As they worked to shore up ebbing support for the Afghanistan war in the fall of 2006, senior federal officials grew concerned about the lack of positive news stories coming out of the conflict zone and asked the Canadian Forces to start supplying a list of journalists embedded with the troops and details of what coverage was planned.
The October, 2006, request came from the Privy Council Office, the bureaucratic arm of the Prime Minister's Office, e-mails obtained under Access to Information law show.
"They want to know which embeds are in theatre and what they are doing," Major Norbert Cyr, a military public affairs officer, wrote in an e-mail to colleagues in the Canadian Forces.
The Privy Council Office told the Forces that it was concerned the military wasn't sufficiently "pushing" development and reconstruction stories with embedded journalists, e-mails show.
The Harper government sees such stories, about rebuilding Afghanistan and aiding civilians, as opportunities to showcase the benefits of Canada's military mission.
But late summer and early fall, 2006, had been a difficult time for Canadian troops in Afghanistan. Fifteen soldiers had been killed in seven weeks - producing a lot of media coverage about casualties - before Privy Council staff raised concerns with the Forces about how they were selling stories to reporters.
With a possible spring, 2007, election looming, the minority Harper government had begun a public relations blitz to sell the war and was eager for more positive coverage on how the controversial military mission was reaping benefits.
"Obviously, the major concern [at PCO]is whether we are pushing development and [Foreign Affairs Canada]issues with embeds," Major Cyr told his military colleagues.
The Canadian Forces, in an e-mail reply to the Privy Council Office, rejected the notion that it wasn't doing enough to encourage embedded journalists to focus on development work conducted by other departments across government.
"This cannot be further from the truth. ... The daily effort in theatre and domestically is to demonstrate the overall contribution of Canada," wrote Sue Daly, a military public affairs manager.
"There is an appetite to have more stories to pitch and [we]would be happy to facilitate this if there is anything you are looking at profiling."
In the same e-mail, the military provided the Privy Council Office with a list of upcoming coverage plans among embedded media, including The Canadian Press and Journal de Québec, as well as the location of various journalists accompanying soldiers in Afghanistan.
"I think you will see from the movements of the embeds below and the coming plans for interviews that the [public affairs officers]have been quite successful in their efforts to get the embeds to focus their attention elsewhere than the military kinetic [combat]operations," Ms. Daly wrote.
Ever since PCO requested to be kept informed about the activities of embedded journalists in Afghanistan, the military has provided Ottawa details via its "daily
NDP defence critic Dawn Black said the Privy Council Office's actions demonstrate how the Harper government has tried to exercise greater control on coverage of the conflict in Afghanistan, where 84 Canadian soldiers and a diplomat have died since 2002.
"They're looking for a positive spin. They're looking for ways to try to sell the war in Afghanistan," Ms. Black said.
Liberal defence critic Bryon Wilfert said he believes the Canadian military resents being used by the PCO to steer coverage.
The PCO and Department of National Defence e-mails were obtained under Access to Information law by researcher Jeff Esau. *****
Insurgent attacks in Afghanistan, particularly in the south where Canada operates, have been increasing each year and sometimes each month.
Number of insurgent attacks nationally
SOURCE: SAMI KOVANEN, VIGILANT STRATEGIC SERVICES AFGHANISTAN; AFGHAN NGO SAFETY OFFICE