Opinion: The Power of Images | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 25.07.2003
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Opinion: The Power of Images

The U.S. government evoked a debate on a fundamental dilemma of journalistic ethics when it published photos of the corpses of Saddam Hussein's sons. Where is the border between the reporter's duty and voyeurism?


Images have a suggestive power, especially when they illustrate the suffering of humanity, when they depict brutality and death. But is it necessary for the media to show all the images, all the pictures that exist? Where is the boundary drawn between the journalist’s responsibility to reveal the truth in all its faces and forms and pure voyeurism? And does it make a difference if the brutal photos show anonymous victims from war and violence or the perpetrators of such crimes?

This week’s publication of photographs showing Uday and Qusay Hussein’s corpses brings all these questions to the forefront of discussions on the role of media in politics and public opinion. What is the justification behind showing such graphic images, one asks. For the United States government, the answer is simple. It aims to prove to the Iraqis and the world that the dictator's sons are actually dead and that important members of the old regime have been eliminated.

But numerous critics of the Americans' actions have correctly doubted whether publishing the photos will have the affect on the Iraqi people that the United States desires. Photos are easily manipulated, argue those who do not believe the brothers have been killed. Others say publishing the photos is a violation of human dignity, that criminals too have the right to humane treatment.

Despite the criticism, one thing holds true: the world public has a legitimate interest in Uday and Qusay Hussein's fate because they are important figures in current affairs. The need for information about them justifies publishing the photos. For the same reason, pictures of the dead Romanian dictator Nicolaie Ceausescu, of the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and of other cruel leaders were published around the world after their violent deaths.

From duty to voyeurism

But it is different when the pictures are those of anonymous victims of war. Last week, viewers balked at the cover page of Bild, Germany's biggest-selling newspaper, that showed a government soldier posing triumphantly with a severed human head, an image of horror that has become a terrible reality for the people in the Liberian capital Monrovia.

For days the media has been reporting about the bloody conflict between government troops and rebels that has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of innocent civilians. In dramatic pleas, aid organizations have been demanding the speedy deployment of troops to protect women, children and otherwise defenseless. The media has reported, commented and analyzed. But that was not enough for the tabloid Bild. It published half a page of color images that looked like they came from a horror film, and it did so partly to increase sales.

Should the media cross this border and should it be encouraged to? Does it require such drastic measures to shake up the international community to intervene in this conflict that has been nearly forgotten by the West?

The answer is a resounding no. The media are supposed to inform us. They should enlighten us without crossing the border to voyeurism. Such images of horror don't belong in the public realm. They violate the dignity of anonymous victims of war. And only a tremendous amount of self-conceit could lead the media to believe that such images can influence the long-term decisions that political leaders make.

Horror via satellite

But, one may argue, hasn't experience shown that the media can encourage political decisions through its reporting? Was the devastating grenade attack on a populous Sarajevo marketplace in spring 1994 not such an example, since it provoked the U.S. government to threaten to bomb Serb positions for the first time?

The images of Bosnia shook up the public because, after two years, the almost-forgotten war returned via satellite to the peaceful living rooms of Western Europe. And many viewers decided on the basis of the pictures that the fate of a people in a far corner of Europe should not be forgotten. A wave of concern went out from the public and pressured political leaders to act. Yet, when NATO did finally intervene -- not until a year later -- the images were not its primary motivation.

Now again, the pictures of Saddam Hussein's dead sons and anonymous victims in Liberia demonstrate that journalists walk a tightrope. Sometimes the distance between providing information and depicting horror just for the sake of it is no more than a footfall.