In the wake of controversy surrounding the release in early September of a photograph of a mortally wounded soldier, the US military in eastern Afghanistan has issued new guidelines forbidding embedded media from photographing troops killed in action.
A military spokesperson described the change as a "clarification rather than a new rule," even though the media were previously allowed to cover casualties as long as certain conditions were met, such as not releasing the photo before the family was notified. NATO forces in Afghanistan and Multi National forces in Iraq still allow photos of those killed in action.
The "clarification" was issued in September but only started drawing attention this month. According to the National Press Photographers Association, a photographer for a daily national paper noticed the difference when he arrived in Afghanistan and was asked to sign the revised agreement:
"When the photojournalist brought the changed language to the attention of his managers back in the States -- editors who never would have sent him to Afghanistan if those were indeed the conditions -- their conversations with the military, Pentagon, and Department of Defense officials in Washington led them to conclude that the embed agreement had been changed by a lone officer who did not have the authority to do so, and that shortly the documents would revert back to their original wording. ... At that time most of the editors who were looking into the altered agreement came to believe that it was a 'non-issue' and that it had been resolved."
It appears now that the issue has not been resolved. Last week, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press noticed the changes and reported them on their blog, from which the story has spread more widely. According to the Associated Press, "We have queried the Pentagon about the photo rules and have been told that the matter is being reviewed."
Editor and Publisher reports that "the image, which was shot August 14 by AP photographer Julie Jacobson, was released as part of a package of stories and photos about the death of Lance Cpl. Joshua M. Bernard. Both U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Bernard’s family had asked the AP not to release the photo."
Gates even wrote to the president of AP, "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."
Photographs of the dead and wounded were common during the Vietnam War but have been notable for their rarity during more recent conflicts. A blogger at Firedoglake suggests that there may be more behind the rule change than consideration for the families of the dead.
Pointing to the impact made by the Civil War photographs of Matthew Brady after the battle of Antietam, he asks, "Why no photos in Afghanistan? I suspect it is because if word gets out that US military people actually die, the US public may start asking really hard questions. You know, questions like 'why?' ... If the DOD can’t take the heat generated by images of the harvest of death, then maybe that’s an indication that we shouldn’t be fighting that war in the first place."
The White House has denied an unsourced BBC report on Wednesday evening that it has decided to send 40,000 to 45,000 additional troops to Afghanistan.