Photogate: Lebanon slammed over fake image

Journalism experts and news services criticize government over official image doctored to include absent politician

Ben Flanagan
Ben Flanagan - Al Arabiya News, Dubai
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It’s one thing photoshopping Kim Kardashian’s curves, but doctoring an image of Lebanon’s government is, for some, a fake too far.

The Lebanese government has come under fire for photoshopping an official picture of the new cabinet, which was formed on Saturday after more than ten months of political stalemate.

The picture was supposed to capture the new face of Lebanese politics, showing officials posing with cabinet members on the steps of the presidential palace. But it was later exposed as a sham.

Local journalists noticed that Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, pictured two places to Prime Minister Tammam Salam’s right, was not actually present during the photo-shoot.

Political sources in Lebanon said Berri was present at the palace, but had already left to board a plane to Kuwait when the snap was taken.

When other politicians arrived, presidential media adviser Adib Abi Akl stepped in to take Berri’s place in the picture, according to Al Arabiya sources.

The image was later photoshopped, with Abi Akl’s face replaced with Berri’s, and was on Saturday sent out to media outlets posing as an official government document. Unfortunately for those involved, the original photo – with Abi Akl still in shot – was also circulated on Facebook, and is published here by Al Arabiya alongside the photoshopped version.

News services quickly issued notices to ‘kill’ the fake image.

“Adding elements to a photograph is entirely unacceptable and is in clear violation of AP’s standards,” said the Associated Press vice president and director of photography Santiago Lyon in a statement carried by the newswire.

Reuters also sent out a ‘kill’ notice on the picture, after it emerged that it had been doctored. The news service did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Reuters also sent out a ‘kill’ notice
Reuters also sent out a ‘kill’ notice

Abi Akl was unrepentant when asked to comment on the photoshopped image. “So what?” he told AP, saying the official photos were sent to the media and that it is their choice whether to use them. He also cited Lebanese protocol as dictating that the president, prime minister and parliament speaker must appear in the group photo.

Yet commentators and journalists said that photoshopping official pictures is not acceptable.

Karl Sharro, a blogger on Middle East politics and satirist, said that the Lebanon photoshop debacle was “symbolic” of the birth of the cabinet itself.

“Photoshopping the ministers in is a metaphor for how a cabinet that has no clear political program or mandate and only represents the lowest common denominator has been artificially brought together merely as a form of political placebo,” he told Al Arabiya News.

He said that Abi Akl’s response – “so what?” – is indicative of a “dismissive attitude of the political class towards the Lebanese electorate”.

Sharro added: “With a parliament that has overstayed its constitutional mandate and no agreement on elections, patching up an image reflects how the political decision-making process is being patched up.”

George Brock, Head of Journalism at City University in London and author of ‘Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age’, said that doctoring images is “misleading”.

“It would be naïve to say that it won't happen again, simply because it's so easy,” Prof. Brock said. “Embarrassing publicity is the best corrective. Big media organizations don't like being caught and exposed faking things, however trivial. Or they shouldn’t.”

There have been several previous instances of ‘Photoshop’ fakes in the media.

Just last week it emerged that Kardashian sisters Kim, Khloe and Kourtney had their images downsized for the cover of the British edition of Notebook, in what was the latest ‘Photoshop controversy’ involving the famous siblings.

There have also been examples in the Arab world. In Sept. 2010, the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram carried a picture in which the former President Hosni Mubarak was shown walking ahead of Barack Obama and other political leaders at a White House event. In fact, the picture had been photoshopped to put Mubarak in the lead.

Other examples include the Iranian media photoshopping U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama to wear a less-revealing dress; Cristiano Ronaldo photoshopped with a picture frame with the words “There is no God but Allah”; and photographs manipulated by a Reuters photographer during the 2006 Israel–Lebanon conflict.


Egypt's former President Hosni Mubarak, clearly ahead of the crowd – as pictured in Egypt’s Al-Ahram...
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