Call to ban photos of children as refugees put media freedom to the test

Photographs of children fleeing civil war in Syria have provoked a stormy debate on press freedom.

Hungarian journalists working for the state news channel M1 were told in a memo not to show any more pictures of refugees’ children. The memo was leaked to the UK’s Guardian newspaper. News website responded by posting an album of refugees’ children, curated from Getty Images and news footage.

Defending the ‘don’t publish’ instruction, the broadcasting authority MTVA is quoted in the Guardian, saying it had not intervened in the apparent censorship because it believed the broadcaster was seeking to protect children from publicity.

‘A German life’

However the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s hardline attitude to the thousands of refugees crowding into the railway station in the capital Budapest indicates that he does not wish the media to arouse sympathy for them. His latest public statements: ‘They should stay in Turkey, where they are safe. They are not refugees, they want a German life.’  Earlier the prime minister had said that Hungary needed to defend its borders against Muslims because Europeans had to keep Europe Christian. His government is erecting a fence along the border with Serbia.

At Budapest’s Central European University, media academic Kate Coyer is blogging as she organises volunteers to help refugees communicate, using wifi and mobile phone chargers. Coyer commented: I haven't words … This is dangerous and terrifying! Europe and 21st century …

Boy on beach

Alan KurdiThe picture of three year old Alan Kurdi, a Syrian refugee who drowned and was washed up on the beach near Bodrum in Turkey, has become a powerful symbol. In Turkey, where the boy’s family set sail for the Greek island of Kos in a people-smuggler’s small boat, the press agency Bianet is questioning whether images should have been published of the tiny body on the Turkish shore. All the photojournalists interviewed by Bianet agreed that the image should be widely used.

Hüseyin Özdemir said,
“A photo must not make you cry. It must make you question, instead. There are thousands of photos of dead Syrian refugee children but we aren’t affected that much because it’s happening in Syria. We aren’t aware of it but these people escape from our country.”

The British national newspaper The Independent published a large picture of the boy’s body on the beach, taking up the whole of its front page. Editor Amol Rajan did not take the decision lightly, according to Independent political correspondent Andy McSmith.

McSmith told the ECPMF: ”There was much heart-searching. This boy is lying on the beach in the same position as a baby lying in his cot. But he is dead. How could we tell the story with full impact and still respect his dignity? In the end, it was the right decision.”

A rival newspaper, The Times, printed a small version of the same picture on an inside page. The Sun used a different picture, showing a coastguard carrying away the boy’s body.

No pictures

Bild 2015 Sept. 08German tabloid newspaper Bild (it means ’Picture’) chose to defend the media’s right to use shocking pictures by printing an entire edition WITHOUT photographs. Under the headline ”Why Picture is not printing any pictures today” the editorial explained that the picture of the boy on the beach could become an historic icon, like the picture of the little girl with her back on fire, a victim of US napalm bombing in Vietnam.
And the paper’s official voice insisted: “Bild always stands up for the right to publish disputed pictures. The world must see the truth, if we are to change things.”  


On BBC TV and radio, the editors’ decisions have been hotly disputed: how should a free press portray death? The German broadcaster ZDF also engaged with the photo, devoting five minutes of its morning news show to it.

One question exercised the editors: is it ethical to use such a picture to build sympathy for refugees? Most British newspapers traditionally take an anti-immigration stance. But now instead they are giving pages of coverage to ordinary people in Germany and other European nations who are spontaneously organising help for new arrivals fleeing war and violence.

Meanwhile on Facebook, the dead boy’s aunt Tima Kurdi has posted online a picture of him laughing in a children’s playground. Interviewed in the Ottawa Citizen, she asks the world’s media to use this photo instead - to remember Alan in happier times. (Alan, known as Alyan in Turkey, was named after his Canadian cousin.) His mother and brother also drowned when their boat capsized. Their father Abdullah survived. He was hoping to start a new life after being bombed by Syria’s Assad regime, but now he has returned to Kobani, buried his family and intends to fight on.

In France, left-wing newspaper Libération apologised to readers for suppressing the controversial pictures of Alan Kurdi at first. activist Zinon Zyglostiotis has shared cartoons online based on the striking image of Alan Kurdi on the beach. He started an online petition urging the BBC to stop using the term ‘migrant crisis’ and instead to refer to ‘refugees’. When he reached 70,500 signatures he announced that he was switching his efforts to a more political petition and that the BBC had responded anyway, changing its coverage.

With the power of words and pictures, the media across Europe are challenging attempts at censorship and tearing up stereotypes as they learn to reflect a new reality.