Tunisians have had to painfully discover last week that publishing the pictures of terror victims only compounds the pain of the tragedy, especially when it is the case of young soldiers who have fallen in the line of duty.
The collective traumatic experience started last Monday, an hour before Iftar, when news broke on the radio that eight Tunisian soldiers were ambushed and killed by unidentified terrorists in Mount Chaambi, close to the border with Algeria.
After shooting members of the 8-man military patrol to death, the terrorists stripped most of them of their uniforms and slit their throats.
The very evening, not only the social media but also television screens brought the gruesome pictures of the mutilated bodies to Tunisian living-rooms.
One television channel, in particular, broadcast what it called “exclusive pictures” of the slain soldiers carried on gurneys to the Kasserine Hospital morgue.
The footage, shown on “Ramadan-prime time TV”, was raw. Nothing blurred, nothing edited. The images of unclad and blood-stained bodies of the fallen soldiers unsettled viewers, sitting at home, in coffee-shops and everywhere else across Tunisia.
The shocking footage lingered on frames of weeping security and military personnel. The pictures of the dead soldiers, which were relayed by Facebook pages, were even more graphic.
The faces of soldiers, with throats slit, were clearly identifiable. Photoshop-added arrows and circles pointed to the mutilated body parts. There were even autopsy-room videos put on the net.
Showing little awareness of the implications of their unreserved display of the bloody fallouts of the attack, many in the media and on Facebook seemed to miss a crucial point: that by disseminating the images of maimed soldiers, they were allowing terrorists to “savor” the consequences of their evil deeds and further traumatize Tunisians totally unaccustomed to this kind of mayhem.
It is safe to conjecture that by injuring and maiming the security officers patrolling the chain of mountains, and then by mutilating their bodies, terrorists had one main objective: to instill fear in the hearts of the general population and demoralize the security forces.
If terrorists usually try to legitimize their twisted political agendas by issuing “claims of responsibility,” the Mount Chaambi terrorists never issued a single statement or made public a list of demands, since the start of the clashes between them and the security forces last April.
Even without a declared political or ideological agenda, the perpetrators of terrorist acts can, by provoking panic and fear, exert sufficient pressure on decision-makers to push them to take hasty and flawed decisions.
Terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman wrote once: “Only by spreading the terror and outrage to a much larger audience can the terrorists gain the maximum potential leverage that they need to effect fundamental political change.”
The so-called “political change” they seek could simply be to cause anarchy to spread in society.
To reach maximum effect, terrorists usually need to increasingly ratchet up the pressure. The Monday ambush and its bloody consequences were a step up from the usual mine explosions which have been occurring for months in Mount Chaambi.
With time, the public was getting “used” to those occasional mine explosions. But by crossing the previous threshold of gore and violence, terrorists could grab the full attention of the public and the media.
Terrorism specialist Brigitte Nacos wrote that, “terrorists resort to progressively bloodier violence to satisfy the media’s appetite for shocking news.”
In the specific setting of Tunisia, the Mount Chaambi attacks could not come at a worse time.
The high-profile assassination of political activist Mohamed Brahmi, less than a week before, had shocked and confused a population already-bewildered by a no-holds-barred political crisis.
Even in the Brahmi murder case, the trauma of the political assassination was amplified by the sensationalism of “old” and “new” media content. In fact, certain websites and Facebook pages went as far as to post a video of the murdered Nasserite leader in the autopsy room.
The morning after the deadly Mount Chaambi ambush, there were calls on Facebook from shocked people, including deceased soldiers’ relatives, to stop the gruesome display of victims’ bodies.
HAICA, the Tunisian audiovisual regulating body, denounced the broadcast of the bloody images by television channels.
It described the “showing of bloodied, naked and mutilated bodies of Tunisian soldiers” as a “violation of human rights and of the International Covenant on civil and political rights.”
It called upon TV channels to “refrain from broadcasting images that can be shocking to the public”, and exhorted editors “to respect human dignity in their coverage of bloody events.” Public officials condemned the “irresponsible” practices.
The stakes are unusually high for Tunisia. If terrorists have it their way, soon there will not be a country left over which the Tunisians could continue to feud.Oussama Romdhani
The Facebook sharing of the sordid pictures slowly relented after the public outcry. Videos of the soldiers’ bodies were blurred by television editors before their re-broadcast on Tuesday.
However, in many regards, the harm was already done. Large segments of the population had been exposed to the pictures of the mutilated bodies. Previously circulated videos and photographs remained available on Internet search engines.
In the heated polemic that ensued, some pointed out that that even in the oldest of democracies, the privacy of the victims of terrorism is always protected and that in wars “the publication of undignified pictures of soldiers killed in combat was not allowed.”
It is true that after terrorist events, concern for the privacy of the victims and their families has often compelled media around the world to refrain voluntarily from the publication of pictures of their victimized countrymen with gaping wounds or mutilated bodies.
Recently, in the case of the Woolwich murder, near London, where a British soldier was hacked to death by two terrorists, there were no close-up pictures of the face of Drummer Lee Rigby after self-proclaimed “Jihadis” killed him and slit his throat.
Ever since the Vietnam War, the American military had learned to impose restrictions on the publication of pictures of killed or seriously injured soldiers. It was the case, for instance in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In September 2009, for instance, after the Associated Press disseminated a picture of a dying soldier during the Afghan war, the US regional military commanders issued new “ground rules” stating that: “Media will not be allowed to photograph or record video of U.S. personnel killed in action.”
Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, even chastised the CEO of AP saying: “Your lack of compassion and common sense in choosing to put this image of their maimed and stricken child on the front page of multiple American newspapers is appalling. The issue here is not law, policy or constitutional right but judgment and common decency.”
In Iraq, restrictions applied too. There were no droves of photographers on the ground. The New York Times noted in 2008: “Only half a dozen Western photographers were covering a war in which 150,000 American troops are engaged.”
The Tunisian military, contrary to the U.S. armed forces, were never engaged in “foreign wars.”
It never had to contemplate the risk of losing public support as a result of publication of the pictures of their casualties.
With the likely exception of fighting the French over Bizerta in 1961, Tunisian soldiers’ did not have much combat experience against armed enemies.
They kept to their barracks, when they were not helping in natural catastrophes at home or keeping the peace abroad.
One could even argue that the published pictures could boost and not undermine public support to the armed forces.
But the publication of the “Chaambi-ambush” victims exposed relatives of dead soldiers and their comrades to the unbearable ordeal of seeing the butchered bodies of their loves ones on public display, even before the army has had time to formally notify the next of kin of the tragedy.
Publishing gruesome pictures added tension to Tunisia’s already-charged politics. In a society suffering from unusual stress levels, the added trauma of the recent pictures has put the population under more duress.
International studies after the September 11th attacks have shown that adverse health effects are not only psychological.
A team of psychological scientists led by Roxanne Cohen Silver of the University of California, demonstrated in 2012 (after a three-year study), that “repeated exposure to vivid traumatic images from the media could lead to long-lasting negative consequences, not just for mental health but also for physical health.”
Hope is that the published pictures would compel Tunisians, today consumed by political feuds, to wake up to the urgency of facing up to their common enemy: terrorists.
The stakes are unusually high for Tunisia. If terrorists have it their way, soon there will not be a country left over which the Tunisians could continue to feud.
Oussama Romdhani is a former Tunisian minister of Communication, previously in charge of his country's international image. A former Fulbright scholar at Georgetown University in Washington DC, he served as a Tunisian diplomat to the United States from 1981 to 1995. Appointed as minister in 2009, he is known as one of the best Tunisian communication specialists. Romdhani is currently an international media analyst.