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Wartime censorship blinds public, reporter says

By Namrata Savoor


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ARLINGTON, Va. — Press censorship during wartime blinds the public to the reality of war and minimizes the horrors of combat, said Patrick Sloyan, senior correspondent for Newsday, June 3 at an Inside Media program at the Newseum.

The United States government heavily censored the press during the Persian Gulf War in 1991, Sloyan said. "We were badly hindered during (operation) Desert Storm," he said, adding that every story was subjected to censorship and could even be blocked from reaching newsrooms.

"It was a total breach of the First Amendment," Sloyan said.

Troops in the field are happy to talk to reporters about their experiences, Sloyan said. "There's a great tradition between the press and the military outside of Washington."

Sloyan said the public was mistaken in thinking that journalists are not patriotic just because they balk at censorship and persevere to report freely during wartime.

"Reporters are always willing to censor themselves" to ensure that they don't endanger their troops by revealing information about military moves and operations, Sloyan said. "There are ground rules to protect national security," he said. "It's an indication of not only our patriotism but (of) our common sense."

By observing how the government controlled the press during the Persian Gulf War, Sloyan said he was convinced that journalists were still unaware of key events.

For example, he said, on further investigation he discovered more than half of the 146 U.S. casualties were caused by self-inflicted wounds and friendly fire incidents. Withholding such information "was an official Washington-level effort to cover up the reality of war," he said.

Sloyan said he uncovered similar stories after the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama to oust presidential usurper Manuel Noriega and restore the elected president. "I met soldiers later who told me that they killed 40 or 50 people in one hour . (It) turned out they were all civilians."

In 1983, when the U.S. invaded Grenada to protect Americans there and shore up a constitutional government, Sloyan said the American press was banned from going to the war zone. "Everything you heard saw or heard about Grenada in the first couple of days was from government film or government spokesmen," he said.

Panama was no different, Sloyan said, when the United States government forbade even local reporters from covering the war. A group of reporters heading for Panama from Washington was not allowed to leave the United States, Sloyan said.

"What happened in Panama we'll never know. What happened in Grenada, it's hard to piece together," he said. He called such information control a "calculated effort" by politicians to garner "voter support for military conflicts, (without) wanting the voters to see the horrors that go along with war."

The discussion was one in a series of programs related to the Newseum's War Stories exhibit, which runs through Nov. 11.


War Stories events coverage
Coverage of discussions relating to Newseum's War Stories exhibit.  07.31.01