By: Mark Fitzgerald
Families of Canadian soldiers killed in Afghanistan have joined news organizations and international free-press groups in condemning the Conservative government’s decision to ban television coverage of the return of four dead soldiers.
Reporters and cameras were not allowed into the military airbase at Trenton, near Toronto, where the fallen soldiers were returned for burial in Canada April 25.
“The Canadian government is following the bad example set by the U.S. administration if it thinks it can hide the facts from the population,” the Paris-based organization Reporter Without Borders said in a statement Thursday. “Respect for the grief of the families is of course necessary, but it should not be used as a pretext that is tantamount to censorship.”
(On the eve of the Iraq invasion in 2003, U.S. President George W. Bush re-imposed a ban on photographs of coffins returning from war. Some photographs have since emerged through freedom of information requests.)
During question time in the House of Commons earlier this week, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said the ban was imposed to respect the interest of the soldiers’ families.
“It is not about photo ops and media coverage,” Harper said, according to press reports. “It is about what is in the best interests of the families… In the case of dealing with funerals and families who are grieving, I know the minister of national defense’s primary consideration is that we do everything possible to assist at the departmental and political level with the grieving the families may be holding.”
The minister of national defense, Gordon O’Connor, insisted that there “is no intention whatsoever of hiding anything from the press.”
But according to an article by The Canadian Press, the families of some of the fallen soldiers oppose the ban on media coverage of the returning coffins.
CP quoted Lincoln Dinning, the father of one of the soldiers killed in Afghanistan, as telling his representative in Parliament that he was “dumfounded” by the decision to bar media from the repatriation ceremonies.
Citing comments on CBC, CP also quoted Richard Leger, whose son Marc was killed in 2002, and whose repatriation was covered by the media.
“It was a Canadian thing. It was something we wanted to show all Canadians–what the cost of their liberty is,” Leger said. “It’s still heartwarming to (remember) the people’s faces. People were lined up on (Highway) 401, in 2002, all the way from Trenton to Toronto.”
Canada has about 2,300 deployed in Afghanistan. Since the start of the war in 2001, 15 Canadian troops have been killed there, as was a Canadian diplomat.
Toronto Star national affairs columnist Chantal Hebert wrote Friday that Harper’s decision to ban media from the repatriation ceremonies stemmed from his “well-documented contempt” of the press which blinded him to the potential for a citizen backlash.
“This is a regime that insists on treating the national press as a collective nuisance,” Hebert wrote. “It never passes on an occasion to swat the parliamentary press corps out of the way.”