(By Tosin Osasona)
“Can it be said that the dead was dignified as was the case in the Abuja bombing when the remains of the victims of the bomb blast were heaped into the back of an open truck and the picture splashed over the internet? Doesn’t it violate our collective humanity when the remains of accidents are haphazardly hulled into the backs of security trucks and photographed? At what point in our national life will it become a collective affront to carelessly transport the dead? At what stage will it become a standard practice in Nigeria to transport dead bodies using body bags or covered sterile evidence sheet and ambulances?“
“The remains of mortality is a sad sight under any circumstances”- William Sykes, 1824
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.
Perennial photographs of carnages on the famished Nigerian roads, of suspected criminals killed by security agencies in shoot-out, of the victims of the Boko Haram inhumanity and other images of random deaths are now a stable served to the Nigerian public by the mass media, all dished out with munificent goriness. This taste for the graphic is complemented by such headline infelicities as, “Tears as 40 persons roast to death in multiple auto crash”, “TRAGIC: 18 People Roasted Alive in Car Accident”. Online images which are products of the mobile revolution and street journalism, is even edgier and explicit than it appears in print. Nigerians without any professional journalism training snap shots of severed limbs and burnt corpses with their phones and cameras and upload them directly online and thousands of Nigerians flock to these sites to view them. It is no longer awkward that at the scene of death, some Nigerians are more concerned with capturing graphic images than with offering aid and respect to the dead and dying.
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 like the April 14 incident in Abuja; 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 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 encapsulated 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”. 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 violate a sacred constituent of the Nigerian culture.
While the dead have minimal or no rights, perhaps except the right to remain silent, undisturbed and unmolested, that right is universally held sacrosanct. According to William Francis Basevi, is his book- The Burial of the Dead– “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”. The 1949 Geneva Conventions protects the sanctity of corpses even in the chaos and unpredictability of conflict scenes by explicitly providing for “search for the enemy’s dead and prevent their dead being despoiled”.
Furthermore, such publication without the consent of the family of dead impugn their privacy and as well as their rights to peace in the wake of a tragic event and such imageries has a potential to continuously torture the kin of the deceased.
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. Susan Sontag in her book, Regarding the Pain of Others, stated that graphic images might arouse “opposing responses; a call for peace; a cry for revenge; or simply the bemused awareness, continually restocked by photographic information, that terrible things happen”. And some other school of thought posits that such “death porn” only stimulates our darkest selves. 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 accidents and communal 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’s “Management of Dead Bodies in Disaster Situations” Manual, “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”, so what justifies this Nigerian practice, even in the absence of a major disaster?
Can it be said that the dead was dignified as was the case in the Abuja bombing when the remains of the victims of the bomb blast were heaped into the back of an open truck and the picture splashed over the internet? Doesn’t it violate our collective humanity when the remains of accidents are haphazardly hulled into the backs of security trucks and photographed? At what point in our national life will it become a collective affront to carelessly transport the dead? At what stage will it become a standard practice in Nigeria to transport dead bodies using body bags or covered sterile evidence sheet and ambulances?
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.
Tosin Osasona is a Research Associate at the Center for Public Policy Alternatives, Lagos, Nigeria.
“Opinion pieces of this sort published on RISE Networks are those of the original authors and do not in anyway represent the thoughts, beliefs and ideas of RISE Networks.”