Military Reverses Ban On Afghanistan Soldier Death Photos

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

NEW YORK — Military leaders in Afghanistan have backed off an attempt to ban news organizations embedded with the Army from photographing or videotaping images of U.S. personnel killed in the war.

But there was still confusion Friday about what photographers will be allowed to capture on the battlefield. The ban put in place by regional commanders at the Bagram Air Field was partly in reaction to a controversy over distribution last month of a photo by The Associated Press showing a U.S. Marine mortally wounded in a grenade attack.

The AP distributed the picture to its members despite pleas by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and against the wishes of the Marine's family in Maine.

Shortly afterward, the Afghanistan regional command changed the rules that reporters and photographers are required to sign before being embedded with a unit. The amended rules stated: "Media will not be allowed to photograph or record video of U.S. personnel killed in action."

The AP photo was one factor in the change, said Maj. Virginia McCabe, a Bagram-based spokeswoman for Regional Command East.

"It's a unique situation when a reporter embeds," she said. "They are given unfettered access to our soldiers. And in doing so, they are going to see things they would not normally see."

News organizations say they try to be respectful in such coverage. But there's a long history of photography that gives citizens the sense of what wartime is really all about, said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

"I'm really concerned about the government deciding what's newsworthy, instead of a news organization deciding what's newsworthy," she said.

Maya Alleruzzo, an AP photographer recently assigned to Afghanistan after working in Iraq, found she was prohibited from shooting pictures of damaged vehicles, wounded soldiers without their permission and soldiers who were killed in action.

"I felt like I was welcome to cover everything else but the war," she said.

After news organizations protested the amended rule, the Pentagon suggested a rewrite. The new rule released Thursday would allow photography of casualties but said participating news organizations could not use material where there is a recognizable face or other identifiable feature. Journalists could not write about or photograph wounded troops unless those service members give prior permission.

Prior to the AP's controversial photo in September, news organizations had much more leeway to publish photos of the dead as soon as the next of kin had been notified – even though much less of this material has been shown during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars than in past conflicts.

The Pentagon intervened to tell the field commanders that the complete ban on images was too restrictive, but stopped short of ordering a rewrite. Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said the second version still does not give news organizations enough freedom. "Only about half my concerns were resolved," he said.

Whitman said he had asked for a second revision, but none came by the close of business Friday in Afghanistan. Another Pentagon spokesman, Dave Lapan, said field commanders were still reviewing it.

"Any time that you're talking about casualties, the reporting of casualties and imagery of casualties, it's an emotional issue," Whitman said. The Defense Department is chiefly concerned that its rules of embeds preserve operational security and the military's system for giving relatives notice of casualties, he said.

John Daniszewski, AP senior managing editor, said he's still waiting for the outcome of the Pentagon's review.

"We are seeking the freedom to cover the war in Afghanistan and the armed forces so as to provide as much information as possible to the hundreds of millions of people who have a keen interest in developments in the conflict," Daniszewski said.

Dusan Vranic, chief photographer for the AP in Iraq until this month, said restrictions for embeds have gradually grown tighter. The rule that photographers needed permission from soldiers or kin for photos of the wounded basically made it "mission impossible," he said.

A rule that forbid embeds from giving "information on effectiveness of enemy techniques" was also widely used to cleanse images coming from the war, he said.

"If they feel like it, all images you will end up having at the end of the day will be `soldier gives candy,'" Vranic said.


AP National Security Writer Anne Gearan and AP Writer Robert H. Reid in Afghanistan contributed to this report.