Photo ban on war dead lifted
Fri, Feb 27, 2009

WASHINGTON - DEFENCE Secretary Robert Gates announced on Thursday he had lifted a ban on media coverage of the return of flag-draped coffins of fallen soldiers from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, reversing a controversial policy dating back to 1991.

The decision would leave it up to the families of the dead soldiers if the media would be allowed to film or photograph the coffins at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, Mr Gates said at a news conference.

'I have decided that the decision regarding media coverage of the dignified transfer process at Dover should be made by those most directly affected, on an individual basis, by the families of the fallen,' Mr Gates said.

'We ought not presume to make that decision in their place.' Mr Gates said a team of advisers would prepare a plan on how to carry out the new policy, which has been the subject of lawsuits and emotional debate.

The ban on media coverage began under former president George H.W. Bush during the first Gulf war. Images of honour guards carrying the coffins from the bellies of military transport planes became a grim symbol of the Vietnam War, and a graphic reminder of the mounting death toll.

Former president George W. Bush's administration was accused of trying to hide the human cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which has claimed the lives of nearly 5,000 American soldiers. Mr Gates said he had ordered a review under the last administration over a year ago but said he reluctantly kept the policy after receiving advice from his deputies.

He said there 'still is a division' in the Pentagon over the policy. A CNN and Opinion Research Corporation poll released on Thursday showed a majority of Americans backed the decision, with 67 per cent saying the public should be allowed to see video and photos of the coffins returning.

Mr Gates had ordered the review at the prompting of President Barack Obama and the White House welcomed the move, saying it was in line with policy at the Arlington cemetery in the US capital where war dead are buried.

'What the secretary's come back with and what the president supports is a policy consistent with that that we have in Arlington cemetery, which allows at the families permission' for media coverage, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters.

The Dover base in Delaware is the site of the military's largest mortuary. -- AFP

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Photo ban on war dead lifted