AP Photo of Dying Soldier Sparks Ban on Death Photos in Afghanistan
October 15, 2009
(ChattahBox)—On September 4, the Associated Press published a controversial photo of Lance Cpl. Joshua M. Bernard, as he lay dying on the dusty ground in Afghanistan, over the objections of his family and U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Other newspapers refused to follow suit out of respect for the soldier’s family, but the image was widely distributed over the Internet.
Now, the U.S. military in eastern Afghanistan has changed its media embed rules to ban pictures of troops killed in action.
A new ground rules document released Sept. 15 by Regional Command East at Bagram Air Field reads: “Media will not be allowed to photograph or record video of U.S. personnel killed in action.”
Previous language said, “Media will not be prohibited from covering casualties” as long as a series of conditions are met.”
Master Sgt. Tom Clementson of Regional Command East Public Affairs, referred to the new language, as “a clarification rather than a new rule.”
The new language was added in the wake of the controversy surrounding the publication of Lance Cpl. Joshua M. Bernard’s dying photo, by the AP, taken by photographer Julie Jacobson. Bernard was mortally injured, after being hit by a rocket-propelled grenade and lost one of his legs.
Other embed agreements do not ban photos of killed-in-action casualties, as long as certain conditions are complied with. But the AP’s release of the soldier’s dying photo in defiance of the family’s wishes, certainly caused outrage in the military.
And Secretary of Defense Gates was furious with the media organization’s decision to publish the photo:
“Why your organization would purposefully defy the family’s wishes knowing full well that it will lead to yet more anguish is beyond me. Your lack of compassion and common sense in choosing to put this image of their maimed and stricken child on the front page of multiple American newspapers is appalling. The issue here is not law, policy or constitutional right — but judgment and common decency,” wrote Gates.
Master Sgt. Tom Clementson further explained the change in embed rules, as necessary protection for soldiers’ privacy and propriety, in an email:
“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. 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,” wrote Clementson.
It’s certainly true that sanitizing the war, does a disservice both to the soldier’s themselves and the public. But in this instance, Lance Cpl. Joshua M. Bernard’s family wishes should have been respected.
The Bush administration tried to sanitize the war, by banning photos of the coffins of the dead soldiers returning home to rest. The Obama administration changed that policy, by allowing photographers to cover the returns of remains at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, as long as family members give their consent.