What to Do with Horrific Images From Iraq


Deeply disturbing images show Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) militants executing soldiers or security force members somewhere in Iraq's Salaheddin province. They were first uploaded on June 14 and soon appeared on various websites and jihadist Twitter accounts, and they have now been published by AFP and other news agencies.

Pictures like these clearly amount to extremist propaganda, so should they have been published? For AFP, the answer is yes -- but not without first taking careful precautions to ensure they were not faked. We also avoided publishing those photos depicting gratuitous violence for its own sake.

At AFP's Middle East headquarters, located in Nicosia, a team of Arabic-speaking journalists constantly monitor radical Islamist websites and social network accounts, looking for news and images coming out of war zones in Iraq and Syria.

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"You have to be quick," says Patrick Baz, photo manager for the Middle East and North Africa. "The links can disappear from one minute to the next. And often Twitter will delete accounts with violent content."

These images of mass executions were first made public by the jihadist site Welayat Salahuddin, then spread quickly on Twitter. For AFP, it was clear we had to transmit the images.

We ran these pictures because of their historical importance, attesting to the extreme harshness of the current situation in Iraq. Also, because Agence France-Presse does not typically deliver content directly to consumers (apart from this blog), it sends pictures to client media outlets who then decide whether to publish pictures, according to their own editorial guidelines and practices.

"You have to show what happened," says Baz. "At the moment, no journalist or independent observer can get into jihadist-held areas without facing imminent kidnapping or death. These pictures are the only evidence available. Of course, it's propaganda. These photos are designed to terrorize the enemy. But these are also pictures of historic value, just like those images of Nazi officers executing resistance fighters and Jews."

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AFP does not use images of violence with dubious or non-existent news value. Accordingly, we didn't publish a close-up shot of a man who had been repeatedly kicked in the head, or another picture of a militant holding a decapitated head. Broadly speaking, other agencies have the same criteria.

We also needed to be certain that the images hadn't been faked. One of the questions that arose with the first picture of the executions was whether extra bodies had been added into the picture by with Photoshop or some such image-manipulation software, to try to make the photo even more impactful. This old propaganda trick has been used by North Korea to try to dupe the international media. AFP uses forensic software called Tungstene to look for whether a picture has been altered.

It can be complicated to operate -- revealing an alteration made by an expert can take a whole day -- but Tungstene in this case showed that the photos of the ISIL in Iraq had not been significantly manipulated.

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