Posts Tagged 'human rights'

Can shock value spur change?

By Harry van Versendaal

The decision by most mainstream Western news organizations last week to run a – now iconic – photo of a drowned Syrian boy lying face down on a Turkish beach generated a substantial amount of commentary and polarized views.

It is not the first time that broadcasters and print media have faced such a dilemma. Responsible editors – not the titillating tabloid type – regularly scratch their heads in seeking a path between maximizing truth-telling and minimizing harm. Harm, for that matter, can go two ways: offending the public that views these images as well as violating the dignity of those who are depicted in them.

Shoot

Professional photographers are, inevitably, the first to make the call.

Giorgos Moutafis, a freelance photographer who has over the years documented the struggle of Europe-bound migrants and refugees for several foreign publications, has no qualms.

“I would have definitely taken that picture. Perhaps I would not have shot it the way it was, but I would take it. All my images are made to be published, or I would not be doing this job,” he told Kathimerini English Edition.

That does not mean that anything goes, Moutafis says. Just like a story, a photograph too can be made in different ways. “You need to protect these people. Put your own moral values before the lens. It’s not always straightforward,” he said.

“The important thing is to document what happened, not to personify the incident. You have to make sure you stay focused on the facts. For me it is not just about one dead Syrian boy, it’s about the hundreds of people who perish on the way to Europe,” he said.

Viral

The image went viral on social media last Wednesday after at least 12 presumed Syrian refugees died trying to reach Greece’s eastern Aegean island of Kos – a popular gateway to Europe for thousands of people seeking to flee war and poverty in the Middle East and Africa. The boy’s body was washed ashore along with several other victims.

At first glance, the picture, taken on a beach not far from the Turkish resort town of Bodrum, is deceptively benign. It shows a dark-haired toddler wearing a bright-red T-shirt and shorts and lying prone in a sleeping position, soaked, with his head resting on the sand as the waves lap at his hair.

The photo sparked a barrage of photoshopped memes and tribute videos on Facebook and other social media.

A second, less jarring image that many news organizations chose to run instead portrayed a grim-faced police officer carrying the tiny body away from the scene.

The boy was subsequently identified as 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, from the war-ravaged town of Kobani in northern Syria, where Kurdish regional forces have fought against ISIS militia. His 5-year-old brother and their mother also drowned.

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Aris Chatzistefanou, an Athens-based journalist and left-wing activist, has often shared online graphic images of asylum seekers who died trying to enter Europe. He uploaded Aylan’s photo as well as a number of other, more graphic images from recent migrant tragedies. He defends publication on political terms.

“If journalists showed the world what really happens on the battlefield, then the idea of war would be unacceptable to all men,” Chatzistefanou said.

Warnings of compassion fatigue and claims that insensitive visibility risks sacrificing the dignity of the dead, he says, smack of irony and hypocrisy.

“These people were shown little respect while they were alive,” he said, slamming Western compassion over the dead bodies along the European border as hypocritical.

“We show compassion for political reasons: to evade criticism of the notion of Fortress Europe,” he said regarding the 28-member bloc’s migration and asylum policy.

Thousands of refugees drown each year in their desperate bid to reach Europe. The EU spends billions of euros guarding its borders as its member states squabble over which shoulders this undue and unwanted burden should fall on – a burden that is, at least in part, of their own making: It was Britain, France and the United States which backed the Syrian opposition in the early stages of the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s rule and then left them to their own devices.

Confront

Lilie Chouliaraki, a media and communications professor  at the London School of Economics, is critical of what she calls “the distribution of witnessing ‘roles’ in the global distribution of images.”

More often than not, she argues, those who witness images of suffering are viewers in the West, while those who suffer belong to non-Western zones of war, disaster and poverty.

“Part of this global distribution is a particular regulation of the flow of images of death so that extreme images of distant others are kept away from Western public spheres on the grounds that the West needs to be protected from the potential trauma of seeing others suffer,” she said attacking the taboo of public visibility as “hypocritical.”

“It privileges the protection of those who safely watch over those who truly suffer; and it obscures the indirect responsibility of the ‘innocent’ West in the wars or disasters it is to be protected from,” said Chouliaraki, an expert on the mediation of disaster news and author of several books, including most recently “The Ironic Spectator: Solidarity in the Age of Post-Humanitarianism.”

“My view is that avoiding confronting the shock of a child’s death on screen or other similar spectacles runs the risk of turning Western publics into self-concerned, inward-looking and ultimately narcissistic publics who may show compassion for others like ‘us’ but don’t really think about or feel for the tragic fates of those far away,” she said.

The law

Publishing some of these photographs could be challenged on legal grounds, legal expert Niki Kollia notes, even though it would involve separate actions being taken in each country the image has appeared.

In Greece, the law foresees imprisonment of up to six months for anyone charged with disrespecting the memory of the deceased.

But Kollia believes that this is wrong when the photograph is taken in the context of reporting the news.

“Banning these images for ethical, political or religious reasons would deal a hefty blow to journalism,” said Kollia.

Empathize

But critics warn against giving in to what has been called “the pornography of pain” and the superficial, self-satisfied feelings of sadness and morality when sharing a grisly picture on social media.

Alexia Skoutari, an Athens-based activist who works with refugees, is skeptical of the use of visceral imagery even if that is employed in a bid to awaken people to humanitarian disasters. Resorting to emotionalism instead of thoughtful discussion is an unwelcome sign.

“It shocks me that it would take pictures of a dead toddler to mobilize empathy. Why would you need to see something so brutal to feel compassion and understanding about another man’s plight?” she said.

Impact

Do the people who saw Aylan’s pictures have a better understanding of the situation than they did before? Can the image of a lifeless boy on a beach change the refugee debate?

During his annual State of the Union address to the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Wednesday, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker announced proposals for a radical overhaul of the bloc’s migration policy, including the opening of legal channels to coordinate arrivals in Europe and permanent systems for distributing the influx of refugees across the continent.

For Chouliaraki, dramatic footage has the power to raise awareness and donations, as well as put pressure on urgent and more efficient measures to tackle the refugee crisis. But it can do little insofar as it concerns tackling the broader causes of the crisis.

“This is a matter of geopolitical and economic interests and it would be naive to believe that images have the power to decisively affect global politics,” she said.

The truth is that rarely has media coverage of humanitarian disasters managed to prompt Europeans to action.

In October 2014, a boat went down off the Italian island of Lampedusa, killing 366 migrants and asylum seekers on board.

“Back then, again, European leaders were shocked,” said Eva Cosse, an Athens-based expert with Human Rights Watch.

“But did they replace the persistent emphasis on border enforcement with the imperative of saving lives and providing refuge to those in need? No, they didn’t.”

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The dubious politics of Fortress Europe

fotiadis_700

By Harry van Versendaal

An estimated 800 people died on Sunday when a boat packed with migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe capsized near Libya. The disaster came a week after two other shipwrecks left some 450 people dead. Little will change as long as European politicians insist on blocking all existing legal ways of setting foot on the continent, claims a new book on the subject of the European Union’s immigration policy.

In “Border Merchants: Europe’s New Architecture of Surveillance” (published by Potamos), Apostolis Fotiadis, an Athens-based freelance investigative journalist, seeks to document a paradigm shift in Europe’s immigration policy away from search and rescue operations to all-out deterrence. The switch, the 36-year-old author argues, plays into the hands of the continent’s defense industry and is being facilitated by the not-so-transparent Brussels officialdom.

“Their solution to the immigration problem is that of constant management because this increases their ability to exploit it as a market. The defense industry would much rather see the protracted management of the problem than a final solution,” Fotiadis said in a recent interview with Kathimerini English Edition.

“Without a crisis there would be no need for emergency measures, no need for states to upgrade their surveillance and security systems,” he said.

Fotiadis claims the trend is facilitated by the revolving door between defense industry executives and the Brussels institutions, which means that conflict of interests is built right into EU policy.

“There is a certain habitat in which many people represent the institutions and at the same time express a philosophy about the common good,” he said.

The book documents the growing interest of Frontex, the EU’s external border agency, in purchasing drones to enhance its surveillance capabilities in the context of its unfolding Eurosur project. Eurosur, a surveillance and data-sharing system that first went into effect in late 2013, relies on satellite imagery and drones to detect migrant vessels at sea.

The author goes back to October 2011 to tell the story of how the Warsaw-based organization hosted and financed a show for companies dealing in aerial surveillance systems in Aktio, northwest Greece. That was, Fotiadis claims, where Greek officials for the first time pondered the idea of acquiring drone technology. Greece is expected to sign a deal later this year.

The European Commission has defended the agency’s moves, saying that it is within the legal obligations of Frontex to participate in the development of research relevant for the control and surveillance of the bloc’s external borders.

“What they are doing is not necessarily illegal. However, an entire network of institutions has been held hostage as they have installed a non-transparent mantle behind which they promote their own interests,” he said.

No magic recipe

Fotiadis researched the subject for three years. Access to information was not always easy, he says, as much of what is at stake is decided behind closed doors. Despite the interesting insights, Fotiadis’s gripping book does not offer possible ways out of Europe’s problem. The author holds that efforts to come up with foolproof solutions are in vain. There simply aren’t any.

“There is no specific reason why migration occurs. Hence, there is no magic recipe. It is a constant problem which requires constant adjustment. The point is to have a genuine debate on it – which you don’t have – so that you can carry out the right adjustments,” he said.

More than 1,750 migrants have perished in the Mediterranean since the start of 2015 as people try to escape violence in Syria, Iraq and Libya. The Italian-run Mare Nostrum, a 9-million-euro-per-month mission launched in the aftermath of the 2013 Lampedusa drownings was ditched because it was deemed costly and politically unpopular. It has been succeeded by a much more limited EU-led mission called Triton.

Although there are no magic solutions, the Europeans could nevertheless shoulder some of the blame for the trouble, Fotiadis says. “The EU’s foreign policy is a push factor. The nature of many of the ongoing crises has in part been influenced by decisions of European states,” he said.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy led calls to intervene in Libya in 2011, an idea that found backing among other European leaders, including British Prime Minister David Cameron.

“By no means wishing to defend authoritarian regimes, the current situation is not necessarily better than the previous one,” Fotiadis said, adding that Europeans made similar mistakes on Syria as they continued to arm and fund the rebels even after the situation there had spun out of control.

“Europe likes to present itself as part of the solution while it’s actually part of the problem,” he said.

Significant in the overall process, Fotiadis argues, is the willingness of the EU to gradually externalize its immigration controls, setting up screening centers in the countries of origin – a process which he saw at work in the wake of Sunday’s tragedy.

A 10-point action plan put forward by the European Commission and backed by EU foreign and interior ministers at a meeting in Luxembourg on Monday foresees the deployment of immigration liaison officers abroad to gather intelligence on migration flows and strengthen the role of EU delegations. The plan was set to be discussed at an emergency EU summit in Brussels late Thursday. However, according to a report in the Guardian, EU leaders were due to only allow 5,000 refugees to resettle in Europe, with the remainder set to be repatriated as irregular migrants.

‘Sinister bulwark’

The book focuses on Greece which, being part of the EU’s external frontier, has become a major gateway for undocumented migrants and asylum seekers from Africa and the Middle East. More than 10,000 people arrived illegally in the first quarter of 2015, while the number is expected to reach 100,000 by the end of the year. Greece’s handling has been mostly awkward but Fotiadis is equally keen to point a finger at the hypocrisy amid the nation’s European partners.

“They want Greece to do the dirty work and, at the same time, criticize it for any human rights’ violations. They know very well what goes on here, but they keep sending funds to keep this sinister bulwark in place,” he said.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) and other groups have in the past accused Frontex of turning a blind eye to the torture, beating and systematic degradation of undocumented migrants.

Does debt-hit Greece have what it takes to deal with the problem? For one thing, Fotiadis argues, the country has never seen a proper debate on the issue of immigration while news coverage has been largely hijacked by populist and scaremongering media.

“The topic has been communicated in a hysterical, vulgar manner. When the discourse is that of ‘hordes of invading immigrants,’ there is inevitably very little room for a reasonable reaction,” he said. “Throw them in the sea or else they will eat us alive,” said the headline of an ultra-conservative tabloid published ahead of the interview.

Otherwise, Fotiadis believes, there is no reason Greece should not be able to set up some basic infrastructure to deal with the influx. He says that the number of immigrants and refugees received by the EU is in fact small compared to the more than 1.5 million refugees who have found shelter in Turkey due to civil war in Syria. Jordan is estimated to be home to over 1 million Syrian refugees, while one in every four people in Lebanon is a refugee. Meanwhile, the EU, one of the wealthiest regions of the world, with a combined population of over 500 million, last year took in less than 280,000 people.

“All that hysteria is a knee-jerk overreaction to an illusory version of reality,” he said.

As the death toll of people trying to reach Greece rises, Fotiadis was happy to see leftist Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras call for greater European solidarity to deal with the problem and plead for “diplomatic initiatives” to help resolve the conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Libya.

He also defends the leftist-led government’s controversial decision to shut down migrant detention facilities across the country, saying that its conservative predecessors had abused the legal detention limits. However, he argues the government should have been better prepared to deal with the consequences of that decision.

“As with many other issues, they were well-intended but ill-prepared,” he said.

Fortune cookies

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

By Harry van Versendaal

Google “democracy” and “China” and you get Google. Following a series of highly sophisticated, government-guided attacks on its network, the world’s largest search engine has indicated that it might pull out of the world’s fastest-growing market. The Chinese may not quite have succeeded in nailing jello to a wall, to paraphrase Bill Clinton, but a shutdown of Google.cn would nevertheless be a setback for cyber-optimists who think that digital technology can increase the power of individuals fighting against authoritative regimes.

Google entered the Chinese market in 2006 on the condition it would accept official censorship. Google, of course, is a corporation; and corporations do not behave philanthropically. Nevertheless, the company’s decision was seen as being, at least partially, driven by its “don’t be evil” motto – an overriding belief in the liberalizing effect of information. Some evil, its owners suggested at the time, was unavoidable – or at least necessary if Google were to become the west’s Trojan horse behind China’s so-called Great Fire Wall.

The assumption was typical enlightenment optimism fanned by a faith in universal human progress powered by science and reason. More sober observers have denounced such dreamy optimism as an illusion – what British philosopher John Gray calls “the Prozac of the thinking classes.” Modernity has made us more effective, but it has not made us better humans.

The fact is technology is neutral. History is full of applications that have been used for benign as well as evil purposes – nuclear power, biotechnology, drugs and, now, the Web. The Internet carries in it neither despotism nor freedom. The unprecedented expressive capability and subversive potential of self-documenting bloggers and free-rights activists has come hand-in-hand with unprecedented state power to document, filter and identify dissidents as they leave their digital fingerprints throughout cyberspace.

But even pessimists should agree that although the experience of Iran, Burma and China has exposed the weaknesses of twitter revolutionaries in the face of a ruthless regime, the mere crushing of these cyber-driven protests and enhanced reporting across the globe has exposed the cracks in official depictions of reality. Iran’s mullahs are feeling the heat.

Google’s purportedly ethical concerns in the China standoff have prompted praise as well as skepticism. “Google’s motives may be mixed, but it has, at last, done the right thing,” an editorial in UK’s Guardian noted, while John Gapper, a business writer for the Financial Times, said that “it takes some guts to walk away from the world’s largest potential market.”

With only some 17 percent of search queries and 33 percent of revenue, Google’s share was dwarfed by that of home-grown rival Baidu. Doing business in China, some analysts insist, was simply not worth it.

Like Sarah Lacy, a columnist for TechCrunch, a Silicon Valley site. “I’ll give Google this much: They’re taking a bad situation and making something good out of it, both from a human and business point of view. I’m not saying human rights didn’t play into the decision, but this was as much about business,” she said. For Bill Thompson of the BBC, Google’s decision is inconsequential. “Threatening to pull out of China is like threatening to spit on a whale,” he said.

What many commentators seem to miss is that, in a capitalist world, economic and moral arguments often coincide. Even if Google is not interested in democratization per se, it still has a stake in the free flow of information. Google’s objective – providing easy and fast access to comprehensive and unbiased information – is best served in an open, uncensored environment. “Openness for China is a means to an end – prosperity and development – but not a value,” wrote Roger Cohen in The New York Times. It’s pretty much the same for Google.

Another point lost in the haze of China-bashing is that, again much like China, Google is itself a greedy, monopolistic behemoth, an egregious privacy-violator. For every term or phrase fired into its search box, the company will keep track of time, date, cookie ID, Internet IP address, and search terms (hence the rise of so-called “interest-based advertising”). Benevolent as the current owners of Google are, or claim to be, no one can be certain what the future holds – and not just for the simple reason that the company, like any company, may change hands. Technology is by nature unpredictable. The Industrial Revolution destroyed Britain’s social fabric but also provided the tools of Empire.

The unprecedented level of interaction makes the Internet the most powerful of media. Gloomy futurists have often warned against an Orwellian-type digital dystopia. What they, and Orwell, probably never imagined is that we would one day voluntarily feed Big Brother with our private information. As one of the Party slogans flashing on the walls of 1984’s Ministry of Truth noted, “Ignorance is strength.”


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