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Soldiers threatened with punishment if they express views on social media

British troops marching on Armed Forces Day

Soldiers threatened with punishment if they express views on social media

Rules issued by the Ministry of Defence today ban all armed forces personnel from mentioning "defence" issues on social media without approval.

The Peace Pledge Union (PPU) pointed out that the rules are so strict that they would allow a soldier to be punished for expressing doubts about government policy on a private Facebook page.

In most areas, the rules are substantially the same as when they were last issued, in 2016. But the PPU said that the Ministry of Defence (MoD) showed no awareness of the ways in which social media has changed and the impossibility of social media discussion being controlled by the MoD or any other authority.

The rules, which apply both to armed forces personnel and to civilian MoD staff, were published today (21 April 2020) in a document entitled "Contact with the media and communicating in public".

The PPU said that the reissuing of the rules represents a continued assault by the MoD on the right to freedom of expression.

Amongst the critics of the new rules is the Defence Correspondent of The Times, Lucy Fisher, who took to Twitter to describe the "severe limits" as "counter-productive in an information age".

The rules apply to forces personnel who post anonymously or use pseudonyms on social media, as well as those using their own names. 

The document includes a list of "contentious issues", which no member of the armed forces may mention in public or on social media without permission from the MoD's Directorate of Defence Communications. The list of "contentious issues" includes budgets, personnel levels and the Trident nuclear weapons system, along with ambiguous terms such as "Scotland and Defence".

One section bans forces personnel from writing to politicians without permission. The only exception is for contacting their own constituency MP on a “personal matter”. The PPU said that the right of everyone to express their views to government is vital to democracy.

The PPU pointed out that armed forces personnel are allowed to deny their employees all sorts of rights that are generally considered fundamental, such as the right to join trades unions and to leave their jobs with a reasonable notice period. They added that the denial of such rights is a reminder that armed forces are abusive institutions.

“Instead of listening to criticism, the MoD is trying to ban it," said Symon Hill, Campaigns Manager of the Peace Pledge Union. "The leadership of the MoD and the armed forces seem to be clueless about how social media works. They still seem to think they can control communication. But their antiquated reliance on force and punishment just will not work in today's world."

He added, "Government ministers and their allies are always keen to tell us that they respect the armed forces – at the same time as denying forces personnel the most basic human rights. This is another reminder of the hypocrisy of militarism.”


(Photo credit: The above photograph was taken by Martin Pettitt and is used with thanks under a Creative Commons Licence).