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October 17, 2017

#politicsandthepress

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Charlie meets Aylan

By Marcelo García
Politics & The Press

A thin connection links the two images that have shocked Europe this year: Charlie Hebdo in January and the drowning of the immigrant child Aylan Kurdi this week. The line will establish whether the European project, arguably the most avant-garde creation of international politics in the Modern Era, will survive.

In between the two, Europe has spent most of its energy this year debating a financial incident like the one in Greece that, in perspective, seems almost irrelevant.

The financial world has a greater say than any other agenda these days, as the small global elite enjoys making and losing its wealth trading electronically over seconds. But too much interest and energy devoted to the ephemeral only makes structural human conditions more visible when they eventually come to the surface.

France in particular but Europe in general was reminded by the Charlie Hebdo massacre that there are many people out there — even within its borders — that are not buying the Enlightenment ideals the united continent is marketing. First reaction was a staunch defence of its absolute right to express freely, no matter what. On second thoughts, the French parliament introduced tougher legislation on surveillance hoping to prevent terror by spying everyone, as if the US post 9/11 experience had not left any lesson to be learnt.

Aylan’s death, portrayed by the lens of the Turkish photographer Nilüfer Demir, says almost the opposite. There are many people out there who do believe that Europe is a much better place to live. His case puts the continent in a situation that is more uncomfortable than the one triggered by the Charlie Hebdo murders. When the terrorists act, there is a clear someone to blame. The perpetrators of the Paris killings were shot dead during a chase a couple of days later. And, more generally, the publics of the West could make a clear divide between civilization and barbarism, a dilemma so dear to Argentina’s own political history: us vs. them; good vs. evil.

The search for culprits in Aylan’s case is more complex. Nobody can truly blame the more than 350,000 people who have crossed the border toward Europe so far this year, most of them escaping the war in Syria, unrest in North Africa and overall lack of safety and prospects in a violence-plagued region. And while Europe cannot look the other way entirely, it is at the receiving end of the tragedy. The picture was too self-explanatory: the boy was just lying there, dead, alone, not even his parents in sight. Just like the roughly 2,500 people who have already died in similar situations this year: most of them not photographed, or given a name at all.

Emotional reactions are not good policy advisers. The political history of the world is filled with such examples. But Aylan’s picture shows that even in a globalized world flooded with information, one still shot can make the hamsters’ wheel of information stop for a minute and focus on what is truly important. A journalist was there to take it.

***

That is not the case in the bubble-bursting markets of China. The eye-opening work of the photographer Demir is the opposite of the televised show presented to the world by Chinese business reporter Wang Xiaolu, who “confessed” on the air that he had done wrong in reporting what was going on in the Shanghai stocks, as if the debacle were entirely on his shoulders.

“I shouldn’t have published the report at such a sensitive time, especially when it could have great adverse impact on the market,” he said. “I shouldn’t have caused our country and shareholders such great losses just for the sake of sensationalism and eye-catchiness.”

“I’m regretful of what I have done and am willing to confess my crime. I hope the judicial authorities will give me a chance and handle me leniently,” Wang added. One of the “crimes” Wang owned up to was having based his reporting “on hearsay and his own subjective guesses without conducting due verifications.”

The moment felt so awkward that even the ultra-Communist Party daily Global Times said in an editorial that Wang’s allegedly “sensationalist” reporting should be condemned but that the public “does not feel comfortable with such on-air confessions.” The mild criticism does not save Wang from being widely perceived as the scapegoat for the whole situation.

The organization Reporter Without Borders issued a statement calling for Wang’s release and stating the common sense argument that, “Blaming the stock market crisis on a lone reporter is beyond absurd.”

According to the China Digital Times, journalists have received a directive to keep the coverage of the stock crisis “completely balanced, objective, and rational” and not to “join the chorus of the bull or bear market.” “Without exception, discontinue discussions, expert interviews, and on-site live coverage. Do not conduct in-depth analysis, and do not speculate on or assess the direction of the market. Do not exaggerate panic or sadness. Do not use emotionally charged words such as ‘slump,’ ‘spike,’ or ‘collapse’,” the order reportedly said.

Europe, thanks to the freedom of expression so strongly defended after the Charlie Hebdo killings, cannot order its journalists not to take or its editors not to publish photos like that of the young Aylan. The image should not exist. But if it does, it is good there is somebody there to let everybody know.

@mjotagarcia

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