a nuisance was that our passports were left at the main security office at the airfield in return for the orange passes…so any journalist wishing to leave the base had to go there and switch his orange badge for his passport. But this inconvenience took a maximum of five minutes. There was no attempt to circumscribe our movements on the base. None. Nor were our passports forfeited. We could get them at any time – 24 hours a day – if we were leaving…They were held by the ATCO security team which is contracted to process arrivals and departures on the military side of the airfield.
The Canadian public affairs office and Vance’s number two, Colonel Lacroix, protested the change in the pass system…the matter was referred to Kabul where it still stands…a discussion has ensued about what to do. At all times, NATO said that no attempt was made or would be made to deny embeds in the Canadian military programme to come to KAF…and that continues to be the case.
The upshot of this new temporary measure is that it is a nuisance and a mild inconvenience to reporters…it has in no way prevented them from doing their work…It was so trivial I never bothered to report on it.
Practically speaking, this measure meant nothing. The tightening up of badge privileges at KAF is effecting every civilian there. A British security contractor flew with me on a commercial flight to Kabul a few weeks back to see NATO to get the passes his guys – who guard British convoys – had always had…because they had been revoked for unspecified security reasons. Our paths crossed again by chance in Kabul and this man – ex-British SAS – told me that he had failed to get the passes, which seriously complicated the work of his teams.
The ruling to no longer give journalists at KAF a photo badge was apparently made by a young US officer who arrived in February replacing a Canadian…his remit was to tighten security on the pass system on the base. I was later told that while he was American, the tightening up of security on badges was a NATO decision, not an American decision, because of specific, unnamed security breaches of gaps at KAF and that this was being decided in Kabul, not at KAF, where the Americans, despite their very large numbers, are not part of the senior base hierarchy. It is British as the airfield falls under the Royal Air Force Regiment.
There are rumours that these “security breaches” concerned something – I have no idea what – done by Australian journalists. As far as I know, and I have been embedded more in Afghanistan than any other reporter, there have never been questions about the Canadian media and security breaches of any kind at KAF.
 I find this new setup nothing more than a mild inconvenience…As for security checks…the Canadian military refused to do them on the embedded media and that was that…From last summer we have had to provide a police letter to the Canadians for the KAF security officer stating that we do not have a criminal record…like everyone else on the base except the Americans who are exempt because his is unconstitutional…This, too, is a nuisance. This apparently arose because some non-American civilians hired by US contractors stole things on the base – and these people were later found to have criminal records.
But a lot of the explanations about why things are done at KAF are hearsay and rumour. Not fact.
The fact is that for the moment Canadian journalists do not have photo ID but they are in no way prevented from doing their jobs unsupervised on any parts of KAF that they have previously had access to – and that is most of the base…There are, of course, some parts of the base such as the flight line, where everyone, including troops, have to have an authorized escort, and there are a few HQ’s there that are off limits to all but a very small number of military personnel.
As for the embed document, at 53 pages long it has evolved into an absurdity. I recently embedded with the Brits and to do so in Helmand requires a two page signed document. The lawyers got a hold of the Canadian embed agreement and it is something to behold…Still, it, too, does not impede work at KAF or anywhere else in Afghanistan. It is just another nuisance.
I hope this helps you understand a bit better this apparent controversy.
 
I include below a piece written on this by Brian Hutchison of the National Post. I do not know him and we have never discussed this issue, but he has more-or-less reached the same conclusion as I have..
 
 
http://network.nationalpost.com/np/blogs/posted/archive/2009/04/29/assignment-kandahar-censorship-and-what-is-not.aspx

Assignment Kandahar: Censorship, and what is not
Posted: April 29, 2009, 1:19 PM by Brian Hutchinson
 
Canadian Press has moved a misleading story from Ottawa that says “tough new restrictions” imposed on reporters embedded with Canadian Forces at Kandahar Airfield “make it virtually impossible” for us to leave the base on our own and report goings-on outside the wire. Stories about  Afghans.

This comes as a complete surprise, because I had no trouble leaving the base on my own the other day, meeting with my local Afghan “fixer,” and traveling into town to report a story about Afghans that appeared Tuesday in the National Post and on canada.com.

I also blogged about my brief encounter with local kids at a Kandahar city swimming hole.  
Canadian military personnel were aware that I was leaving KAF. In fact, a member of their public affairs staff drove me to a gate where
I met my fixer. The same soldier picked me up on my return to KAF. More of an effort for him than me.

The CP story goes on to claim that “reporters are also compelled to forfeit their passports to the military for the duration of their stay.”

I am currently inside Canada’s provincial reconstruction team (PRT) headquarters in Kandahar city, a 30-minute drive from KAF. My passport is sitting beside me on my desk.

Perhaps the worst line in the CP piece is this quote, from Liberal MP Denis Coderre: “The media is not the enemy and this is a form of censorship — and it is unacceptable.”

The story does correctly inform that Canadian reporters are no longer being issued standard, all access International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) passes when they arrive at KAF to begin their embeds. Instead, thanks to a U.S. directive, we receive temporary base visitor cards to carry with us. Canadian public affairs officers at KAF have told us that they and other Canadian military brass are working to have this new policy rescinded. That would be great. It is slightly irritating and a bit deflating not to have a real ISAF pass.

 But this: “[The guest passes] restrict movements and require [reporters] to be closely monitored” is just wrong. Or so it is in my experience. I arrived in Kandahar last week to start a six-week embed, my third. I haven’t heard any of the other Canadian reporters currently at KAF complaining about being tailed, watched, shadowed, or whatever “closely monitored” is meant to suggest.

It’s true that most embedded Canadian reporters are now restricted from leaving KAF on their own. But this is the result of strict prohibitions placed on them by their own news organizations back in Canada, a result of heightened anxiety after CBC TV reporter Mellissa Fung was kidnapped outside Kabul last October.

Ms. Fung was eventually released and is back in Canada.

I was told today by a Canadian civilian working at the PRT that, in his opinion at least, the dangers reporters face while traveling outside wire on their own is considerable, but no more so since the Fung kidnapping.

He may or may not be right. Going outside the wire — with or without troops in armoured vehicles — involves different levels of risk. Personally, I think reporters here on the ground are best able to assess what that level of risk is, with input from the military and from Afghan sources, of course.

There’s no mention in the CP story of travel restrictions placed on reporters by their bosses back in Canada. Rather, the story paints a false portrayal of Canadian Forces attempting to censor us. This is strange.

There are rules that all reporters in the embed program voluntarily agree to follow. We agree not to describe troop movements before they take place, for example. Among other things, these rules are designed to prevent insurgents from getting advance notice of Canadian convoys, then planting improvised explosive devices along their routes and killing Canadian soldiers, their Afghan army counterparts, and yes, embedded reporters.

As far as I know, no one inside the embed program has called these rules an attempt to “censor.” Sure, we have issues with some of the more arcane requirements, but I’d bet that every reporter who has worked at KAF would call the broad stroke embed restrictions understandable, workable, and, above all, common sense.

Including, I would wager, the reporter who wrote the disingenuous CP piece. This is the strangest part of it all: Murray Brewster is a highly regarded and reliable reporter who has embedded at KAF many times, most recently in March.

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