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Reporters Committee urges military to allow press back into Arlington funerals

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The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press urges Army Secretary Pete Geren to allow journalists to cover military funerals…

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press urges Army Secretary Pete Geren to allow journalists to cover military funerals at Arlington National Cemetery when a service member’s family has given permission for such coverage.

“The new unofficial policy, enforced with apparent whimsy by cemetery officials, reeks of politics,” said Reporters Committee Executive Director Lucy A. Dalglish. “It does not serve the best interests of the American public or the interests of military families who want the public to know about the sacrifices made by their loved ones.”

An April 24 story in The Washington Post reported that Arlington National Cemetery officials required journalists to be at least 50 yards from a memorial service held the day before despite the fact that journalists had received the family’s permission to cover the burial.

In a May 8 letter to cemetery officials, the Reporters Committee objected to the policy and asked that it immediately be changed to restore journalists’ access. The privacy of a service member’s family should be a factor considered during press coverage of military funerals, the Reporters Committee letter said. But such coverage is also useful for Americans’ broader understanding of the sacrifices put forth by brave service members and the family members who endure their loss.

Because the publicly funded cemetery’s policy of restricting journalists’ access appears to rely on flimsy legal support at best and not the interests of a deceased soldier’s family, the Reporters Committee believes the policy actually exists to further hide from the public the real costs of the Iraq War.

The Reporters Committee’s May 8 letter to cemetery Deputy Director of Operations Thurman Higginbotham protested the cemetery policy and requested a detailed explanation of its legal basis. Arlington National Cemetery Superintendent John Metzler and Army Public Affairs Officer Maj. Tony Cucolo were copied on the letter.

Despite leaving multiple messages for Higginbotham during several weeks following its letter, the Reporters Committee did not receive an explanation for the cemetery’s policy. Higginbotham left a general voicemail message after the first several messages, but additional calls made by the Reporters Committee in response have not been returned.

On a related issue, the Post reported this week that Secretary Geren has requested his staff to conduct an internal examination of the Army’s firing of Gina Gray, a former public affairs director at Arlington National Cemetery who recently lost her job while working to facilitate media coverage of military funerals. As that review continues, the Reporters Committee urges Secretary Geren to change the policy at Arlington National Cemetery so that the public may better appreciate the service and sacrifices of the country’s men and women in uniform.