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Senate allows ban on photos of soldiers' caskets to stand

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    News Media Update         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Newsgathering    

Senate allows ban on photos of soldiers’ caskets to stand

  • The Senate voted yesterday against legislation that would have required the Department of Defense to create new rules permitting photographers to cover the arrival and departure of caskets of military personnel killed abroad

June 22, 2004 — The U.S. Senate voted 54-39 yesterday against legislation that would have instructed the Department of Defense to develop new rules permitting photographers on U.S. military bases to cover the arrival and departure of caskets containing the remains of soldiers killed overseas.

The measure was proposed by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) as an amendment to a $447.2 billion Pentagon spending bill for 2005. It was modified to allow the families of the fallen soldiers to decide whether they wanted media present. Republican Senators Olympia Snowe of Maine and John McCain of Arizona voted in favor of the bill, while seven Democrats joined 47 Republicans in opposition.

Although a policy banning media coverage of military caskets arriving at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware has been in place since 1991, it had not been regularly followed.

To encourage compliance with the 13-year-old policy, the Pentagon issued a directive in March 2003, at the onset of the war in Iraq, stating that there would be no coverage of “deceased military personnel returning to or departing from” air bases. The Pentagon has cited the privacy rights of those killed and their families, even though the caskets are always closed in transport.

“But this requirement, this directive requiring strict censorship issued just as the Iraq war began prevents the American people from seeing the truth about what is happening,” Lautenberg said from the Senate floor yesterday.

Thus far, 830 U.S. troops have died in Iraq, according to the Department of Defense.

The American Society of Media Photographers compares the photography blackout to the recently proposed ban of photography in New York City’s subway system.

“These are all issues, instances that make it more difficult for editorial photographers to do their job and exercise their First Amendment rights,” said Eugene Mopsik, executive director of the Pennsylvania-based organization. “I really don’t see this as a privacy issue.”

The U.S. government released numerous photographs earlier this month of the flag-draped casket of former President Ronald Reagan. It further allowed public viewing and photography of the former commander-in-chief’s casket.

In April, First Amendment advocate Russ Kick published a collection of 288 photos of caskets of the war dead, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, on his Web site, Kick requested, “All photographs showing caskets (or other devices) containing the remains of U.S. military personnel at Dover AFB . . . includ[ing], but not be limited to, caskets arriving, caskets departing, and any funerary rites/rituals being performed” from Feb. 1, 2003 on. Moreover, 73 photographs depicting the caskets of the fallen astronauts of the Columbia space shuttle were also released by Air Force Mobility Command. All pictures were taken by Air Force photographers.

Kick’s request was initially denied, but later granted on appeal. The Pentagon has since said releasing the photographs was a mistake.


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