NOTE: After last week’s lynchmob attack, which was shown in graphic detail by local TV stations and newspapers, I questioned whether I had made the right moral decision about posting pictures on my blog (see below posts). I decided to put this question to media workers-their opinions can be read below. I stand by my decision to show explicit images from the murder in the belief that people should be given the choice to see for themselves what goes on around them in this world, rather than live in happy ignorance. If we tolerate gruesome horror and slasher films, why shouldn’t we accept violence when it happens in real life?)
By Dalila Mahdawi
Daily Star staff
Saturday, May 01, 2010
BEIRUT: As public outrage over Thursday’s lynching in Ketermaya grows, many in Lebanon are questioning whether media outlets were right to show images of the brutal crime.
Residents of the Chouf mountain village attacked and killed Mohammad Msallem in a spontaneous mob attack rarely seen in Lebanon. Msallem, a 38-year-old Egyptian butcher, was the prime suspect in the quadruple murder of an elderly couple and their two young granddaughters earlier this week.
When Msallem was brought back to the scene of the crime by police, angry residents fought off policemen and stabbed him with sticks and knives. They then stripped his corpse down to the underpants and paraded him through the village on the hood of a white Mercedes before hanging him from an electricity pole.
The lynching has provoked widespread revulsion, with top officials demanding Msallem’s killers be brought to justice. It has also sparked debate over the role of the media in reporting such bloody incidents.
On Friday, a number of Lebanese newspapers carried graphic pictures of the lynching on their front pages. Several television stations also aired video footage, with some blurring out the victim’s bloodied corpse. French language daily L’Orient-Le Jour ran a picture of local men hoisting Msallem’s body onto an electricity pole on its front page, under the headline “Barbaric times.”
Al-Akhbar, which ran less explicit photographs, also denounced the killing as an act of barbarism “unprecedented and possible only in countries where the law of the jungle prevails.” A video of the murder was posted by LBC Television on video-sharing website YouTube, with images also being circulated on social media website Facebook.
As-Safir and The Daily Star newspapers both declined to run images.
On Friday, Information Minister Tarek Mitri condemned media outlets that chose to run images of Msallem’s killing, saying that their publication had prompted a flurry of complaints to his office.
While media outlets were duty-bound to report Msallem’s killing, it was unacceptable to publish explicit images of his death, said Metn MP Ghassan Moukheiber, a long-time human rights campaigner. He said there needed to be “limits” to what was considered appropriate for public consumption. The use of images “should be within the boundaries of respect for human dignity,” he told The Daily Star.
Dina Abi Saab, researcher at SKeyes (Samir Kassir eyes) Center for Media and Cultural Freedom, agreed it was disrespectful to show scenes of the lynching. The media is expected “to present things as they are, but we can say it with words,” she said. “We have to respect the dead, not only the emotions of the family who had four members murdered.”
Sharif Nashashibi of the London-based Arab Media Watch, believed consumers needed to be given the option to see graphic content, saying photographs could often be more convincing than the written word. “If something gruesome has happened, there’s no point in the media pretending it didn’t happen that way.” Sanitizing images was tantamount to “cheating the public,” he said. An example of this was European coverage of the 2006 war on Lebanon, where graphic images of victims were not published. “Arab nations were so much angrier because they got to see what happened,” Nashashibi said. “Using these images hopefully serves to prevent these acts from happening again.”
Abdel-Hadi Mahfouz, head of the National Audiovisual Media Council, said he hoped media outlets that had shown explicit images would be prosecuted. According to the 1994 Audiovisual Law, outlets are forbidden from publishing images of a violent or upsetting nature. “Similar incidents have happened before, but media outlets have political affiliations” that protects them from being penalized, Mahfouz said. “I would like to see the law being implemented at least once.”
Moukheiber said he hoped the killing would lead to a “substantive and serious dialogue within the media industry” on best practices, urging the formation of a code of conduct. Abi Saab agreed: “We have to reach a point where we make rules in the media.”