Censorship of a humanitarian crisis
This article was published in Living Ethics: issue 85 spring 2011
In mid-August 2011, a friend uploaded some video footage to Facebook of two small children who were abandoned, suffering severe malnutrition and on the verge of death. “What could we do?” he asked. I had seen media reports of the worst drought to hit Africa in 60 years but nothing had made me really think about it, let alone donate money. I was immune to the typical media footage showing malnourished children in hospital attended to by care workers.
This horrific footage was different and prompted me and many others to act. We would try a new charity model based on a pyramid scheme. One hundred people would recruit 20 friends who would then each recruit 20 more, all of whom would donate $25. In this way we would raise well over $1 million. Our chosen charity partner would be Save the Children (STC).
The site TwoDegreesForAfrica.org used the video footage that had inspired us to take action and went live a couple of weeks later on 1 September 2011. The reaction was intense. These images become imprinted on memory banks. They are images that don’t leave your mind easily.
Hearing statistics about dying children is different from seeing images that tell the story. Within one week, 500 people were on board and we had raised over $24,000. This was all without the expense of TV commercials, fundraising dinners and the like. The campaign went viral with friends passing it on to friends online.
Just as we felt we were kicking into the exponential phase of the campaign, and I started to dream about how much we could raise once we set up pages for the US and the UK, I had a call from STC. We had to remove the footage from our campaign. It did not show concern for the dying children’s dignity and it was also against
the Australian Council for International Development (ACFID) Code of Conduct, the code that governs charities in Australia.
We blurred the footage so that you could not recognise anyone, but this was still deemed by STC to be unacceptable. The charity was concerned that we had no proof as to when and where this footage was shot. We knew that what you could see on this footage was happening to kids all over Somalia and we wanted people to know the truth. We asked STC for alternative images of starving children that we could use for the campaign, but regrettably nothing as tragic and confronting could be supplied.
Within three days, our daily average of visitors to the TwoDegreesForAfrica website had dropped from 1,000 to around 100. I was personally very upset. I had put a lot into this, devoting all the spare time I could outside of running my business. I could see us raising a huge amount of money to save a great many lives from starvation and I felt we were being stopped in our tracks.
We were then supplied with an alternative video, much more typical of the fundraising images people would be accustomed to seeing. The new video did not have as much impact as the original and we raised just over $60,000 for the month.
I understand that as a protector of children’s rights, STC had to take this stance. But given how many more lives we could have saved by using our original footage or something similar, an interesting ethical question remains: should those confronting images have been censored?