The Power of the Image

The Commission for the Protection of Youth in the Media (Kommission für Jugendmedienschutz - KJM) found the publishing of a picture of a dead baby in the Bild newspaper to be a violation of human dignity. Bild Online editor Julian Reichelt and KJM Chairperson Andreas Fischer discussed the case together with academics in the MEDIA CONVENTION Berlin panel.

In September 2015, Bild Online published a set of pictures, one of which triggered public outrage: It showed a dead baby which had most probably been killed by Sarin, a poisonous gas that Syria's president Bashar al-Assad was said to have used against his own population. The Bild newspaper ran the headline: "Have you already forgotten these pictures?" The Commission for the Protection of Youth in the Media (KJM) deemed the publishing of the image a violation of human dignity. The publication of the image was at the centre of a debate which dealt with the general issue of human dignity and freedom of press in photojournalism at the MEDIA CONVENTION Berlin.

The debate saw a hefty exchange between Bild Online editor Julian Reichelt and the KJM Chairperson Andreas Fischer, with Fischer actually partially revising his previously held position: "Of course, the Bild newspaper can call Assad a devil." Besides the publishing of the picture, the KJM had also justified its decision with a criticism concerning the newspaper's labelling of Assad as a "devil".
Reichelt couldn't understand why the publishing of the picture was supposed to be a violation of human dignity. He said he was appalled and that, if needs be, he would to take the case all the way to the Federal Administrative Court: "I'm stunned, we don't belong in the same category as war criminals." He argued that the violation of human dignity had not been committed by the photographer or the editorial office. "We show what we see as relevant." That is the Bild's only criteria.

Relevance is not the only criteria for the publishing of images, Ino Augsberg from the Christian-Albrecht University in Kiel and Stephanie Geise from University Erfurt clarified from the podium. A person should never be made the object of a campaign, but should always remain a subject. The manner in which the content is presented is decisive. Reichelt found the selection and presentation of the controversial image to be appropriate and did not see the picture as a renewed humiliation of the child. The KJM sees it differently and want to have the picture erased. The Bild sees this as a violation of the freedom of the press. It seems that a court will now have to weigh up human dignity against freedom of the press.

Image: MEDIA CONVENTION Berlin/Uwe Völkner