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Media coverage of tortured Afghan girl: Did journalists do more harm?

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January 20th, 2012

By guest blogger Jessica Mack

If you don’t know who Sahar Gul is, sadly, you can Google her name and find dozens of images of her young and badly beaten face. She is a 15-year-old Afghan girl who was recently rescued by police from her in-laws’ basement, where she’d been imprisoned and tortured for nearly a year. Her in-laws have been arrested but her 30-year-old husband is still at large.

She was still recovering – physically and psychologically – in a Kabul hospital bed when reporters descended. As New York Times reporter Graham Bowley put it, as if surprised, “Sahar Gul rubbed her eye repeatedly. She still seemed dazed, barely comprehending that I was there.”

Bowley of the NYT has become the object of criticism and disgust for a post he wrote, not about Gul per se, but about his efforts to “get” her story. He acquiesced after he was initially turned away from her hospital room, but upon hearing that the AP had succeeded in entering and scooping the story, he became frustrated:

“I realized that despite the delicacy of the situation, I should have pushed past ‘no.’ Her story was too important. The next day, Sunday, we returned to Wazir Akbhar Khan. And this time, I wouldn’t be turned away.”

This situation is an onion of disturbance, with each layer more troubling than the last. At the very core is the experience of abuse and trauma of a 15-year-old girl. Enveloping this is the cultural context of patriarchy and misogyny that would enable such an atrocity to happen, and to be concealed for so many months. Yet the final problematic layer is the largely privileged and thoughtless global media covering Gul’s story.

Bowley’s approach indicated deep disrespect and cluelessness, as he sought Sahar Gul’s story as if it were a commodity, and not the experience of a very young abuse survivor. He isn’t the only one. Major media coverage of Gul as been fraught with problems:

1) Widespread use of Gul’s tortured image is gratuitous, disrespectful and unethical.
Not only is it disturbing (and potentially triggering) for readers to see the image of her injured face, but it’s everywhere. I have stood up for the value of “shock value” before, but not in this instance. Her photo is not critical to the story, or to making the story important. She is also a minor, and I am dubious that she was in a state to give clear consent. (See Jina Moore’s “5 ideas for meaningful consent in trauma journalism.”) Her vulnerable image is the focus of a story that should instead emphasize the cruelty of the individuals that allowed this to happen. If she is to be the poster child for a resurgence in support for women’s rights in Afghanistan and throughout the world, wonderful. But this needs to be a fully informed and conscious decision on her part, in consideration of all the potential dangers that may come along with that. Using the image of a brutalized young woman (who seemed “dazed” to reporters) to sell papers and inflate page views is sketchy journalistic ethics at best.

2) Reports emphasizing President Karzai’s sincere motivations in “calling for justice” for Gul are dubious.
Why does he care about one girl now, when the policies and practices of his country have harmed and effectively killed so many girls and women over time? Answer: the world is watching. What will happen when the world isn’t watching like, say, most of the time? After the AP story of Gul’s rescue and full details of her torture broke on January 4, dozens of news articles and blogs soon followed. But, as is the news cycle, there has been barely a mention of her over the last week.

3) Sensationalist coverage without acknowledgement of widespread rights abuses elsewhere exoticizes and “otherizes” Afghan culture.
Gul’s rights in particular, and women’s rights in Afghanistan broadly, have been abused and exploited. This is in part a product of a misogynist society. But while point two above is true—and feminists in Afghanistan and throughout the world have been organizing against the oppression of Afghan women since the late 1990s—media coverage that strings together phrases like “tortured child bride” and “mutilated Afghan girl” is link bait-y and colors the perception that this kind of thing only happens in Afghanistan, or only occasionally, when major news outlets happen to get the scoop. Removing the identifying words from this AP story statement, this could stand for most countries in the world:
“Despite much progress since [the fall of the Taliban] [10] years ago, women’s rights in [Afghanistan] remain a problem in a country with a [strict] patriarchal culture.”

It is important that Sahar Gul’s story be told, and told widely. But there are ways in which her privacy and dignity can be preserved in the process. If we expect to advance the rights and freedom of girls and women, anywhere in the world, everyone must do his or her part. This includes, especially, the journalists and bloggers who report and frame the information that ignites advocates and helps stir change. And for media outlets that believe it is not their responsibility to advocate change—they would do well to remember that it is also not their role as journalists to do harm to crime victims who are the subject of their stories.

Guest blogger Jessica Mack is a global feminist and writer for Ms., AlterNet and Feministe, among other outlets.

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