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Military Limits Publishing Images of U.S. Casualties in Afghanistan

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 16, 2009

The U.S. military command in eastern Afghanistan on Thursday imposed a new ban on publication of photographs taken by embedded journalists that identify American war casualties.

The restriction is outlined in ground rules for reporters embedded with U.S. forces battling Taliban insurgents in eastern Afghanistan along the Pakistani border. The new rules say that "media will not be prohibited from viewing or filming casualties; however, casualty photographs showing recognizable face, nametag or other identifying feature or item will not be published."

The new rules mark a change from a broader rule issued Sept. 30 that said, "Media will not be allowed to photograph or record video of U.S. personnel killed in action."

The restriction on publishing was prompted by controversy over an Associated Press photograph of a mortally wounded Marine. An embedded AP photographer took a picture of Marine Lance Cpl. Joshua M. Bernard during a firefight with Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan's Helmand province in August, and the AP published the photograph last month over the objections of Bernard's family and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates.

"After that incident, we felt that for the sake of the soldier and the family members that was what we needed to do," said Lt. Col. Clarence Counts, a spokesman for the U.S. military command in eastern Afghanistan. He said the earlier rules "left it too wide open with regard to protecting the soldier and his family members if we had a KIA," he said, referring to a service member killed in action.

Before the incident, the command's rules had stated that the news media would not be prohibited from covering casualties provided several conditions were met, including gaining written permission from the wounded before publishing any images that could identify them and waiting until after the notification of next of kin to publish photographs of those killed in action.

News of the Sept. 30 restriction was reported last week by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, leading to questions from lawmakers about whether it was appropriate.

"In retrospect we may have gone a little too far to the right -- so we modified it a little more," Counts said in a telephone interview from Bagram air base.

The revised ground rules ease the Sept. 30 restriction by allowing casualties to be photographed, but the publication prohibition remains. The new set of rules appears contradictory, though. Another provision permits release of images of wounded troops if they give permission, stating that "in respect to our family members, names, video, identifiable written/oral descriptions or identifiable photographs of wounded service members will not be released without the service member's prior written consent."

Counts said the revisions were designed to bring the eastern command rules in line with those of the overall headquarters of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.

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