Author: Tosin Osasona
If the Chinese proverb that “a picture is worth a thousand words” is right, then should pictures not be used more cautiously than words? When are nauseating images of gore and dead bodies’ offensive and when are they necessary? Has the mobile revolution moved death from the taboo closet that the African culture has kept it in for ages to the open? What is the effect of the repeated publication and circulation of graphic images on public consciousness? Is the dead entitled to the right to be treated with dignity? At what point do the dead stop being just mere news item and object of morbid fascination and become human? These and some other questions were thrown up by the images that surfaced after the Abuja bombing of April 14, 2014[i] and the recent school bombing in Potiskum, Nigeria.[ii]
The general argument in favor of publishing grisly photographs has always been that it brings home to the public what is at stake, the enormity of the failures of the Nigerian state, and that it underlines the reality of the destruction wrought by the Islamist insurgency in Northern Nigeria. In fact, it can be argued that these pictures of horror, at certain levels transcend being news supplements to becoming the news in themselves. Beyond this, Section 39 (1) the Nigerian 1999 constitution protects the rights of every Nigerian to the freedom of expression, including the freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impact ideas and information without interference, thus the legality of such publication is generally protected.
However, irrespective of the arguments put forward in favor of the publication of graphic content in the Nigerian media, it is no doubt a blatant violation of the African culture and runs against the very grain of the African philosophical worldview that considers death and dying an indivisible part of the same cycle of life and a journey into a new phase of existence, so the dead is respected. Beyond that there is the natural African disposition towards mutual sympathy and reliance. John Mbiti succinctly encapsulates this mutuality when he said “whatever happens to the individual happens to the whole group, and whatever happens to the whole group happens to the individual. The individual can only say; ‘I am, because we are; and since we are, therefore I am.’ This is a cardinal point in understanding of the African view of man.”[iii] Moreover, the appeal to African values for support by proponents of anti-gay legislations within and without Nigeria is a validation of the agelessness of certain strains of the African culture. The exploitation of the images of the dead for political and/or commercial ends violates a sacred constituent of the Nigerian culture.
While the dead have minimal or no rights, perhaps except the right to remain undisturbed and unmolested, that right is universally held sacrosanct. According to William Basevi, “in or near the grave are placed food, clothes and weapons; while the body is protected from molestation often most elaborately. All this provision conveys the idea that there is something more in burial than the disposal of the dead.”[iv]
Article 16 of the 1949 Geneva Conventions protects the sanctity of corpses even in the chaos and unpredictability of conflict scenes by explicitly providing for “[…] each party to the conflict shall facilitate the steps takes taken….to protect [the killed] against ill-treatment.” The 1977 Additional Protocol 1 also provides that “[t]he remains of persons who have died for reasons related to occupation or in detention resulting from occupation or hostilities….shall be protected.” Article 3 (a) of the 1990 declaration on Human Rights in Islam provides that “In the event of the use of force and in case of armed conflict…it is prohibited to mutilate dead bodies.”[v]
The argument that the publication of graphic photographs arouses public conscience to action is not proven and it has been stated by some that such practice in fact deadens and inure us to the horrors that these images represent.[vi] And some other school of thought posits that such “death porn” only stimulates our darkest selves.[vii] The progressively worsening Boko Haram insurgency in itself invalidates this position, publications after publications of stomach churning scenes of carnages and death wreaked by the group has neither roused the Nigerian state into effective action nor reverse the group’s ascendancy; also vivid and sometimes crass portray of fatality on Nigerian roads has not impelled the government to action nor moved the potential victims of the next butchery to demand change, so of what good is it?
The practice of mass burial and anonymous internment of victims of violence violates the dignity of the dead in every way particular and an act of injustice of the most grievous kind to citizens, whose demise is traceable to the failure of state and social institutions to perform the very duties they were conceived for. The 1949 Geneva Convention outlaws the hurried and anonymous burials without proper identification of combatants even in conflicts. According to the World Health Organization “burial of bodies in common graves or the use of mass cremation is unnecessary and a violation of the human rights of the surviving family members,”[viii] so what justifies this Nigerian practice, even in the absence of a major disaster?
There is a need for a collective critique of the tone of unnecessary pictures and videos that show very graphic portray of mortality and the misery of hapless Nigerians, this cruelty is neither necessary in helping readers apprehend the multifaceted challenges that the Nigerian states faces nor does it dignify the dead. It is pure sensationalism.
[iii] Mbiti J. S, African Religions And Philosophy, 1990, London; Heinemann, P. 106
[iv] William Francis Basevi, The Burial of the Dead, 1920, Rutledge, London, P. 167
[v] Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, adopted at the 19th Session of the Islamic Conference of Foreign Ministers, Res. 49/19P, Cairo,5th August 1990.
[vi] Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others,2003, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, P. 57
[viii] World Health Organization’, “Management of Dead Bodies in Disaster Situations” , Disaster Manuals and Guidelines Series, Nº 5; http://www.who.int/hac/techguidance/management_of_dead_bodies.pdf