There are exceptions to the rule
Were the media justified in showing Prabhakaran’s dead body? And the body of his son, Charles Anthony? I ask because there has been almost uniform condemnation of the decision to show the footage from media critics.
I can see the argument. It is a global practice not to show corpses. For instance, after 9/11, the US media did not show the bodies of those who had perished in the attacks. And in India, there was widespread outrage after many news channels carried footage of the mangled bodies of those killed in the Mathura and Jaipur attacks
Media critics believe that carrying pictures of corpses appeals to the basest instincts of people. In the US, such publications as the National Enquirer pay huge sums for pictures of famous dead people – such as Elvis Presley – in their coffins. Mainstream media would never dream of following this example.
In India, the distinctions are not as clear-cut. Frontline, hardly a sensationalist publication, carried a colour photo-feature on Rajiv Gandhi’s corpse. The issue sold out and though the photos caused considerable pain to the Gandhi family, Frontline reprinted the issue and sold it all over again.
I mention all this to tell you that there is a strong case to be made for condemning the news channels. There is also a code of conduct that requires them to treat the dead with dignity, even if the dead happen to be terrorists.
But here’s the point: I don’t agree with the criticism. I think the channels did the right thing.
There comes a time when the demands of dignity and death are overtaken by the sheer importance and news value of an image. And I think that this is what happened here.
It was important to show Prabhakaran’s body because otherwise, many of us would not have believed that he was dead. After the initial reports of his death came in, the LTTE denied them, arguing that Prabhakaran was still alive and had escaped to an undisclosed location.
It was only after the footage was aired that the LTTE stopped telling this lie. And even then, it took four days for the organization to accept the reality of Prabhakaran’s death.
Those of you with long memories will remember that in 1984 when the Indian army killed Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, the government’s PR machinery took a deliberate decision not to release any film or footage of his body. Instead, all we got was a long shot of a body, said to be Bhindranwale’s, lying on a makeshift bed.
That omission caused many Khalistanis and NRI Sikhs to maintain that Bhindranwale was still alive. I remember interviewing Jagjit Singh Chauhan, the so-called President of Khalistan, in London and hearing him hold forth on how Bhindranwale was recovering from his injuries in a rest house in Murree in Pakistan.
Chauhan pointed to the photo of the body that the Indian authorities had released. He said that the features were not clear. Besides, he added, the corpse had long hair. “This is false Jarnail Singh,” he said with finality. “Real Jarnail Singh is bald.”
I think the Sri Lankans wanted to avoid a similar situation which is why they released the footage. And our TV channels were entirely justified in carrying it for exactly that reason.
I agree that the dead deserve dignity even if they are mass murderers and terrorists. But sometimes other factors are more important.
Think about it. If the Americans told you that Osama Bin Laden was dead, wouldn’t you want to see his body?