Harper on defensive over media ban on return of dead soldiers

For the first time since the Canadian mission in Afghanistan began, media are being barred from an event marking the return of bodies of Canadian soldiers killed in the line of duty.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper defended his government's decision to ban the media from covering the return of bodies of soldiers killed in the line of duty, accusing the opposition of politicizing the issue.

Reporters were not allowed into the military airbase at Trenton, Ont., to cover the Tuesday evening arrival of the remains of four soldiers who died in a weekend bombing.

Harper said the policy has been implemented to respect the privacy of the families.

"It is not about photo ops and media coverage," Harper said during Question Period, after being slammed by opposition members over the new policy. "It's about what's in the best interests of the families."

Liberal Leader Bill Graham said the policy is "an invention on the part of the government" and called on Harper to reverse his decision.

"Politicizing these funerals is entirely unbecoming [the Opposition leader's] office," Harper shot back.

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Tories trying to hide bad press, critics say

Opposition MPs also accused Harper of trying to avoid bad press over the mission in Afghanistan.

"Will the prime minister tell us what he's trying to hide?" asked NDP Leader Jack Layton.

Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor also weighed in on the controversy, denying the government is hiding anything. He said some families don't believe the media should cover the event, while others do. He said they decided to ban all media coverage to have a consistent policy.

Earlier, O'Connor pointed out that media were allowed to cover a solemn sendoff ceremony just before a Hercules transport plane carrying the remains of Cpl. Matthew Dinning, Bombardier Myles Mansell, Lieut. William Turner and Cpl. Randy Payne left Kandahar airfield in Afghanistan on Monday.

Family members criticize government

At least one bereaved military family believes the government has made a mistake.

It should be up to the families to decide whether they want reporters present at such ceremonies, said Richard Leger, whose son Marc was killed in Afghanistan four years ago.

"I know, in 2002, it was a great thing for us to have the media there... We wanted to show all Canadians what the cost of their liberty is," he told CBC Newsworld.

"People saying, 'Thank you for the life of Marc' – as a parent that's hard to hear, but knowing what's the reason behind it helps us to move on."

Maureen Burrowes, who is a cousin of Payne, said the government is depriving her of her chance to be part of Tuesday night's ceremony.

"I honestly believed I would see my cousin's return on CBC as I could not be present today," she wrote in an e-mail. "I really feel that our current government has made a very bad decision and voters will remember this in the next election."

"The timing is absolutely horrendous and I would love to know how to get this reversed."

In the United States, the Bush administration has been criticized for banning images of the arrival of flag-draped coffins containing the remains of soldiers killed in Iraq.

White House officials imposed the ban out of worry that such photographs would lower public support for the military campaign.

Government under fire for flag policy

The new Conservative government is also attracting criticism for reversing the previous Liberal government's practice of lowering the flag on Parliament Hill's Peace Tower to mark military deaths.

The Conservatives say they are returning to the traditional protocol of honouring fallen soldiers by lowering the Peace Tower flag only on Remembrance Day.

In the House on Tuesday, Liberal MP Paul Steckle read a letter written by Dinning's father, who asked the prime minister to reconsider his decision.

"I would suggest to you that there is no more important VIP than a Canadian soldier who gave his life in the service of his country," wrote Lincoln Dinning in a letter two weeks before his son and three soldiers were killed in the roadside bomb.

"Please correct this wrong and show that actions speak louder than words and lower the flag next time a Canadian soldier is killed," he wrote.

Layton also challenged the policy.

"If it is appropriate to lower the flag here on Parliament Hill every time an unelected senator dies, why is it not appropriate to lower the flag every time one of our soldiers dies serving this country?" he asked.

Liberals had no consistent policy: Tories

But the Conservatives claimed the previous Liberal government lowered the flag on a selective basis and had no consistent policy.

For more than 80 years, Canada honoured its war dead by lowering flags on federal buildings on Remembrance Day. But former prime minister Jean Chrétien changed that in April 2002. When four Canadian soldiers were killed by U.S. bombs in Afghanistan, the flag on the Peace Tower was lowered to half-mast.

But the flag wasn't lowered in November 2005, when a Canadian private was killed in a traffic accident near Kandahar.

"We have set a consistent policy that the previous government did not practise and that consistent policy is that we will lower the flag for all casualties in all wars and all operations on November 11, Remembrance Day, so that everyone will be treated the same, all military casualties will be treated the same," O'Connor said.

Harper also cited a letter from the Army, Navy and Air Force Veterans in Canada Association that said it would be an insult to the relatives of past veterans who did not receive the same honour of having the flag lowered.

However, the governments of Alberta and Saskatchewan both say they will lower flags provincially to honour slain soldiers from their provinces, no matter what Ottawa decides to do.

Canada has lost 15 soldiers and a diplomat in Afghanistan since 2002.