The Libyan fighters who dragged Muammar Gaddafi from that stormwater drain in Sirte, manhandled and finally killed him, made good use of an additional weapon they carried in their pockets: their cellphones.
It enabled them to capture his humiliation and death and share it with the world. Within hours, grainy, juddering but unmistakable images of the bloody end of Libya’s former ruler flashed around the world, a devastating shot in the propaganda war against the last remnants of the regime they were fighting.
At one level, it was a high-tech version of the very medieval practice of publicly humiliating offenders and defeated enemies, when thieves were put in the stocks to be jeered at, or the heads of the vanquished were displayed on stakes. But it was also about simple evidence: the images proved Gaddafi really was dead.
International TV networks captured the dynamic: in the midst of a celebrating crowd, a woman told the BBC she did not at first believe the news of his capture, but the pictures convinced her it was true. In the days that followed, his body was kept for public viewing, and many more images were taken and shared.
Previously, events of equivalent significance were only captured on film if a photojournalist or skilled amateur happened to be in the right place at the right time. It was often a matter of luck.
Nowadays, there are cellphone cameras everywhere, which has thoroughly democratised the means of recording events. Distributing images and audio material is just as easy, whether they show a drunk judge, a terror attack on a subway system or the end of a dictator. And when the material is important or interesting enough, it quickly goes viral, ensuring that it reaches the furthest corners of the internet.
So everybody can be a reporter. The Arab Spring has demonstrated the power and all but unstoppable reach of the citizen journalist, although it’s debatable whether the term can easily be used for the people responsible for the filming of Gaddafi’s death. Is it time for a new category, the “fighter journalist”?
For the editors of traditional media, the easy availability of such images throws up new dilemmas. For one thing, there’s the question of whether they are authentic. Just hours after Osama bin Laden was killed in Pakistan in May, an image of his body surfaced and spread around the world. It was broadcast on Pakistani TV and used on the front pages of several British newspapers.
But it was a fake, and expert analysis quickly found the two original images that had been combined to create it. Writing in the Washington Post, Philip Kennicott said that it is the way in which images arrive that determines the sense of authenticity. In the Gaddafi case, the fact that so many different images surfaced so quickly indicated they were real: “The self-reinforcing surge of Gaddafi images and video erased doubts,” he wrote.
And then there is the question of how to use them. Do “even tyrants deserve a private death”, as BBC broadcaster Mark Lawson argues? Most editors would say that the event’s historic significance trumps considerations of personal dignity, or the hurt undoubtedly caused to family members by having to see the death over and over again.
South Africans have their share of examples: images of the dead Unita leader Jonas Savimbi, of defenceless members of the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging gunned down during the organisation’s abortive attempt to mount a last stand for white supremacy in the then Bophutatswana, and, perhaps most notably, the murder of South African Community Party leader Chris Hani at a time when it might easily have pushed the new South Africa into chaos.
Even if there is agreement that a shocking image may be used, there are still a range of options for editors. The Mail & Guardian took a relatively restrained approach, relying on an image of a damaged wall painting of Gaddafi for its front page. Other papers packed their front pages with close-up, bloody images.
Significantly, public response to images of this kind depends on a number of factors that extend further than just how graphic they are. It depends also on whether the face is visible, whether the person is shown in the moment of death and who it is. Audiences tolerate an image of a robber who got his comeuppance much more easily than one of an innocent victim.
On that score, of course, the widely reviled former Libyan ruler didn’t stand much of a chance.
For Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute, standards are “notching towards more gruesome images”. She told Reuters this was partly because of the way in which these images have become easily available on social media and the Internet: editors see little sense in staying away from images that are so widely available in any event.
In this way, too, the story of the Gaddafi images demonstrate how new media are changing the way journalism works.
This column was originally published on Oct. 28, 2011 in the Mail & Guardian.