National Press Club

Military Rescinds Ban on Images of War Dead

October 20, 2009 | By John M. Donnelly | jdonnelly@cq.com

In the wake of protests by the National Press Club and other news organizations, the U.S. military command in eastern Afghanistan rescinded a ban on the publication of photos depicting slain U.S. military personnel.

NPC President Donna Leinwand, a reporter with USA Today, had criticized the move in an Oct. 16 statement.

"The U.S. military should not determine what is and is not news," Leinwand said. "Censoring journalists who cover war and permitting only government-approved news and photographs undermines our country's fundamental commitment to a free and independent press."

In a democracy, the news media serve a critical watchdog role on the three branches of government, Leinwand added. When government seeks to control the media, it weakens that independence and devalues the information released to the press and the public. She said the move was particularly disappointing in light of President Obama’s pledge to foster transparency in his administration.

The pressure from the NPC and other media groups added to that brought to bear by some officials in the Defense Department who expressed concerns to the brass in Afghanistan that they had gone too far in censoring the press, a Pentagon official said.

The U.S. military has censored photos in previous conflicts, but the new rule was the most far-reaching restriction that had been instituted for reporters covering the military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As has been the case in past wars, journalists covering Iraq and Afghanistan have agreed to limits on what they can publish from war zones when release of the information could compromise operations. But prior to September, media embedding with U.S. forces in eastern Afghanistan were not restricted in what pictures they could take or publish, as long as wounded troops gave permission for them to do so and, if a soldier in a photograph died, the news organization had to wait until the family was notified and an official announcement of the death was made. Then it was up to the news organization to decide whether to publish the photos.

But in September, Regional Command East, one of the four quadrants into which the military divides Afghanistan, revised its rules governing journalists who embed with its units. It barred the taking of images of U.S. military personnel killed in action.

Then, under pressure from the NPC and other news organizations over that decision, the command revised the rules again this month, allowing the images of casualties to be collected but not published in cases where the subject’s identity could be discerned.

On Oct. 18, the command backed down completely, rescinding the ban on publication and reverting to the rules that hold for the other military commands in Afghanistan as well as in Iraq, according to Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman.