Disturbing Images, Disturbing Views
This article was published in the Nation on Sunday, 18 March 2012
On March 9, 2012, the Colombo Telegraph published ten photographs of three young women who appeared to have died violently. Their clothing was in disarray, indicating brutal sexual assault.
There was no text accompanying the photographs but context was provided by the title of the post: Disturbing Images of War Crimes: Rape And Killings and the tags: “Photographic evidence of sexual abuse – SL army, Rape and Killings By Sri Lankan army, War Crimes Sri Lanka”.
The pictures have been in circulation for some time. Some bear the imprint TTNnews.com and can be found on their website and Facebook page. All have a May 2009 date.
More Heat than Light in the Blogosphere
At the time of writing the post had generated 204 comments. The comments can be categorised as follows:
Plain crass – Some macho males find the subject of rape a source of infantile humour.
The victims had no human rights -Some commenters seem to feel that one should not be concerned about what happened to the women because they were terrorists. Chaminda Tilakumara (of Human Rights for Victims of Terrorism) writes: “To have human rights, first you have to be HUMAN. Therefore, LTTE Terrorists do not have human rights.”
The deniers – Enid Wirekoon argued that the pictures were faked because Wanni girls would not be wearing such underwear and their skin would have been darker and the blood does not look real. One of the men in the pictures is wearing a Hindu wristband rather than a pirith nool that a Sinhalese soldier would be wearing. David Blacker argues that pictures do not prove rape and finds it odd that photos circulated so far do not show “a living victim or of the crime being perpetrated?”
All Sinhalese are to blame – Some commenters take the issue beyond what these particular pictures prove and condemn the entire Sinhalese Buddhist culture. “Absolutely disgusting photos. BUT It is the 2500 year accomplishment of Sinhala-Buddhism. God forbid what the next 2500 years will bring.” First to comment was Donald Gnanakone, supporting the LTTE from California as President of Tamils for Justice (there are some choice abusive comments from Sinhalese on his Facebook posts): “Taste of Paradise by the paradisians and what the British and Russian tourist experienced in Hambantota recently by the Sinhala civilians….”
The world is watching – Clearly the timing of this publication and further Channel 4 material is related to the UNHCR in Geneva. As well as the usual suspects from the diaspora some foreign nationals have been weighing in. Cynthia Wise scolded: “It disturbs me that so many of you seem to be missing the point. No wonder the world is in the shape it is. May God rest their souls and may we all pray for peace. Please see the underlying issue here; so the next pictures are not your mothers, sisters, girlfriends and wives, etc. If not please at least find something better to do with your time.”
Journalistic ethics – A commenter called Sach asks, ”Isn’t posting photos of raped women naked against the standards of journalism? This looks like journalists rape her again.” Another wrote: “Colombo Telegraph , I’m shocked and ashamed of your decision to publish these pictures and I find it disturbing. Please do not stoop too low in your journalism. I thought you are one of the modern civilised websites not like gutter journalism like certain other websites who only lives in the world of threats and threats and threats but nothing else. Very empty I would say.”
The Murdoch empire often used the ‘public interest’ as a defence for their prurient invasions of privacy. What they really meant was the public was interested in the salacious stuff the Sun and the News of the Screws printed. Many well-intentioned people are resisting any press censorship that might come out of the Leveson Inquiry into News International’s misdeeds. Therefore, some would justify publication of these distasteful pictures by Colombo Telegraph as being in the public interest.
Susan Sontag wrote, in Regarding the Pain of Others, about the representation of atrocity. Are viewers inured – or incited – to violence by the depiction of cruelty? Is the viewer’s perception of reality eroded by familiarity? Sontag writes we should ask why have we been presented with this picture, who allowed it to be published? What am I expected to feel? “There is shame as well as shock in looking at the close-up of a real horror. Perhaps the only people with the right to look at images of suffering of this extreme order are those who could do something to alleviate it … or those who could learn from it. The rest of us are voyeurs, whether or not we mean to be.”
The evidence from the Colombo Telegraph comments is that incitement rather than sympathy is the predominant result of the publication of these photographs.
Some Hope of Sanity?
Not all of the comments on the Colombo Telegraph were depressing. A Rivendra commented: “No point in arguing who landed first in the Island or the mistakes of the past. There were discrimination from both sides, Tamils and Singhalese alike. For the sake of our future generations, let us learn from our mistakes and not repeat them…As we all know, humans when they are faced with danger/death, will react differently.” He added: “We should not try to absolve those personnel who would have conducted executions and rape….”
“Mango” commented: “That GoSL have still not managed to prosecute a few low-ranking soldiers for crimes committed during Eelam War 4 or even say ‘sorry’ is indicative of their head-in-the-sand attitude. It allows Sri Lanka’s detractors to paint its entire armed forces as criminals.”
Although I am described in the thread as “GOSL apologist Padraig Colman”, I will repeat what I have said elsewhere: “Rape is a terrible crime. Rape as a systematic policy and weapon of war is even more appalling. Tho