Victims drenched in blood on social media in northern Syria
Enab Baladi – Hassan Ibrahim
With blonde hair and a face whose features were absent as most of it was covered in blood, and a near-naked bruised body, social media was abuzz with images of Iraqi child Yassin Raad al-Mahmoud, who was killed after being sexually assaulted in the city of Ras al-Ain, north of al-Hasakah, held by the Turkey-backed Syrian National Army (SNA).
The content of the circulating images of the ten-year-old child not only showed his body full of the effects of the beatings he suffered using a sharp object but also his genitals on many social media pages, especially on the Telegram groups active in northwestern Syria.
Victims caught on camera
The spread of images of the child Yassin, who was found dead on 14 September, followed the circulation of pages of photos of the child, Bassam Suleiman al-Abboud (8 years old), in handcuffs on a bed, having died after being shot while sleeping on the roof of his family home in Tal Abyad, north of Raqqa, on 26 August.
On 30 July, the Syria Civil Defense (White Helmets) documented the killing of two children and the wounding of two men (including the father of one of the two children) by Russian and Syrian regime artillery shelling on the village of Kafr Ta’al in the western countryside of Aleppo and released a picture of the location and aftermath of the shelling.
Barely an hour following the shelling, some local pages and their identifiers on Telegram circulated pictures from inside a hospital of the two children and two men with blood covering their bodies, mixed with the dust of the bombing, and in underwear, bare chests, and traces of shrapnel that left marks and scars on their bodies.
Many images of child victims were monitored by Enab Baladi through the much-followed Telegram groups in the region. These groups bear the names of cities, villages, towns, and military factions and have tens of thousands of followers.
These Telegram groups and their publications are not subject to high standards for adjusting or restricting content such as other apps and platforms, nor do they require high internet speed. Some depend on unknown numbers, especially with the spread of so-called American numbers, which are now available and accessible to everyone.
Violation of privacy
Director of the Department of Detainees and Forcibly Disappeared Persons at the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), Nour al-Khatib, told Enab Baladi via an electronic correspondence that publishing shocking photos of dead victims with “brutal” signs of torture on their bodies in an ill-considered manner triggers many violations, the most prominent of which is the violation of the victims’ privacy.
Al-Khatib explained that many families may not wish to publish pictures of their children as such. The publication also caused psychological trauma to Syrian society, and tens of thousands of the forcibly disappeared families were forced to view and verify at least thousands of pictures in order to reveal the fate of their children.
These types of photos and videos capture the attention of the families of the missing and activists on social media, which creates a state of chaos in the search for the source of the photos. It also exposes some families to subjective threats.
Al-Khatib added that, following the publication, SNHR documented arrests of two families in Damascus whose children’s photos had been published as victims, noting that the danger of publishing also falls on the families of the victims when it comes to regime-held areas.
Al-Khatib stressed the need for parents’ consent, to take into account their personal safety, and to preserve the victim’s privacy. The publication process applies to all photos of torture victims and others.
With each incident of posting pictures of victims, people’s opinions are divided. Some call for stopping the publication of photos in respect to the feelings of the victims’ families, while others insist on flooding Facebook, Twitter, Telegram, and even WhatsApp, platforms to document and reveal the truth about the perpetrator of the violation.
Director of the Department of Detainees and forcibly Disappeared Persons at the SNHR noted that there are several ways according to which victims could be identified, including by determining the spatio-temporal scope and information provided by the source of pictures and cross-referencing this information with recorded data and details on victims of torture documented by human rights organizations. Parents communicate with these organizations to narrow the search, thereby limiting it to the expected category and familiarizing parents with it while taking into consideration their psychological situation.
No moral justification
As the child Yassin’s story went viral, the picture was circulated minutes apart on dozens of social media pages, with calls for the perpetrator, who was killed in an armed attack during his transfer from Military Police to Civilian Police headquarters, to be held accountable.
Enab Baladi monitored some comments on some publications that the picture should be deleted. The response was that the situation is humanitarian and moral and that it is evidence of the violation (rape) against the child. A picture of the “rapist and aggressor” was also published, with his head shattered as a result of a gunshot wound.
Former sociology professor at Damascus University and researcher at Harmoon Center for Contemporary Studies, Pr. Talal Mustafa said in electronic correspondence with Enab Baladi that publishing “violent” pictures and video recordings carries multiple perspectives on their publication and role, whether positive or negative, especially in relation to Syrians who have grown accustomed to seeing them during the past 11 years.
There are no moral, ethical, or social justifications for publishing the pictures of the victims, according to Pr. Mustafa, who considered that the spread of these pictures and the regularity of seeing them make it a routine matter that will not create any shock or leave any impact on people. Thus, seeing pictures of such incidents will no longer have an impact on people, and they will not provide any reaction. Moreover, these are materials that incite violence, especially among children.
This is not the first time that pictures and clips of victims, massacres, or violations that were randomly carried out by the various parties controlling many areas in Syria have been published. Many sites, groups, or pages are racing to publish them without abiding by the minimum ethical standards in relation to respect for the victims and their families.
The researcher explained that the beginning of the publication of such images in Syria was a political, media, and human rights necessity in order to document and convey the feelings of Syrians and the violations to which they are subjected and to deliver messages to the world about the “heinous dictatorship of the Syrian regime,” especially images of massacres and barrel bombs. Today’s uncontrolled and indiscriminate dissemination only reaps the negative and psychological effects on society.
Director of the Department of Detainees and Forcibly Disappeared Persons at the SNHR said that the dissemination of images with a view to exposing the practices of the violator can also take place while respecting the privacy of victims and adhering to the rules of media professionalism when publishing.
“Respecting the dignity of the victims”
The director of the Syrian Center for Journalistic Freedoms, Ibrahim Hussein, said in electronic correspondence with Enab Baladi that human dignity, which must be respected by the media, is not limited to the living but also includes the dead. Publishing pictures of the victims, especially without covering the deformities that may affect the body, is a violation of media ethical charters, he says while wondering about cases when the pictures show sensitive areas of the body.
The media are supposed to respect the victims’ dignity, according to Hussein, and to move away from publishing any images that might constitute an affront to them. At the same time, account must be taken not to post pictures that may cause panic and intimidate followers.
If this is the presumed principle of dealing with victims in general, it should be treated with greater care when it comes to any press coverage related to children. The media must avoid publishing pictures of children without their parents’ consent and should avoid mentioning the child’s name, let alone their picture, in cases where they are victims of any form of abuse, according to Hussein.
For his part, researcher Talal Mustafa called for a legal and ethical formula and a method to prevent the dissemination of such pictures and “violent” visual content, especially in the northern Syrian regions and asylum areas in the absence of law and media legislation governing the publishing process.
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