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Disrespect: Pulitzer Center publishes pictures of exhumed dead Ugandan child

Before I went to bed last night i was troubled by a post on a facebook page of friend which read:

“I may be wrong, but this story, I think, is a horrible attempt at taking journalism to another, undesired level. Marco, you didn’t have to exhume a body to take pictures, mate! That doesn’t stop the killing of kids: it shocks the s**t out of some of us”

I left him my thoughts as i prepared this post. Another follower put:

I agree with Joshua and Rosebell, this is a sad/horrible attempt at taking journalism to another level, if at all it was journalism anyway.The writer was not only insensitive to their pain, culture, I also think it was unprofessional.

The words exhuming a body caught my attention with a rush of adrenaline. I hit the link and I am taken to the Pulitzer Center Crisis Reporting page. Before I start reading a story by Marco Vernaschi I see a warning: “Please be advised the following project contains graphic images that may not be suitable for all audiences.***

I read the story and before I came to picture I get lines about how this journalist sponsored by Pulitzer Untold stories series came to Uganda to report about child sacrifice. The Child’s name Babirye Mergret, 10 years old had been mutilated and murdered. Read Marco’s whole story here.

It turns out in the search for what Marco calls visual evidence, led him to convince the chief of the village and after some attempts succeed to convince the family to dig up the body of their child whom they had only burried a day before in order for him to take pictures.

This journalist also gave money to the family which he hints was for them to afford justice but a police officer incharge of the case said the money was  actually to influence the mother to allow for the illegal exhumation of the body but not for a defence lawyer. The pictures have since been taken down from other sites after many calls. The Vigilante Journalist also published the photos has since then explained their conversations with the journalist and published a response from the police in Uganda.

Such journalism exhibits what I  call ‘Am -gonna-save-africa by a photo’ attitude that many foriegn journalist come to Africa armed with. Where else in the world would a journalist harass a grieving family and promises that pictures of their dead would be for their benefit. I detected such attitude in his words.

I try to imagine the fear and pain Babirye has experienced while a monster ironically called a “healer” was killing her; I imagine her 10 year-old, wide-open eyes crying and staring at the machete that took her life away. And I firmly believe, more than ever since I’m in Uganda, that this horrible death can be turned into something that will help prevent other crimes like this . – Marco

Respecting the dead is very much appreciated in the western media and the western world which i believe was the target audience of  Marco’s story.  For all the years that American and British soldiers have died in what many now accept was an illegitimate war in Iraq, I have never seen pitures of blown up bodies or pieces of those soldiers in the western media as an attempt to show the world how gruesome the war has been.  I have seen enough condemnations of videos of beheadings of westerners that media houses in the Middle East have sometimes played. So am wondering why a center like Pulitzer would fall for such cheap sensational journalism.

The Western media either out of ignorance, lack of respect or their over-assumed power to change the wrongs in Africa, publishes sensantial pictures from Africa about the dying and the starving and now the dead.  I can’t think of any other thought that Marco had apart from that eagerness to potray the wrongs in the most extreme ways including digging up of bodies all for a picture.

This is sheer insensitivity to people who are hurting and lying to obtain information. Infact what Marco did without speaking like an enforcement officer could land him a jail sentence for disturbing the dead. For Marco’s knowledge, Human sacrifice is a story that the Ugandan media has cover consistently and it has made it to major international papers in recent months. The same stories about Albino sacrifice in Tanzania and Burundi are well documented and there have been campaigns to curb that.  It is just that there’s limited mechanisms to stop these child abductions and killing from happening and the digging up od bodies in the wee hours of the morning will not eradicate the problem.

Standard

11 thoughts on “Disrespect: Pulitzer Center publishes pictures of exhumed dead Ugandan child

  1. Wendy Glauser says:

    Rosebell, thanks for this post. I loved the “I’m gonna save Africa with a photo” line. I’m not sure I disagaree with the photo, even though I disagree with the journalist portraying himself as someone acting in the “utmost” respect. His journalism is not respectful to the dead or the family and he comes across as motivated by ego more than anything, but I do think sometimes that the results such photos can bring about can override interests of respecting the dead.

    I wish, for example, that newspapers and TV stations in Canada would show the grotesque and mutilated bodies of civilians killed in Afghanistan, and the dead eyes of Canadian soldiers, rather than simply running photos of pristine, flag-draped coffins.

    What disturbs me about the piece is that while no numbers are offered, it is intoned that child sacrifice is common, even though, correct me if I’m wrong, cases like this happen once or twice a decade in Uganda. Furthermore, the article seems to suggest child sacrifice in Uganda is seen more as a cultural act than murder. When a child is raped and killed by a pedophile, the responsibility of the murder always lies fully on the killer, it would never be reported as an ugly “trend” of western culture.

    • Wendy, I appreciate your comment. Pointing to an example of death of some the troops and the pictures not being shown. i didnt intend to mean that the opposite of showing decomposing bodies or exhuming them should be the total black out of pictures of reality that we see in the case of the wars in question. I simply wanted to show that even in the western media there’s a sense of privacy and respect for families. The need to balance our efforts to show the real picture with paying attention to is what is too real too show is what i wanted to capture. There has been a sort of consensus that the show of sensational images does backfire and at times doesn’t inform but simply rubs the salt to the exisitng wounds. It’s more about the need to be sensitive to those who have lost and this guy simply took advantage.
      Indeed some media work if they not self-seeking can bring hidden aspects of society but my concern is that the picture he moved all this length to get was not the only way he could communicate.
      When i was growing up, i never see anybody’s child killed for sacrifice or ever felt threatened but in recent years, the cases have either increased or we have seen more coverage therefore making us feel the cases are high but to say child sacrifice is in the name of culture is wrong.

      The situation has even led the Uganda police to set up a special unit to respond to child-traffickin and sacrifice cases. Whether it has yeilded tangible results i dont know yet. But this journalist was a glory-seeking one.
      Thanks.

  2. Joe Wacha says:

    What with the ever expanding ‘free content’ new media and hunger for information!

    How about the story about a BBC journalist who allegedly paid money to a self-confessed witchdoctor so he could ‘act out’ how they kill their victims in ritual murders?

    The story about child sacrifice in Uganda, early this year attracted a huge public reaction.

    Unfortunately for the poor guy, police picked interest in the horror story, investigated it and the man, Paulino Angela has since been remanded to prison for obtaining money by false pretence. Luckily for the reporter, Tim Whewell of the BBC’s Crossing Continents programme – he is probably following the developments from the comfort of his country.

    The reporter took Angela’s bait unquestioningly after the witchdoctor told him he had sacrificed over 70 human beings including his sons to spirits. But Angella has since claimed that he lied to benefit from the cash money, to the tune of Uganda shillings 200,000 by the BBC reporter, and a further promise of a hefty donation for a community based project in his home village that he as promised!

  3. The Pulitzer Center has issued an apology, but not a retraction of the work. They also have published a response from Vernaschi, the journalist in question. http://untoldstories.pulitzercenter.org/2010/04/uganda-response-to-critics.html

    and my respons still remains, what evidence do those pictures give his viewers to show child sacrifice? He still doesn’t answer questions that if this child was not in Africa, would he have manipulated the village chief, and a grieving family to exhume a body of their mutilated child. I still hold the view that it is how western media approaches Africa and Africans. They are there to save us, a single click on their camera will change our wrecked worlds therefore we should overlook any emotion to give them way to tell our stories to their citizens.

    More interesting response from http://arafiqui.wordpress.com/2010/04/25/hey-buddy-hold-that-execution-while-my-memord-card-reformats-or-how-far-do-you-have-to-go-to-a-story/

  4. Yeah Rose, I am sometimes stereotype and my conscience here definitely tells me about racism! I imagine if this were a Caucasian or Arab or some kid from the ‘civilised’ world could the Pulitzer Center still publish these pictures and later retract and apologise but still leave it behind? It’s not a question of journalism or media ethics, it goes beyond that and honestly gentlemen/ladies we need to stop hypocrisy and respect mankind regardless of clour, creed, religion, race of wealth. It’s outrageous and hopefully the publishers will find it necessary to withdraw the pictures from public eyes!!

  5. Rita says:

    This to me comes across as manipulation and not acting in the best interests of the victims and their families. I mean who in their right mind would go to a family in the time of most distress when they are at vulnerable at best. The mother was grieving, confused, wnated justice naturally, and here comes this person who promises all this at that time. I don’t know if i would have said yes if i was in that position but some people would, because they are very vulnerable at the time. In hindsight, the mother would probably one day think about it and look at it differently. the journalist took advantage of a vulnerable person and the journalist should have known better. He pushed and pushed and said the right words at the right time to get the desired results. And to me, it was not in the best intersets of the mother.

    I noticed that the journalist wrote about being asked for a contribution and how he put contributions in quotes. Like really??? What was he implying? Am i reading too much into it ? Because to me it comes accross as if they were asking him for a payment or something. But really, after approaching the family in the manner that he did, he should heavily be fined. he took advantage of this family and in his article he made them look like they were very needy and badly needed his help or something.

    It is a disgrace the way this whole thing was handled. It was in bad taste period. He was not capturing photos in a war or something. This was a private controlled environment. Anyway i don’t know much about journalism, but this sounds horrible.

    I’ll think about it more. grrrrrr….

  6. Rita says:

    This to me comes across as manipulation and not acting in the best interests of the victims and their families. I mean who in their right mind would go to a family in the time of most distress when they are at vulnerable at best. The mother was grieving, confused, wnated justice naturally, and here comes this person who promises all this at that time. I don’t know if i would have said yes if i was in that position but some people would, because they are very vulnerable at the time. In hindsight, the mother would probably one day think about it and look at it differently. the journalist took advantage of a vulnerable person and the journalist should have known better. He pushed and pushed and said the right words at the right time to get the desired results. And to me, it was not in the best intersets of the mother.

    I noticed that the journalist wrote about being asked for a contribution and how he put contributions in quotes. Like really??? What was he implying? Am i reading too much into it ? Because to me it comes accross as if they were asking him for a payment or something. But really, after approaching the family in the manner that he did, he should heavily be fined. he took advantage of this family and in his article he made them look like they were very needy and badly needed his help or something.

    It is a disgrace the way this whole thing was handled. It was in bad taste period. He was not capturing photos in a war or something. This was a private controlled environment. Anyway i don’t know much about journalism, but this sounds horrible.

    I’ll think about it more. grrrrrr….

  7. Pingback: TIME Photo essay and dignity « Rosebell's Blog

  8. To Mr Vernaschi: Somehow your photography lacks the veracity I equate with true photo journalism, not to mention the stilted captions (facts?) that go with them. Your technique, artistic or creative treatment detracts from the issue rather than to engage your audience with the raw, unadorned truth. I quote an artist I knew who wrote: “The more the technique, the more terrible the fettering.” No amount of technique or staging (modeling & props) will ever replace the instinctive, empathetic eye and engaged heart of a true photo journalist who spontaneously shutters his camera at the often providential, crucial place and moment. Your photography and methods of acquiring them would probably be more suited to commercial purposes like advertising rather than to addressing humanistic issues.

    Of course, my perception of your photography and your merit as a photo journalist may be biased since you had the body of a murdered 10 year old girl, Margaret Babirye Nankya, dug up just so you could photograph her mutilated body. Some may laud your technique or artistic flair but I certainly found your methods / staging in this case utterly repulsive, not to mention that your version and revision of “facts” on the case was questionable.

    Rather than all that back tracking justification, lame, rationalized “apology” and attempts to justify or exonerate, it would do well to come clean with humility and face the consequences. That would perhaps be more conducive to finding forgiveness. Finally, I am utterly astonished that the Pulitzer Center continues to endorse your work and attempt to mitigate the fallout by bolstering your story.

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