When U.S. officials asked the news media not to take pictures of those killed by Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, they were censoring a key part of the disaster story, free- speech watchdogs said yesterday.
The move by the Federal Emergency Management Agency is in line with the Bush administration's ban on images of flag-draped U.S. military coffins returning from the Iraq war, media monitors charged in separate telephone interviews.
"It's impossible for me to imagine how you report a story whose subject is death without allowing the public to see images of the subject of the story," said Larry Siems of the PEN American Center, an authors' group that defends free expression.
U.S. newspapers, television outlets and Web sites have featured pictures of shrouded corpses and makeshift graves in New Orleans.
But on Tuesday, FEMA refused to take reporters and photographers along on boats seeking victims in flooded areas, saying they would take up valuable space needed in the recovery effort and asked them not to take pictures of the dead.
In an e-mail explaining the decision, a FEMA spokeswoman wrote: "The recovery of victims is being treated with dignity and the utmost respect and we have requested that no photographs of the deceased be made by the media."
Efforts to recover bodies continued yesterday. Out in the city's filthy waters, rescue teams tied bodies to trees or fences when they found them and noted the location for later recovery before carrying on in search of survivors.
Rebecca Daugherty of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press found FEMA's stance inexplicable.
"The notion that, when there's very little information from FEMA, that they would even spend the time to be concerned about whether the reporting effort is up to its standards of taste is simply mind-boggling," Daugherty said. "You cannot report on the disaster and give the public a realistic idea of how horrible it is if you don't see that there are bodies as well."
FEMA's policy of excluding media from recovery expeditions in New Orleans is "an invitation to chaos," said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a part of Columbia University's journalism school.
"This is about managing images and not public taste or human dignity," Rosenstiel said. He said FEMA's refusal to take journalists along on recovery missions meant that media workers would go on their own.
Rosenstiel also noted that generally, the American media, especially television outlets, are reluctant to show corpses.
"By and large, American television is the most sanitized television in the world," he said. "They are less likely to show bodies, they are less likely to show graphic images of the dead than any television in the world."
There is also a question of what the American PEN Center's Siems called "international equity," noting that American news outlets cover stories around the world showing the effects of natural disasters and wars in graphic detail.
"How is the world going to look at us if we go into their part of the world and we broadcast these images and we do not allow ourselves to look at such images when they're right in our own midst?" Siems said.
Mark Tapscott, a former editor at the Washington Times who now deals with media issues at the Heritage Foundation, said the FEMA decision did not amount to censorship.
"Let's not make a common-decency issue into a censorship issue," Tapscott said. "Nobody wants to wake up in the morning and see their dead uncle on the front page. That's just common decency."