Ethics of publishing images of the dead

Yesterday at 3 PM four suspected Al Shabaab gunmen attacked the Dusit complex (14 Riverside) in Nairobi. Initial reports indicate that at least 21 people were killed in the attack. More than 700 people were at the complex at the time and were evacuated.

It is worth noting that yesterday was the third anniversary (15/01/2016) of the El Adde attack (also by Al Shabaab) on a Kenyan military base in Somalia. El Adde was the deadliest attack in Kenyan military history — with at least 141 soldiers reportedly killed.

As the Dusit attack was unfolding, media houses began publishing images from the complex. One image — in a New York Times story — drew the ire of Kenyans for showing two dead men slumped over their seats at a cafe. The Times claimed that this was standard policy.

Kenyans did not buy their explanation. And for good reason. At the very least, the image was insensitive. The two men were easily identifiable by their clothing.

First, it’s one thing to show the image of the dead covered in the streets (the ethics of which are also questionable), and another to show two easily-identifiable dead men slumped over their seats at a cafe. It takes a significant amount of empathy gap to not notice this difference. Second, and more importantly, Kenyans’ demands for respect for victims and their families are valid in their own right. They do not need further validation by what the Times does elsewhere. It is not ordained that what passes for Nice or New York ought to naturally pass for Nairobi. As an institution, the Times ought to have shown that it takes the complaints about the image seriously.

Here is a great explainer on why a lot of Kenyans took particular offense to the Times’ response:

… In the New York Times’ initial story about the event, penned by recently appointed East Africa bureau chief Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura, the photo editors decided to include an image (from the wire Associated Press) that has since spurred not one but two trending hashtags in Nairobi.

Taken at the popular Secret Garden Café tucked away in the compound, the grainy photograph depicts a scene of utter carnage. Two unidentified men’s lifeless bodies are slumped over on their tables, their laptops still next to them. It is a horrific reminder of the indiscriminate nature of terrorist attacks.

… What particularly angered Kaigwa — and many others — is how de Freytas-Tamura responded to the controversy: she reminded her critics that as the reporter, she did not choose the photo, and that people could take their concerns up directly with the photo department. She was factually correct, but to many Kenyans, she displayed an unnerving callousness.

“I think what that tweet showed to people is that they didn’t have someone who listen[ed] to them and empathize[ed] with them,” says Kaigwa. The reporter later deleted the tweet and instead shared the New York Times’ official policy on showing casualties during terrorist attacks.

Underlying the current discussion (and no doubt fueling the expressions of outrage) is, of course, a long history of the Western press being callous about publishing images of dead Africans. And it is in that context that the reaction from Kenyans should be understood. My hope is that this present discussion will force the Times and other media houses to review their guidelines on publishing images of the dead — regardless of their nationality.

Finally, and to echo Nanjala Nyabola, it goes without saying that the Times’ reprehensible editorial choice in this instance should not be used to attack individual journalists or the freedom of the press more generally.

Somalia: Police Development as State Building?

International and local power brokers see police as indicators of legitimacy and international recognition, but the international community’s vision of police development as state building is undermined by Somali politicians, officers, and businessmen sharing a political and entrepreneurial under- standing of the police role. The picture is further nuanced by influential Somalis who regard many of the structures and skills associated with Western policing as desirable, even as they manipulate the values and procedures promoted in its name.

The propensity of donors to see police development as a tool for not only state building, but also social engineering is marked. But so is the pragmatic response of Somalis. Officers in Somaliland and Puntland take what they value, manipulate what they can use, and subvert approaches that offend the sensibilities of their conservative society. Meanwhile, the SPF’s primary concern is to acquire the heavy weapons, vehicles, fuel, and communications equipment it needs to survive today.

Somalia’s experience shows that formality is not required for the governance associated with state building, but relative security and stability are, and there are limits to the role police can play in facilitating this: Somalia remains dangerously insecure. That the three forces are subject to the un- predictability that dependence on local power brokers and international funding introduces suggests that success depends on balancing local security levels and politics against international imperatives in a way that goes beyond current conceptions of state-based governance.

That is Alice Hills in a paper on policing in Somalia in the current issue of African Affairs.

“Only four shooters at Kenya mall (Westgate) and they may have escaped alive, says NYPD”

On Tuesday morning the NYPD issued a damning statement [full report here] that pointed fingers at the Kenyan government for its handling of the terrorist attack at the Westgate Mall in September. Dozens of people were killed in the attack.

According to the statement:

  • Despite conflicting reports from the Kenyan government, “evidence suggests that there were only four attackers, who may have escaped alive.”
  • The commander of the police tactical team that went to quell the siege was most likely killed by the KDF. “The police department tactical team entered the mall at 3 p.m., without police markings or identifications, and were fired on by Kenyan soldiers, killing the commander of the unit.”
  • The security team “had no idea what the mall looked like internally, and didn’t know they could access the closed circuit television system.”
  • The NYDP “didn’t know what had caused the mall to collapse,” but it is likely that “the Kenyan military may have used rocket-propelled grenades and anti-tank missiles on the building, and that heat from fires caused by the explosions may have weakened the poorly built structure.”
  • And lastly, “the Kenyan military may not have killed any of the attackers, there was “significant” physical and video evidence that they had looted the mall.”

[UPDATE: A reader, @ZiadFazel, just reminded me of the KTN documentary in October that questioned the official line about the attack. Back then the government dismissed the documentary as inaccurate and alarmist and even threatened to arrest KTN journalists. This new statement from the NYPD adds credibility to the evidence previously dismissed by the government]

Westgate is not just an indictment of the KDF (a force that has and continues to sacrifice a lot for regular Kenyans in the north east and in Somalia) but of the entire security apparatus in Kenya. For the longest time Kenyan civilian administrations have obsessed with issues of coup-proofing, maintenance of public order and the suppression of dissent over actual provision of security.* Urban crime, banditry in the north and pockets of rural areas even in the more governed south and latterly the threat of terrorism have exposed the underbelly of the Kenyan security system.

President Uhuru Kenyatta praised the KDF and the police following the botched operation at Westgate. Was this an attempt to boost the morale of the boys or was he simply continuing the tradition of appeasement with the aim of keeping the army in the barracks and the paramilitary GSU and police ever ready to “restore order” whenever necessary?

Whatever the case, it may be that President Kenyatta and his administration have found themselves in an unfamiliar territory. Kenya’s much touted bureaucratic-executive state may have worked well against internal dissent, but can it effectively deal with current security threats? Civilian control over the security apparatus demands for accountability and performance; and whenever there is failure, an attempt at correction. Is the Kenyan system capable of sustaining a civilian-military relationship that is responsive to the public and based on performance and accountability?

Kenyans were told many tales following that tragic Saturday afternoon in September and the ensuing four day siege. But the more Secretary Ole Lenku spoke of “exploding mattresses” the more questions emerged. The NYPD report is yet another reminder that the security system failed Kenyans, and that the civilian administration was unable to stand up to those responsible and demand for accountability.

*Read E. S. Atieno-Odhiambo’s chapter on “Democracy and the Ideology of Order in Kenya” and Tamarkin’s “The Roots of Political Stability in Kenya.”