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15 Oct

Photos of Military Deaths in Afghanistan Banned

Sanitizing the Killing

By Daryl Lang/Photo District News, October 14, 2009

Article

NEW YORK The U.S. military in eastern Afghanistan recently changed its media embed rules to ban pictures of troops killed in the war.

“Media will not be allowed to photograph or record video of U.S. personnel killed in action,” says a ground rules document issued Sept. 15 by Regional Command East at Bagram Air Field.

This language is new. A version of the same document dated July 23 says, “Media will not be prohibited from covering casualties” as long as a series of conditions are met.

Pictures of American military deaths are rare, but until now they have not been officially banned during either of the ongoing wars.

The new language was added in early September, according to a military spokesperson, Master Sgt. Tom Clementson of Regional Command East Public Affairs. Clementson described it as “a clarification rather than a new rule.”

“The clarification was added to ensure that service members’ privacy and propriety are maintained in situations where media have unique and intimate access as embedded reporters,” Clementson wrote by e-mail in response to questions. “While RC East does everything possible to accommodate an embedded reporters’ ability to cover the war in this region, there is also a command responsibility to account for the best interests of its service members.”

The change occurred after the wide distribution of a photograph of a dying U.S. Marine. On Sept. 4, the Associated Press released a photo of a mortally wounded Marine in Afghanistan.

The image, which was shot August 14 by AP photographer Julie Jacobson, was released as part of a package of stories and photos about the death of Lance Cpl. Joshua M. Bernard. Both U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Bernard’s family had asked the AP not to release the photo. Few newspapers published the image, but it was widely circulated online. (The photograph can be viewed here.)

Based on a review of other embed agreements, the ban issued in early September appears to be unique to the U.S. operation in eastern Afghanistan.

The NATO-controlled International Security Assistance Force, which handles embeds elsewhere in Afghanistan, allows press photos of casualties as long as some conditions are met. For example, photos that identify a dead service member cannot be released before the service member’s next of kin have been notified of the death.

(The AP’s photo of Lance Cpl. Bernard was taken in Helmand province, which is outside of Regional Command East.)

For Multi National Force-Iraq embeds, a ground rules document dated Aug. 14 contains restrictions on casualty images, but does not ban photos of killed-in-action casualties.

The new Regional Command East rule drew little notice before Friday, when it was reported by the blog of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. It has since appeared on other blogs, including one from PDN sibling publication Editor & Publisher.

The AP is aware of the change. “We have queried the Pentagon about the photo rules and have been told that the matter is being reviewed,” AP spokesperson Paul Colford said this week.

Under the Obama administration, the Pentagon took one step toward making war casualties more visible to the press. In April, it began allowing photographers to cover the returns of remains at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware when next of kin give their consent.

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