The ethics of airing horrors of war

South Africa TV and CNNI broadcast a film that captures the horrific

The documentary film opens with a harrowing scene. The TV camera holds steady as a young man pleads for his life on the war-ravaged streets of Sierra Leone.

"I am a woodcutter," the suspected rebel tells armed soldiers. "I only came to find fish for us to cook. Don't you people know me?"

A soldier shoots the man dead.

South Africans watched the execution on their TV sets Tuesday night, when state television aired "Sierra Leone: Out of Africa."And CNN International will air a slightly edited version several times next week.

The film is renewing debate about the ethics of bringing graphic, real-life violence to television. It stretches the boundaries with unflinching footage of atrocities that occurred in the name of war.

Broadcasters have faced tough ethical questions since the age of televised disasters began with the Vietnam War in the late 1960s. But the Sierra Leone film is like nothing seen on television before: unprecedented access allowed cameraman Sorius Samura to film atrocities as they unfolded in his country last year - up close and in color.

Even Mr. Samura cannot stand to watch the execution scene he filmed. Too frightened to intervene on the victim's behalf, he now asks himself if the presence of his camera provoked the soldier to kill. "My personal question has been, 'was it the camera or not?' I still can't forgive myself."

Nor does he forgive the international broadcasters who deemed the footage too gruesome to air, and refused to show it for more than a year. Britain's Channel 4 spent months debating ethical polemicsbefore it ran an uncut version of the documentary earlier this month.

At the South African Broadcasting Corporation, editor Claire Robertson went "through a long night of the soul" before concluding that the film must be seen. She says television must tread a fine line between showing the reality of war and exposing audiences to unnecessary horror.

"We don't want people to be so repulsed that they turn the channel.... We asked ourselves how extreme can TV footage get? Can you show a child dying? We considered whether we were running this because it is sensational TV or because it is bearing witness to history.... But we decided ... they should know what happened in Sierra Leone."

Avoiding stereotypes

Ms. Robertson and her colleagues were concerned the film could reinforce negative stereotypes of Africa as a continent beset by barbaric warmongers.

Robert Kirby, a television critic for the country's leading Mail and Guardian newspaper says that he couldn't care less about their image. "The rebels of Sierra Leone should be exposed. And I think in this case the shock value is worth it."

Atrocities committed during an eight-year civil war in the tiny West African country had gone virtually unnoticed in the Western world. When rebel forces invaded the capital of Freetown last January, an Associated Press photographer was killed in the streets, and foreign journalists fled for safety.

The only cameraman to remain was Samura, a local father of three who freelanced for the United Nations. He knew the rebels were hunting down journalists, and friends warned him not to leave his hiding place in an apartment.

"I was really, really scared," Samura told the SABC during an interview in London this week. "But I thought: Somebody has to get the evidence."

He felt morally bound to use the only weapon he had - his camera - to bring the stories of Sierra Leone's victims to the outside world.

The access he obtained has stunned every TV executive to view the footage. For five days, Samura pretended to support the rebels and managed to film their fighters committing horrific atrocities. Later, he escaped across rebel lines and filmed the Nigerian peacekeeping force that was struggling to take control of the city.

Samura entrusted his footage to BBC correspondent Fergal Keane - who has since admitted that he immediately dismissed much of the material as offensive. Last year, Samura won two of the most prestigious awards in TV journalism - and yet audiences were never given a chance to watch.

"I said: 'Take the awards, take the money - but show my pictures, let people understand,' " recalls Samura.

He contends a tiny group of TV executives should not have the right to make viewing decisions for the world's TV audiences. "They thought it was too gruesome.... Because of these laws of sanitization and censorship, they didn't show the real pictures that would have alerted the outside world to the horrors being committed in Sierra Leone."

Power of TV images

Most analysts agree that Samura has reason to believe his footage could have made a difference. The power of television cannot be denied.

"Footage of the Vietnam War mobilized the anti-war movement in America," says Chris Doherty, a television instructor at the journalism school of South Africa's Rhodes University.

He adds that TV coverage of war and famine in Africa have awakened international conscience in the past. The 1984 footage of starving Ethiopians prompted people around the world to donate millions toward famine relief.

Likewise, the undeniable evidence of gross human rights abuses in Sierra Leone may have provoked a response from Western powers - who ignored the African conflict at the very time that they sent troops and bombing planes to intervene in the conflict in Kosovo.

Samura remains convinced that, had his footage been aired, the United States and the United Nations would not have given their nod to a peace agreement that forces the democratically elected officials of Sierra Leone to bring rebel leaders into their government.

"It is reasonable to want to protect the audience," the film's director, Ron McCullagh, told the Daily Telegraph in London. "But it can take us in a direction we don't want to go. Slowly, involuntarily, we'll end up with a sanitized version of history."

He argues the barbarity in Sierra Leone was so extraordinary that people need to see it to know what is happening. Mr. McCullagh eventually took Samura back to Sierra Leone to produce the documentary, which features the cameraman as the narrator of his own footage.

TV executives at CNN say context is the key. They may not have been willing to run the disturbing footage as part of a two-minute news item, but they are planning to run a slightly edited version of the documentary several times on its international edition next week as part of a one-hour special on Sierra Leone. The film will be preceded by a set-up piece and followed by a question-and-answer session.

"Everyone here thought it was important to show this film," explains Rick Davis, the man in charge of CNN's news standards and practices. "The question was: How much do you show?"

Daily decisions

Mr. Davis faces these decisions almost every week as war footage feeds into the network from staff camera crews and wire services around the world. "We aren't going to censor the news, but certainly we take the responsibility to realize there are degrees."

The SABC had braced itself for a backlash from angry viewers. Even before the film aired, previews in local newspapers had warned: "Don't let your kids watch!"

The documentary prompted many viewers to call the country's most popular talk show yesterday: one man said it bordered on pornography, another one said it was not shocking enough. But few felt the film should not have been shown.

"I think it was shocking," said one woman who became ill after watching the documentary. Yet she was glad she had watched: "We have been denied the privilege of seeing what happens in other countries."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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