UK orders new gag on armed forces

Agencies

New rules barring military personnel from talking about their service publicly have been quietly introduced by the UK Ministry of Defense.

Soldiers, sailors and airforce personnel will not be able to blog, take part in surveys, speak in public, post on bulletin boards, play in multi-player computer games or send text messages or photographs without the permission of a superior if the information they use concerns matters of defense.

They also cannot release video, still images or audio – material which has previously led to investigations into the abuse of Iraqis. Instead, the guidelines state that “all such communication must help to maintain and, where possible, enhance the reputation of defense”.

According to the regulations, issued by the Directorate of Communication Planning, receiving money for interviews, conferences and books which draw on official defense experience has now been banned.

The MoD document covers “all public speaking, writing or other communications, including via the internet and other sharing technologies, on issues arising from an individual’s official business or experience, whether on-duty, off-duty or in spare time”.

The rules have provoked consternation among the ranks, with human rights lawyers saying that they could be in contravention of Article 10 of the Human Rights Act, which allows for freedom of expression. The rules apply not only to full-time forces but to members of the Territorial Army and cadets whilst on duty, as well as MoD civil servants.

Service personnel are currently bound by Queen’s Regulations, which mean they must seek permission before speaking to the press but are free to blog and take part in online debates. However, many have spoken out anonymously on issues such as poor kit, housing and the treatment of wounded service personnel evacuated from combat zones.

Criticism of the RAF in Afghanistan and the state of the ageing vehicles being used there have all appeared in the press.

The MoD’s director general of media communications, Simon McDowell, denied that the guidelines were a form of censorship or gagging.

“We are trying to give straightforward, clear guidance that is up to date. The existing regulations were confusing and didn’t include things like accepting payment. It applies to communicating about defense matters, not personal things.

“Particular things can impact on operational security; information which somebody can get a hold of. Even a little photograph sent from Afghanistan on a mobile phone could endanger people’s lives and break operational security.”

MBA/HAR