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Arlington Cemetery at Center of Controversy Over Media Coverage of Military Funerals


Arlington National Cemetery, across the Potomac river from Washington, D.C., is at the center of a controversy over media coverage of military funerals for those killed in the Iraq war. The complaints over restricted press access have led some to accuse the U.S. government of trying to limit images of the human costs of a war that most Americans now think was a mistake. But others at the center of the controversy say the problem stems from the lack of a clear policy outlining the parameters of media coverage - a policy the Pentagon says it is examining. More from VOA's Bill Rodgers.

Arlington National Cemetery, where America pays tribute to its fallen troops. From the tomb of the Unknown Soldier, to the final resting place of prominent Americans such as President John F. Kennedy, Arlington Cemetery is hallowed ground that is now embroiled in a controversy over media access.

Press coverage of military funerals is only permitted when the grieving families give their consent. But there are complaints that access is being restricted, with reporters kept too far away to hear or record the funerals of those soldiers killed in Iraq.

Ami Nieberger-Miller, whose brother Christopher Nieberger was killed in Iraq a year ago, says her family agreed to media coverage of the burial. But she says she was dismayed by the restrictions.

"It would not have taken a lot for a microphone to have been run from where the media were, so that they could hear the eulogy," she said. "It wouldn't have taken much -- not that we wanted them shouting questions or running up after us or anything like that. But I did want my brother's life to be honored."

"By taking away the sound and really blocking the line of sight, I think you take away some of that memory," said Gina Gray, who was the cemetery's public affairs director until June.

A veteran of the Iraq war who worked for years in Army public affairs, Gray was fired after only three months on the job because she says she pressed for better press access to military funerals.

"It's been my experience that most families want the story of their loved one told," she said. "They want to feel like that sacrifice is not for nothing. And they are beautiful stories, and the way that we bury people at Arlington, whether you are for or against the war, whether you believe in the military or not, the way the military treats the dead as they send them off, is a beautiful, beautiful ceremony."

It is in section 60 where some of those killed in Iraq are buried. And with more than 4,000 Americans dead so far, some say the government's aim at Arlington is to limit the public's exposure to the casualties of war.

The long-standing Pentagon prohibition against media pictures of returning war dead is cited as another example of this. Images in this report were taken by the U.S. military and permission obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

Lucy Dalglish, heads the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a group that works on behalf of journalists' legal rights.

"It impinges on press freedom in the sense that it makes it more difficult to cover what's going on with the war on terror," Dalglish said. "Certainly, military burials are part of that story. It doesn't tell the whole story but it tells a very important part of the story.

The Pentagon has said little publicly about the matter. An official says Army Secretary Pete Geren is reviewing the policy of media access. Spokesman Geoff Morrell was asked about the review Tuesday.

"It's a balancing act," Morrell said. "...and it is based upon the wishes of the families. And we are trying to work out a system which allows for the grieving families to have the privacy and the room that they need, and the press to have the access they wish for."

But for Ami Nieberger-Miller, a public affairs specialist for a group that supports military families that have lost loved ones, a lot is at stake.

"Our country has sent a group of amazing people overseas and some of them are making the ultimate sacrifice," she said. "And they are not just a number in a newspaper with a name. There is a lot more there, and I think the American public could learn a lot more about them."

For now, many say the public is not, despite the wishes of some of the grieving families.

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