Censoring Our War Crimes

Censoring Our War Crimes

After years of hating the iconic photo, Kim Phuc came to embrace it as a powerful tool to teach peace.

Facebook has backed down amidst outraged charges of censorship after deleting the iconic photo of a naked burned Vietnamese girl fleeing a napalm attack during the Vietnam War. Demonstrating questionable journalistic standards now being increasingly challenged, the social network deleted the harrowing, Pulitzer Prize-winning image by AP photographer Nick Ut - which shows nine-year-old Kim Phuc running screaming from her village of Trang Bang after she was severely burned by napalm dropped by South Vietnamese planes on June 8, 1972 - in the name of "maintaining a safe and respectful experience for our global community."

Phuc survived. Despite years of ongoing pain and surgeries related to her burns, she now lives in Canada, runs a foundation dedicated to help other child victims of war, and sometimes speaks about the powerful impact of one of the most famous war photographs of all time taken by the Vietnamese, then-21-year-old Ut. The recent uproar came after Norwegian author Tom Egeland included it in a Facebook post about photos that changed the history of wars, and in this case perhaps helped end one. Facebook removed the picture, Egeland protested, Facebook banned him and then proceeded to remove the image several more times when it was defiantly re-posted by other high-profile Norwegians - including Prime Minister Erna Solberg, who charged, "If you edit past events or people, you change history, and you change reality."

That, critics say, is exactly what Facebook is increasingly doing in the name of common rules for all. Many have blasted the social network's random censorship moves - most famously, banning photos of breastfeeding or post-mastectomy women - as the inevitable result of using murky algorithms, not sentient journalists, to make editorial decisions. Notes one critic, “If they are in the news business, which they are, then they have to get into the world of editorial judgement.” In the case of Ut's famous photo, critics cited their ludicrous inability to figure out that the nude child in the photo is not what's obscene or pornographic; the war and its atrocities are. One critic mused the call was probably made by a 22-year-old with "no fucking idea about the importance of the picture.” Said another, “It’s almost like these are kids playing with a toy above their age bracket” - and their historic understanding.

Facebook finally relented and re-posted the image after a lengthy, fiery, much-read open letter to Mark Zuckerberg by Espen Egil Hansen, editor-in-chief and CEO of Norway's largest paper Aftenposten. Hansen blasted "the world's most powerful editor" with abusing its power and attacking "freedom of expression - and therefore democracy." Citing the very real historical implications of the debate, he wrote, "Mark, please try to envision a new war where children will be the victims of barrel bombs or nerve gas. Would you once again intercept the documentation of cruelties, just because a tiny minority might possibly be offended by images of naked children?" In the end, he notes, the ever-cogent George Orwell said it best. "If liberty means anything at all," he wrote in his preface to Animal Farm, "it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear."

Norway's Prime Minister imagines a future of censorship

 

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