A Picture Is NOT Worth a Thousand Liberian Lives

I squirmed when I saw the photo online of a female protester in her crisp white T-shirt, with ruby red liquid dripping down her neck and face. There were other photos in a series. One man lay on the naked carpet of a room, surrounded by the living, his thin vertical body lifeless. Another man had a blackened left eye shut completely tight, with bruised lips.

The caption read “Bloody Monday in Liberia.”

Images such as these are not only disrespectful to the deceased, they are also indictments of our media landscape and the violence with which we wrestle every day.

And I’m not talking about physical violence alone. One of my favorite social theorists, Johan Galtung, said that the worst form of violence is structural –  rules, laws, regulations, systems or social norms that favor one group at the exclusion of another. Galtung, the “father” of peace studies as an academic discipline, believed that structural violence ignites conflict and keeps the fire burning.

Structural violence is at the core of our past and current troubles. It’s a reminder that though we are only eight years removed from civil war, we continue to struggle with its consequences.

We have become so immune to images of death and destruction in Liberia. If a researcher looked through our historical accounts, and only focused on photographs, the conclusion would be drawn that contemporary Liberia was birthed out of a history of structural violence manifested in the physical.

Lest we forget, we taped the gruesome killing of our former head of state in the early 1990s—and sold it to anyone who wanted to see barbarity at its worst. I remember seeing photos in Liberian newspapers in 2008 of an alleged armed robber who had been beaten to death by a community that decided his fate, and subsequently resorted to playing judge, jury and executioner.

I remember a newspaper in 2010 publishing an image of a woman whose head had been decapitated—not during the war—but during our post-conflict reconstruction era, because an oversized truck had sliced her body from the neck down.  I also remember photographs published in 2011 of a prominent legal counsel of the Central Bank of Liberia (CBL) who had died tragically in a car accident. Images of his crushed and compressed body ran in a few of our Monrovia-based local dailies for weeks.

Our obsession with violent images makes me reflect on how we’ve got to find a way to handle crises differently, certainly not through violent means, as the most recent example of pre run-off clashes between an undisciplined police force and equally undisciplined protesters showed. Those photos of what has been dubbed “Bloody Monday” say a lot about who we are—and it’s not a rosy picture, pun intended.

There was an outcry amongst African activists in the early 2000s about what they called “development pornography”. Images in development literature, mainstream international newspapers, publications, videos, films, and photographs, depicted Africa through the lens of a half-naked black child with an enlarged head crowned with wisps of hair, a bloated belly, stick thin legs, with flies swarming around his head and mucus dripping from his nose. African activists justifiably complained that these images empowered the Western world to think of Africa as a distant land, with a slower evolutionary pace, quite different from their own reality. It made Africa the “other.”

I believe we participate in our own mockery when we habitually publish images that depict our violent contemporary reality. We have to begin to distance ourselves from those images because they cannot define who we are as a people.
One way to do that is to begin to make key policy decisions about how violent images will not be used by media outlets in Liberia, starting with a position taken by the Press Union of Liberia (PUL). A parallel moratorium on violence in Liberia needs to be declared by civil society and government, in homage to those who lost their lives on “Bloody Monday,” and the hundreds of thousands of people who lost their lives during our contemporary history of violence. We also need a moratorium on statements that might provoke violence.

I am aware that a number of media houses—namely King’s FM, Love FM and Love TV, Power FM and Power TV—were shut down a day before the run-off elections. Shutting down media institutions by a court injunction was an act of desperation, but that desperation had its roots in well-founded fears.

Media has been manipulated to incite hate messages and violence in Africa before, with one sobering example being in Rwanda in 1994 when two prominent radio stations, Radio Rwanda and Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines, instigated reprisals against Tutsis and moderate Hutus during that country’s tragic genocide. Our media must not be co-opted by the powerful, elite, and the power-hungry.

Government must grant responsible media the space to function without threats of intimidation or censorship, but the media has a responsibility to self-censor images and speech that do not contribute to Liberia’s renewal process. I don’t consider this to be an infringement of freedom of expression because freedoms—even in the most democratic societies—are not absolute.

The Liberian media has a responsibility to speak truth to power, filtering violence-free, unbiased, non-sensational, well-researched stories that inform, educate, and empower the public to make rational choices. Until the media can boast of these characteristics, I’m afraid that it’s not just the government that is suffering from a crisis of legitimacy.

We owe it to the dead and departed who lost their lives fighting for freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of consciousness, to stop the perpetuation of violence, both structural and physical, beginning with one picture and utterance at a time. The lives of the people captured in our bloodied historical images are worth more than the photos that capture them.

Born in Monrovia, Liberia, Robtel Neajai Pailey is an opinion fellow with New Narratives, a project supporting leading independent media in Africa. She is currently pursuing a doctorate in Development Studies at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), as a Mo Ibrahim Foundation Ph.D. Scholar. She can be reached at [email protected]