Apr
01
2007

From Self-Censorship to Official Censorship

Ban on images of wounded GIs raises no media objections

Mortally wounded U.S. Army Sgt. Hector Leija

This photo of mortally wounded Sgt. Hector Leija, taken by Robert Nickelsberg, was pulled from the New York Times website after being called “offensive” and contrary to new censorship regulations by a U.S. military official.

A letter in February to the New York Times (2/3/07) from the commander of the Multinational Corps in Iraq revealed new censorship regulations prohibiting portrayals of U.S. casualties in the media. The tightened rules have been in effect since May 2006, but no media outlet with embedded photographers reported on or objected to the censorship of images.

In his letter, Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno protested a January 29 article that portrayed the death of Sgt. Hector Leija during a house-to-house search in Baghdad (“Man Down” by Damien Cave with photo by Robert Nickelsberg). Odierno expressed “profound disappointment in the New York Times’ decision to publish a photograph of a mortally wounded American soldier.” He called the photo (and an online video) “offensive,” and asserted that the “clear depiction is also directly counter to the written agreement made by the reporter and the photographer before publication.”

The paper responded with apologies to Leija’s family, followed up with a conversation between Times editor Bill Keller and Odierno, and apparently removed the photos from their website (though the video is still available). It was unclear why the Times felt a need to apologize; the article and photos were most respectful. But the images were also unusual—even when they were still allowed.

Throughout the Iraq War, media have rarely shown images of U.S. battlefield casualties, almost never with visible pain or blood. Such restraint provides tacit support for the war. Vietnam showed us that images of the suffering of U.S. troops foster protest.

Now publication of pictures of casualties violates new media ground rules for Iraq from the Department of Defense. The regulation states, “Names, video, identifiable written/oral descriptions or identifiable photographs of wounded service members will not be released without service member’s prior written consent”—which seems absurdly unlikely. In addition, the rule mandates, “In respect for family members, names or images clearly identifying individuals ‘killed in action’ will not be released. Names of KIAs may be released 24 hours after Next of Kin have been notified.”

In 2005, when I reported on images of casualties for Extra! (7-8/05), photos could still be published of wounded or dead Americans in Iraq. This is the regulation the DoD press office sent me two years ago: “Battlefield casualties may be covered by embedded media as long as the service member’s identity is protected from disclosure for 72 hours or upon verification of NoK [next of kin] notification, whichever is first.” (This was a different regulation from the one prohibiting photos of coffins of dead Americans coming back to the U.S. at Dover Air Force Base—Extra!, 5/91.)

The media hardly ever did publish such pictures. When they did, the depictions were discreet—as with a Time magazine online photoessay (10/26/05) marking 2,000 U.S. military deaths and 15,000 injuries in Iraq. “Iraq’s Grim Tally” showed memorials and funerals, but just one picture with a U.S. casualty—a soldier in a hospital bed, surrounded by comrades in uniform, receiving a Purple Heart.

After the new regulations came out in May 2006 virtually prohibiting any portrayals, news organizations proceeded as they had. Occasional pictures of wounded Americans, always presented in a sensitive manner, caused no problems.

Meanwhile, there’s nothing unusual about pictures of dead, dying and wounded Iraqis—and Afghans as well, when the press remembers to cover that other war. Blood on the sidewalk, twisted remains, friends and families in the depths of grief—these are everyday images in the New York Times and other media. But those pictures overwhelmingly show only one kind of victim—people and things shattered by their fellow countrymen, not by U.S. troops.

Look at the powerful photoessays on Iraq and Afghanistan on Time’s website. In eight portfolios with more than a hundred images of war involving U.S. troops in 2006, 20 show the injured or dead felled by “insurgents,” “sectarian violence” or the Taliban. Five show U.S. wounded. (Three of the five are in a series by the intrepid Nickelsberg, who was embedded in Afghanistan at that time.)

Two photos showed men killed by American forces. Both are clearly described as threats to U.S. troops. One photoessay, published June 8, that shows the U.S. raid that killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, “the Al-Qaeda-linked militant,” begins with the startling image of the face of the dead al-Zarqawi—a photo in a big frame on an easel at a press briefing. Clearly, the military wanted to highlight success.

The only other image clearly identified as a casualty of U.S. troops was in a retrospective look at the first three years of war (3/21/06; photo first published 6/21/04). The caption describes the scene: “Mourners carry the body of a militiaman loyal to Moqtada Sadr, killed in clashes with U.S. forces in Baghdad.”

In the pictures, Time shows images only of dangerous militants.

Suffering of ordinary people caused by Americans remains largely unseen. Still simmering on the back burner, the government refuses to release more photos that it has from Abu Ghraib—despite lengthy court challenges spearheaded by the ACLU (ACLU press release, 2/15/06). Will the photos be published if court challenges finally succeed? Maybe not.

Consider this: The Washington Post recently discovered new photos of Iraqi civilians killed by U.S. troops in Haditha among the thousands of pages of Naval Criminal Investigative Service documents. The paper chose not to publish the pictures. “Post editors decided that most of the images are too graphic to publish,” a Post news report noted (1/7/07). “Marine Corps officials believe that many of the photographs—which show the results of grenade explosions inside civilian homes and close-range rifle shots—are inflammatory by their nature, no matter whether a crime was committed.”

Exactly.

Today, the press—not just the Times, but virtually every U.S. news organization in Iraq—has accepted the military’s sensibility and sensitivities. Without the military’s cooperation, embedding of reporters and photographers would not be possible, and on-the-ground accounts of the war would cease—unless the press kicked up more of a fuss about restraining coverage.

Photos of American suffering or suffering caused by Americans might indeed sicken and offend viewers. But by acquiescing to the military’s censorship and avoiding most of these images of American involvement, the media does not offer a true portrayal of the consequences of war. Showing blood on the floor, the fallen soldier, was too much for the military, even though the story of Sergeant Leija was presented sensitively, as a story of bravery in the face of danger. By accepting military censorship without discussion, though, the media demonstrate cowardice.