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THE SIERRA LEONE DEBATE: The Darfur Sex Photos: To publish or not to publish

Some time in June 2012 some local newspapers in Sierra Leone published a story about explicit still and video pictures starring two serving police officers on United Nations peacekeeping duties in Darfur, Sudan. Some published nude pictures especially of the woman. The two officers, the woman in her 50s and the man younger, were having sex and decided to take pictures and film their fun moments.

We are aware of the fact that by this debate the two people will have their private lives once again thrust into public gaze after a period of about four weeks. Unless you are a close family member this is enough time to have forgotten about the incident. If you are a close associate, you are sure to be still reeling from the heartbreak and emotional pains caused by some sections of the media putting out what would normally be a very private affair in front of the headlamps of national publicity. But our debate is intended to put a mirror to our fraternity from an analytical point of view with a view to engendering an intellectual debate on whether or not the story was in fact a story worthy of publishing.

Isaac Masaquoi argues that people’s privacy must be respected even if they are a public figure. Therefore the sex pictures should never have been given space in a newspaper. James Tamba Lebbie on the other hand argues that hypocrites must be exposed and those held in public trust must live up. A person’s private space does not stretch beyond the private place. Before we forget who is a public figure? Is it everyone who works in the public service or is known to the public? When, if ever, does our private life become public regardless of who we are? Should that private space barrier be removed by public interest considerations? But how do we define “privacy”?  The two protagonists, James and Isaac, argue their points succinctly and doggedly. However, they both agree on one thing, namely, that nude or naked pictures must not see the pages of a newspaper – no matter who or what is involved. Whether their content should be a journalist’s business, you decide by reading on below. Enjoy reading and please keep for your records.

Umaru Fofana, Editor

NOT To Publish

By Isaac Massaquoi

Apart from politicians, celebrities and NGO workers seeking publicity for fundraising efforts, the rest of us prefer to live private lives, keeping the media as far away as possible. That’s why when such people have cause to face the media in circumstances as strange as this, they are like animals dazzled by the headlights of a car in the middle of a motorway where they are more often than not crushed.

I am taking part in this debate because I have some views on the question of privacy that I want to communicate to colleagues and the general public at a time when media infrastructure even in Sierra Leone is phenomenal. Technology has revolutionised the business, cut-throat competition has led to hyper-activity in the pursuit of the story and the penchant for the extra-ordinary that will create the right impact have all conspired to change the nature of the beast – it’s unrecognisable.

No discussion about privacy is complete if it doesn’t consider the following points: How is privacy itself defined? To whom is privacy extended? When does it take precedence over exposure? And where is privacy deemed to be inviolable?

Now let me bring a working definition of privacy to help me frame my arguments in furtherance of my position on the issue. For this I will rely on Robert Ellis Smith, editor of the Privacy Journal, as quoted in an article in the Challenges series, produced by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, titled Privacy, probity and public interest. He defines privacy as “the desire by each of us for physical space where we can be free from interruption, intrusion, embarrassment, or accountability and the attempt to control the time and manner of disclosures of personal information about ourselves”. Also more than a century ago US Supreme Court Justice, Louis Brandeis described privacy as “the right to be left alone”.

The story goes that two Sierra Leone Police officers on UN peacekeeping in Darfur are in love with each other or consolidated whatever relationship that had existed between them prior to their deployment. On the lady’s birthday they organised a party, after which they decided to have quality time at the lady’s living quarters. It’s not very clear what happened afterwards but somehow, they recorded their sexual activity of that evening and saved it into a computer. I can say with a great degree of certainty, that they recorded it as a way of keeping the memory of that event fresh on their mind, since it was the climax of the lady’s birthday celebration and they were due back home at the end of their tour of duty before the next birthday. The material was then stolen by, we hear, a Jordanian Peacekeeper who distributed it to others until it landed in the hands of journalists in Sierra Leone who decided to publish some of the pictures.

At this point I am returning to the same document in the Challenges series to see what Richard Thomas; a former Information Commissioner is quoted as saying about sex, which is at the heart of this debate. “Sexual intimacy is something that belongs to our most private expression of need and affection. For most of us, it is the most personal activity. What real public interest is there in knowing what people get up to in the privacy of their own bedrooms – or even other people’s?” In the case of this lady, I find it difficult to see any real public interest in whatever she did with her friend in Darfur.

Let’s go back to those four standpoints that underpin the modern privacy discourse these days and try to relate them to our friend’s case: How is privacy defined? I urge you to read above again what Justice Louis Brandeis said more than a century ago: “The right to be left alone”. Did the police officer have the “right to be left alone” regarding what she did that night in Darfur? Absolutely!

To whom is privacy extended? In modern journalism, practitioners have argued that anyone who has put their lives in any way in the public domain either by seeking public office or taking part in one of these most outrageous reality shows like Big Brother is fair game. But here was a private woman celebrating her birthday and doing what every adult does only to find her bare-breasted photos on the pages of national newspapers several weeks later. On which grounds can any Journalist justify such grievous assault on the privacy of the lady in question?

When does privacy take precedence over exposure? I am still waiting to be told what “overriding public interest” there was in publishing these photos? All media codes I have seen anywhere in the world (and I have been to a few places), emphasise that privacy becomes a secondary issue only in the face of “overriding public Interest.” I argue very strongly, that apart from feeding the basic human curiosity, the publication of those photos served no other purpose.

Where is privacy deemed to be inviolable? The first question I asked myself after reading newspapers and watching a few seconds of the video in preparation for this piece (I was very embarrassed watching a woman of that age in such a condition. I suppose in Africa, such things are only imagined about our parents or people their age), was, where did this sexual activity take place? Clearly, It happened in her living quarters – nowhere can be more private. It didn’t happen in an office like a few others we’ve seen; it didn’t happen in a brothel; it didn’t happen in a park. It happened in a place that all of us believe offers us what Peter Bradwell and Niamh Gallagher of Demos Publication writing in UK Confidential are quoted as calling a “space to withdraw from the gaze of others…”

I will also argue that the woman’s personal space was recklessly invaded by whoever distributed her private video material. Robert Ellis Smith defined privacy as “the desire by each of us for physical space where we can be free of interruption, intrusion, embarrassment, or accountability…” This material was never intended to be a commercial enterprise. It was an attempt to put on record a memorable day in the life of the 53-year-old.

I will also argue based on points already made that there was no “overriding public interest” in whatever she did with her friend in her own room and to publish that material tells of great insensitivity to young readers and the inability to appreciate the consequences of our editorial decisions on the lives of ordinary people.

I don’t know which editorial considerations underpinned the decisions to publish those pictures. I am hoping that this publication will provoke a rational debate on this question in which people like us will be challenged on our convictions.

Let’s be honest, people get up to all sorts of things within the walls of their bedrooms and some of that is also digitally recorded. The difference is they have not had the misfortune of being in the same place with somebody like that rogue individual who hacked into the woman’s computer for the sole purpose of feeding their criminal desire to know what others do in the privacy of their homes.

From what I have read in some papers, the woman is now hibernating in Kampala fleeing from her homeland while the young policeman who was her partner in the video recording has returned to Freetown to find out that he has been sacked. I cannot confirm that at this time but I would be scandalized if Munu dismissed the man because of the video. In fact that will be unbridled hypocrisy. My sources tell me he has secured the services of prominent lawyers to fight for his job. I will keep an eye on that.

I can understand why the woman thinks hiding from her country is a good idea. I have never met the lady and even after watching a few seconds of that embarrassing video, I still can’t recognize her face on Pademba Road in broad daylight.

My professional advice to her will be this: Her private life, with respect to that video is now public property. She has to confront the issue by returning home. She should resign her job with the police immediately because it is not possible to continue in that post. She must never be shy to speak about the issue but must only do that to a friendly media that will put her case with some sympathy.

She must be contrite and never attempt to attack those who earlier published the material, they might well throw spanner into any public relations works set up on her behalf.

The woman didn’t do anything extraordinary. I hear she is a preacher. She must do exactly what Jimmy Swaggart did by apologising to her church members so that she could get restoration. She can then continue to live a normal and quiet life in Sierra Leone. The media have moved on a long time ago. It is now the job for the government to arrest and prosecute those greedy people who are busy selling the pornographic material on the streets.

 

 

To Publish

By James Tamba Lebbie
“Whether an article or broadcast is newsworthy, whether the information was gathered in an objectionable fashion, whether truthful information is nonetheless highly offensive — all are considerations in weighing individuals’ claims against the news media. Invasion of privacy is a tort, a civil wrong, which can lead to jury trials and potential claims for compensatory and punitive damages. It also places judges in the unfamiliar and uncomfortable role as ‘editors’ of last resort.” These are the words of Bussian and Levine (2004) in their seminal work, Invasion of Privacy and the Media: The Right “To Be Left Alone.”

While prefacing my piece with the above quote as a conscious awareness of the fact that the “invasion of privacy is a relatively recent addition to American law”, and for which “American courts today do not look kindly upon the media in these cases,” I will nonetheless, proffer an answer to the following questions:

Were newspapers right to have published nude pictures of two Sierra Leonean police officers (male and female) serving in a UN peacekeeping mission or did that constitute an invasion of privacy and therefore, unjustified? My answer is an emphatic NO. Could the publication have been done differently? I think so. Reasons for my two apparently contrasting responses would form the purpose for my argument.

In many circumstances, the subject of privacy or its invasion, has sparked a controversial debate among media consumers and, sometimes, media readers and/or users. This is so because it is sometimes difficult to draw the line between someone’s private and public lives especially when that story concerns a public figure. Equally difficult to define in some cases is what constitutes a public figure. And while many media scholars assert that the invasion of privacy is justified only in the public interest, a definition of what constitutes public interest is also often controversial.

Meanwhile, as an integral part of any democracy, a free media has an important role to play in holding powerful and public figures to account and subjecting them to public scrutiny.  And certainly, in recent times, the exposures of some public figures by some newspapers would seem to bear this relationship out. But whilst some would celebrate this so-called media “revolution”, claiming that it is successfully narrowing the distance between government and the governed and public figures and the public, others remain more circumspect, suggesting that the media has lost its moral compass and can no longer claim to be acting in the “public interest”.

 

Within the media landscape in Sierra Leone, many will argue that far from being the “watchdog” of democracy, the press is probably now enslaved to the same foibles as the western media, hounding public figures and politicians regularly and sacrificing decency and ethical editorial judgment on the altar of “the public’s right to know”.

One aspect of this debate relates to the question of privacy, and the degree to which a free press should be allowed to intrude on the private lives of public figures. Whilst some argue that there should be no boundaries for a free press, others suggest that checks and balances must be established to enable a media fit for its purpose of surveillance.

These are the dynamics that underpin the debate that accompanied the publication of a story that eventually evolved into a scandal involving our two police officers serving the UN in Darfur. And to return to my unequivocal position that the publication of that sex video and nude photos was justified, the following would form the thesis for my standpoint:

In spite of the increasing criticisms this type of news gathering and reporting has attracted from the news audience as well as by media critics over the years, the invasion of privacy by the news media has become a routine part of the coverage of public figures. And I emphasise on the description “public figure” because at least, one of the two actors in the video – if not both of them – is held in public trust.

Also, in this particular instance, it was not the newspaper that surreptitiously took photographs and video clips of those explicit sexual acts. Rather, the newspaper only received those seemingly pornographic materials from their sources. Of course, the ethical decision of “to publish or not to publish” rests squarely within the purview and/or ambit of the editor; and in this case, I am inclined to believe that the editor decided to publish the story on a number of grounds. But while I’m not in a position to speculate the reason(s) and possible motives that informed the editor’s decision to publish that particular story, I will not hesitate to outline mine if I were in his shoes.

First, the people involved in those photos and videos were not in Darfur in their private capacities. They were on a UN mission as representatives of the country, where the highest professional standards are expected of them as security ambassadors of Sierra Leone. In my estimation therefore, such an enviable position has transformed those police officers into public figures in their own right. And for those who think otherwise, I will hasten to remind them of the recent indecent incident involving some US secret agents in Bogota, Columbia, where some secret servicemen were secretly filmed during a row with a prostitute while President Obama was on a visit there. The video was made public and those involved were disciplined by the CIA Chief for professional misconduct and breach of public trust.

Further, although the action took place within their private space, their reckless decision to put on record what transpired privately and to store it in a public computer meant they bought a halfway ticket to their exposure. In other words, while nothing stops those two police officers from enjoying themselves in the comfort of their privacy, they clearly crossed the line by recording the proceedings of their romantic fanfare and storing it in a system other people have access to.

Above all, a number of people have confirmed to me that the nude lady in those photos is a preacher in one of the churches at Wilberforce, which also qualifies her as a public figure. In other words, that woman is held in public trust by sections of the Wilberforce community who look up to her for spiritual guidance and as moral epitome in society. Against this backdrop, behaving in such an uncompromising way is a breach of the trust in which she was held by that particular community. And the media, within the ambit of its surveillance (monitorial) role in society, has the responsibility to hold such people accountable as well as uphold the public’s right to know in such matters.

I have taken such a position while not oblivious of questions that are often asked about the appropriateness and purpose, or not, of revealing information, the subjects of such reports would prefer to keep private. I am also aware that there are competing claims made about the importance and value of privacy on the one hand, and the public’s right to know on the other. But as Gauthier (n.d), argues from the standpoint of her Kantian and utilitarian ethical analysis of privacy invasion, “what is needed is a way to compare these competing claims in the evaluation of invasions of privacy that is grounded in fundamental ethical concepts and principles.” Gauthier says “the value of privacy to each of us, for the exercise of individual liberty, for control over the circumstances of our actions, for our personal relationships, for our individual development as persons, and for protection against the power of others, provides a persuasive argument against privacy invasion by the news media. Yet, news reports that reveal inherently private matters are defended on the basis of the public’s need or demand for this type of information,” especially when those involved in the story are held in public trust.

Having taken the position as to the ‘why’ aspect of the argument, I must emphatically conclude with a shift in position in the context of the ‘how’ aspect of the practice. In other words, while I support the publication of that story on the grounds of the ‘public’s right to know’, I would have reported that story differently in the light of the ethical sensitivities associated with those nude photos.

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