Did the Star err in publishing Tana River death photo?
The Media Council of Kenya,the government watchdog that oversee the watchful media has released a terse statement castigating the Star newspaper for publishing a photo of a woman and her one year old daughter felled in a field by raiders at Kibusu village in Tana River.
The photo raised uproar on Friday with many readers raising concern over the insensitive manner in which the paper handled the deaths in Tana. Most have said it was insensitive to the family and ‘would flare up tensions in Tana.’ while others have praised the paper for taking a bold but painful decision to alert Kenyans on the real story in Tana.
“I don’t know what the intention was but the front page picture of The Star newspaper of the above date wasn’t one of the best. I’m a Star Newspaper reader but I had to avoid the paper because of the picture, it was really moving and I couldn’t take another look at it. Please be sensitive next time,” one reader complained to The Star Public Editor.
The ‘war’ in Tana Delta started way back in August 2012. To date 200 people have lost their lives,among them 41 children and 53 women. Prior to the publishing of the offending photo, 11 people had been killed in Nduru. Police had been barred by the raiders from accessing the village.
Journalist who went to cover the Nduru attack were roughed up by villagers. By then only eight people had been killed. But within two hours some raiders brought the police a hand of one of the victims killed for finger prints. That is how desperate the situation was with the police who were supposed to quell the violence being stopped.
That day it was difficult for journalists to get photographs from the scene as a result of threats to their lives. The next day(January 9) all the newspaper gave little prominence to the flare up. The Star despite having photos of dead raiders killed by locals decided to use photos of armed villagers to illustrate the story on page 3.
On January 10 we woke up to news of fresh attacks at Kibusu village, this time the number of those killed was 12. It was a difficult place for photographers to cover the deaths,one of them told me that it took extra will to take photos of school going children cut with machetes on the head.
“It was like a scene from hell,I have covered these killings since August. I was the first to arrive on the scene in Riketa last year where 53 people were killed but this day was different. The sight of children’s bodies hanging on trees with cuts was too much,” said the photographer.
Another journalist said the scene reminded him of Rwanda genocide.
Dutifully the photographers filed photos both of the victims,burnt houses and off course the photos they always know will never be published but should be taken anyway-the dead. But on this day unlike others the victims photo were more alarming especially a photo of a mother with her daughter slaughtered in a field(the one the star published), a school boy felled on his way to school with a bag and uniform and another of a school boy shot on top of a tree cutting firewood.
They were all heart-wrenching photographs even for a Photo Editor who sees such photographs everyday. One of the photo showed the husband of the dead mother and child wailing next to the bodies of his loved one.
After a long debate the Star decided to publish the photo,not out of ignorance but out of PUBLIC INTEREST.The issue of what effect the photograph will have on Kenyans was weighed. My personal view was that by the time raiders decide to killing a wailing mother and an innocent child matters had reached a dangerous level. Somebody had to decide and take a bold step to try and stop the madness.
The bloodiest photo which touched my heart was of the school boy with three panga cuts on his head. He must have pleaded for leniency from the murderers to no avail. A man who raises a panga and slash a boy should make any Kenyan angry. Photographs of wailing women and burning houses we felt could not show the seriousness of the Tana River story.
Who defines public interest?
Life is sacred. Loss of life under any circumstance is a big issue. That is why we stare at a dead body in an accident scene. It is worse if the life being lost is of school going children and defenseless women. This is happening in Tana.
Being nice, not shocking people and let the killings continue is like going to bed with the murderers. One has to chose whether to annoy people and in a small way help stop the senseless killing or ignore the killings and regret later when a genocide occur. Does the death of innocent people come second to peoples’ emotions?
The Media Council rightful said journalists should be careful in intruding into grief, but what is happening in Tana is not grief, it is a massacre. The intention of the editor was not to sell more copies the next day but to give a glimpse of what is really happening in Tana.
The Editors have a difficult task of judging what is of public interest in a short span of time. By the time they take the courage to run such a photograph they have done a lot of soul-searching and weighed the ethics vis-a-vis public interest. It is of public interest for Kenyans to know how bad the situation has deteriorated in The Tana.
The people in Tana have seen death so many times they are now becoming numb. It is up to us to feel their pain, to put pressure on government to intervene in the situation. If the government through the police has failed in five months to stop the killings the I do not know how we can tell this story to show how serious the issue is. We have tried to illustrate the story in many ‘sensitive’ ways we could in the last five months.
As far as the photo was concerned it had some positive effect. For the first time we saw President Mwai Kibaki during a tour of Kwale on Friday(the day the photograph was published) pained by the killings in Tana. The president used very strong words to describe the killers-he called them ‘mad people.’ There was no way the president could have come to know of the gravity of the killing if only pictures of burning houses were used.
On Saturday leaders from Tana River County held a press conference in which they vowed to bring peace in the region. Some of them were emotional and said people who have been killed in Tana are not statistics but people with families.
To this end I think The Star photograph rather than spark violence in Tana was a point of soul-searching for all of us. It was an opportunity to reflect on how low we have sunk as a country.It was a fresh pointer into what people are turning into and turning to our innocent children to solve our disputes. There is now way we could reflect on this unless we saw the sad photo of a mother and her child killed in cold blood.
Media scholars argue that media is a mirror of society.The mirror will never lie. Photographs too will never lie unless they are manipulated.