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Focus on Suffering: Media Images of Victims of War

01-08-2006 Feature

This ICRC-sponsored plenary debate was held at the 15th Annual Conference of the Asia Media Information and Communication Centre (AMIC) in July 2006. It brought together journalists and academics to discuss how Asian media use footage and photos to tell the story of war.


Glenda Gloria, Praveen Swami, Florian Westphal (ICRC), Shyam Tekwani and Kevin Studds at the AMIC Annual Conference, Penang, Malaysia, 18 July 2006.    
     Focus on Suffering: Media Images of Victims of War' was the title of an ICRC-sponsored plenary debate at the 15th Annual Conference of the Asia Media Information and Communication Centre (AMIC) in Penang, Malaysia in July 2006. The session was attended by about 150 registered conference participants, mainly media professionals an d academics teaching mass communication studies or journalism.

TV footage and newspaper photos have a significant impact on how the public and decision-makers perceive the reality of armed conflict. Some images of war have become powerful icons recognised the world over including in the Asia-Pacific region. A simple photograph may convey the horrors of war more forcefully than a thousand words. Images of war crimes and of their victims provoke shock and disgust, increasing the pressure on governments to act to reduce the suffering.

The glut of images of war, whether on TV, the Internet or in print, makes it more relevant than ever to examine how they are produced and selected. On what grounds do Asian journalists and editors decide which images are acceptable – in terms of the violence they show or the political message they convey – and which are never seen by the public.

The main body of rules applicable in armed conflicts, international humanitarian law – which the ICRC has a mandate to promote, including to media - protects not just the lives but also the human dignity of victims of war. Examining the law and the principles it is based on begs the question to what extent those producing and selecting the images of war take into account the dignity of the people they show.

The ICRC asked four experts to reflect on these issues:

 Shyam Tekwani of the School of Communication & Information at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore opened the plenary debate with a brief historical review of the use of images in war reporting. Starting with the blurry black and white photographs of the Crimean war in the mid-19th century, visu al representation has become an ever more powerful means of communication as evidenced by the impact of the images of abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Drawing on his own work as a photojournalist covering the Sri Lankan civil war, Mr Tekwani explored the ethical and political reasons that convince news magazines to publish certain photos while rejecting others. 


Speaking next, Praveen Swami, an associate editor of Frontline Magazine in India, critically examined how the Indian news media take decisions on covering armed conflicts. Based on his experience of reporting on the armed violence in Jammu and Kashmir and Punjab during the 1990s, Mr Swami argued that journalistic and editorial judgements are often hampered by an insufficient grasp of the complexities of the situation. He added that Indian media have at times too easily given in to pressure from non-state armed groups, resulting in self-censorship.

'Do the media use images of conflict to tell a story or to sell a story?'was the blunt question put forward by Glenda Gloria , the editor of Newsbreak magazine in the Philippines. Reflecting on media coverage of the violence in the southern Mindanao region, particularly of hostage-taking incidents, Ms Gloria argued that before deciding on which images of war to print or broadcast, the media needed to reflect on how they had been produced or obtained. 


The final speaker, Kevin Studds of the International Law Department of the British Red Cross Society (BRCS), outlined   a joint project by the BRCS and the British government to propose a contempo rary interpretation, fitting for the media age, of the Geneva Conventions'articles that aim to protect prisoners of war and detained civilians against insults and public curiosity. Mr Studds proposed concrete guidelines that would make it possible for the media to use images of prisoners of war and other detainees without, however, violating their human dignity. 

The plenary debate offered an excellent platform for the ICRC and communications professionals to examine how the media in the Asia-Pacific region cover armed conflicts. The consensus appeared to be that the dignity of people suffering because of war must be an important factor when deciding which images of armed conflict to print or broadcast.



  Papers of the presenters:  


Glenda M. Gloria: Images of War: Confronting the demands of journalism, citizenship, and peace-building   </ br>    

Praveen Swami: Upholding human dignity and the Geneva conventions: the role of the Media in protecting prisoners of war and civilian security internees Against insults and public curiosity </ br>    

Michael Meyer and Kevin Studds : Hierarchies of Victimhood. Some Reflections on Newsroom Decision-Making on the Conflict in Jammu and Kashmir.  
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 The attached papers reflect the views of the authors alone and not necessarily those of the ICRC.  

See also the AMIC website