August 25, 2014

On Publishing Photos of a Public Execution by Hamas Fighters: Still More Ethical Questions

In over eight weeks of fighting in Gaza, with Western news photographers (or local photographers stringing for western agencies) in abundance, there was not a Hamas fighter in sight. (Remember how distinctive this was for showing just one?) And remember how bent out of shape some American conservatives were for the absence? Now, all of a sudden, we get the most horrific scenes surrounding Hamas fighters conducting a public execution, and nobody has anything to say about the sudden materializing of the invisible ones — not to mention, how the Reuters agency, in still another instance, brings us front row?

As for the sudden emergence of the fighters, the apparent backstory is that Israel managed to kill two senior Hamas military commanders in one airstrike this week. To send a message, this squad of Hamas commandos publicly executed 11 suspected informers by firing squad in the Gaza City police station, then killed seven more in a public execution outside a Gaza City mosque. You know how visual news consumers, however, need constantly remind themselves that the photos they see don’t just spring from nothing, reminiscent of the proverbial fly on the wall?

Check out this Reuters caption, for example:

Hamas militants grab Palestinians suspected of collaborating with Israel, before executing them in Gaza City August 22, 2014. Hamas militants killed seven Palestinians suspected of collaborating with Israel in a public execution in a central Gaza square on Friday, witnesses and a Hamas website said. The victims, their heads covered and hands tied, were shot dead by masked gunmen dressed in black in front of a crowd of worshippers outside a mosque after prayers, witnesses and al-Majd, a pro-Hamas website, said. Another 11 people suspected of collaborating with Israel were killed by gunmen at an abandoned police station in Gaza earlier on Friday, Hamas security officials said.

Based on this description (and other accounts that claim the local population was urged to attend), I have some questions:

  • How much was this event staged for the purpose of having the press, including the visual press, in attendance?
  • To what extent was the visual media, specifically, used for propaganda purposes, and to what extent did the presence of news wire photographers or stringers enable Hamas by showing up and then delivering imagery of (all but) the executions?
  • How does one account for discrepancies between what the agencies (including representatives, or photographers who sold material to the agencies) chose to show? More specifically (noting my knowledge as to who covered the event is based on preliminary research), how is it that Getty, through its sales site, offered these five photos, — three of which involve people gathering for the “event,” and two more taken of the Hamas fighters doing crowd control right before; AP offered this one photo, also of crowd control prior — while Reuters (true to recent form) offered photos from before, during and after, touting the images prominently on its own site as well as widely distributing them?

(Here is the fifteen photo Reuters slide show entitled: “Hamas executes ‘collaborators’.” (Using the strategy of focusing on the crowd when the actual shots were fired, Reuters leaves little else to the imagination.)

  • And, what responsibility does not just Reuters,’ but Reuters’ clients bear in these questions regarding the dissemination of these photos?

As we’ve been asking in instance after instance over many months now, where is the line between news and propaganda? between reporting and enabling? between editorial responsibility and corporate self-interest when it comes to publishing such material?

(photos: Stinger/Reuters. caption 1: Hamas militants grab a Palestinian suspected of collaborating with Israel before being executed in Gaza City, August 22, 2014.  caption 2: Hamas militants surround Palestinians suspected of collaborating with Israel, before their execution in Gaza City, August 22, 2014. caption 3: People watch as Hamas militants surround the bodies of Palestinians suspected of collaborating with Israel after they executed them in Gaza City, August 22, 2014.)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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