Did the Star err in publishing Tana River death photo?

 The bodies of Sally Margaret and her one-and-a-half-year-old daughter Patience Daniel lie in an open field after an attack in Kibusu village, Tana Delta, yesterday morning.Photo/Reuters

BRUTAL DEATH:The bodies of Sally Margaret and her one-and-a-half-year-old daughter Patience Daniel lie in an open field after an attack in Kibusu village, Tana Delta, yesterday morning.Photo/File

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?

Is this death acceptable? A boy lies in a pool of blood after being hacked to death at Kibusu village in Tana River

Is this death acceptable? A boy lies in a pool of blood after being hacked to death at Kibusu village in Tana River

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.


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Posted on January 13, 2013, in General News and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. The picture was really moving and sad but i think its time Kenyans knew what is happening in the ground….Time to stop the madness..

  2. Reblogged this on MrYoungScholar.

  3. Ve read the article n yep its such tasking at times. Really the roles of a journalist are not eased by any situation; The ve to inform as well as entertain, play the watchdog role as wel as as wel mirror the society. My opinion so long as the recipient is protected by maybe taking longshots instead of mugshot, an objective caption etc it okey if ve to use pictures to deliver the weight on an issue at hand.

  4. In a country where people get massacred as leaders award themselves ridiculous salaries and benefits, I say by all means let people know just how bloody things in reality are.

  5. How about the feelings of the affected people, the relas learnt of their kins deaths when they read their names from the paper and the classmates of a schoolboy who was hacked to death in his uniform. What are we making of our society?

  6. Why should Media Council complain?They should instead accuse the government (which it is part of) for allowing such killings to be carried.Star is only a messenger!

  7. The magnitude of the tragedy in this story could not have been expressed better by the author if he had approached it by Euphemism.Truth is just that …nothing more to it Media Council,a journalist who gives him/herself to euphemism attracts no corrective action in a situation like thi

  8. What the Star did violated all the ethics that guide the photojournalism work.. they should stop defending themselves

  9. Question shud be, “did star create this photo?” wasnt first time for such murders, if government had stopped the killings star wud’nt av gotten that photo. How many pple saw those bodies B4 star got the pix? Time was ripe for world to know true situation

  10. Just when I was giving up on you, you give me a front page on Friday Jan 11 Th that tells me there is hope. No, all Kenyans have not lost their humanity. Such a simple way to portray the sad but real face of Kenya today. I have been wondering why the tragic and horrific stories about Kenyans dying at the hands of other Kenyans around the country keep getting buried inside the papers instead of the front pages. Why has it all become ‘normal’ and ‘stale’ news? Have we lost our humanity? Yes, unfortunately, Too many Kenyans have lost that which makes us human. But your front page yesterday tells the story, the whole story, without…I don’t know..uttering a word?
    Thank you.

  11. Wairimu Michengi

    We should splash those pictures in the front pages to shame the government. If it can’t protect such women and children what is it for?

  12. Peter Evans Momanyi

    It is said and believed that a picture speaks many more words than it is either spoken or written. Why should the few cowards who are afraid to even have a look on the picture make others loose the much information the brave ones wish to get? Let us stop cosmetic reporting and face reality. This picture can sober up the dirty and adulterated minds of the sponsors. The same will change the perpetrators’ evil and hyenas way of expressing there grievances and any one else who may want to carry out a revenge.

  1. Pingback: Sunday Nation ‘gory’ Westgate Photo-Ethical debate rages | Kenyareporter

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