When the video of a 13-year-old child labourer being brutally beaten to death went viral in Bangladesh last week, every major television station in the country aired bits of it. Every local news website hosted it. The newspapers published screenshots showing the boy's screaming, contorted face. In contrast, international outlets neither publicised the video nor showed the boy's face clearly, citing standards of good journalism. Al-Jazeeracompressed the boy's photo to a mere 250x139 pixels tucked into a sidebar, while The Independent completely blurred out his face.
Ethics experts worldwide would frown upon the Bangladeshi media's coverage -- and I agree, it is not very humane to replay a child's dying moments over and over again on television. Then again, Bangladeshi media outlets cannot really do it any other way, and I'll tell you why.
They serve an audience who are not affected by violence. That is the reality of developing countries racked by conflict and crime.
"The media... is landed with the job of keeping the public's attention harnessed long enough for an investigation to be launched - just long enough for the cops to start chasing the killers."
Take it from a journalist who worked as a crime reporter in Bangladesh -- these outlets cater to an audience that sees several homicides a day, each more brutal than the other. These people live under the threat of violence and so have become completely desensitised. Tuesday's issue of the largest national English daily The Daily Star has the news of two murders and the discovery of a severed head without a body. For them, a murder is rarely breaking news anymore, so much so, that the first two (see here and here) got less than a hundred words each, while the story of the severed head made it to two hundred, simply for the novelty of the method.
Incidentally, this is also a country where justice is arbitrary and only high-profile murders ever get investigated and the accused brought to dock. Meaning the public, implicitly, has a role in deciding which deaths will deserve justice and which will not.
The media, therefore, is landed with the job of keeping the public's attention harnessed long enough for an investigation to be launched - just long enough for the cops to start chasing the killers.
The torture video replays worked - the killers of the child, Samiul Alam Rajon, were caught in the 24-hour window since the coverage began. The general population is actively seeking justice by protesting on the streets.
Even more ironically, another child called Tikon -- an 8-year-old -- was beaten to death on the same day that other video surfaced. His murder did not stir even a single protest, simply because nobody recorded how he died.
The hashtag #justiceforrajon is trending all over my Twitter feed. The hashtag #justicefortikon on the other hand, is a nonexistent hashtag I just made up - there are no results for it whatsoever.
All because footage of his dying did not go viral all over television.
While the 13-year-old Rajon was given space on the front page and trended as the most-read news story, Tikon's death was compressed into 97 words and hidden away, in the most insignificant corner of the newspaper.
Tikon is a word. Rajon is the searing face of the abuse dealt out to child labourers who have to work for a living, at an age when they should go to school. Every time the rod slammed down on his frail little body, and Rajon screamed for his mother, several thousand hearts went out to him. When Tikon died, he probably cried for his mother too - but nobody heard him, and so nobody cares.
Tikon's killer was detained -- but I cannot say it with certainty that he will be doled out justice. On the other hand, the entire nation of Bangladesh is crying for the blood of Rajon's killers.
This is what happens when the media become the de facto substitutes for absent activism institutions. In other places, it is the job of the media to promote activism-- in Bangladesh, they have to incite it. This is a country where if you want justice, you better not be alive by the end of the ordeal -- and media ethics take on a whole new brand.