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Brutal Images of Syrian Boy Drowned Off Turkey Must Be Seen, Activists Say

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By ROBERT MACKEY SEPT. 2, 2015

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    At least 12 refugees fleeing the war in Syria, including two young boys, drowned on Wednesday while trying to reach the Greek island of Kos from the Turkish resort town of Bodrum, according to Turkey’s state-owned Anadolu news agency.

    A sense of weary resignation at the plight of the Syrians — and hundreds of thousands of other refugees and migrants taking desperate risks to reach the safety of Europe — was briefly punctured by horrifying images of one of the young victims, a small boy whose body was discovered, face down in the sand, by a Turkish police officer.

    Photo A Turkish police officer carried the body of a young Syrian refugee who drowned off the coast of Turkey’s Bodrum Peninsula on Wednesday. Credit Nilufer Demir/DHA, via Reuters

    The boy, in a red shirt and blue shorts, was identified by Turkey’s private Dogan news agency as Aylan, 3. The body of his 5-year-old brother, Galip, washed up on another part of the beach.

    Photographs and video of Aylan’s lifeless body quickly spread across social networks in Turkey and then the rest of the world, posted by outraged observers, rights activists and reporters who suggested that the distressing images needed to be seen and could act as a catalyst for the international community to finally halt the war in Syria.

    Among those who shared the images and expressed their dismay were Liz Sly, a Washington Post correspondent covering the war in Syria; Nadim Houry and Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch; David Miliband, the president of the International Rescue Committee; and activists in the Syrian city of Raqqa and living under the rule of Islamic State militants.

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    The image of the #Syria boy whose body washed up in Bodrum is haunting. Biggest indictment of collective failure. pic.twitter.com/C5Taxumfsw

    — Nadim Houry (@nadimhoury) Sept. 2, 2015
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    Drowned #SyrianRefugees washing up on #Turkey Bodrum beach today, #EU plans 2 meet on crisis in...12 days! #inaction pic.twitter.com/EeeUEdzXrT

    — Peter Bouckaert (@bouckap) Sept. 2, 2015
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    "If these powerful images of a dead Syrian child on a beach don’t change Europe’s attitude to refugees, what will?" http://t.co/y09zkO4x8s

    — David Miliband (@DMiliband) Sept. 2, 2015
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    How often it takes a terrible but iconic image to spark the world into action. Let this be it. https://t.co/O10XLW6UBS

    — Rob Simpson (@robasimpson) Sept. 2, 2015

    On Twitter, the Turkish hashtag #KiyiyaVuranInsanlik, or Humanity Washed Up Ashore, accompanied many of the messages.

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    Devastating photo of dead refugee child caused intense discussion in Turkey. Top trend: #KıyıyaVuranİnsanlık —> "humanity washed up ashore."

    — Zeynep Tufekci (@zeynep) Sept. 2, 2015
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    I wish I could unsee #KiyiyaVuranInsanlik, but it's important that I have. Please can we actually start trying to help these poor people?

    — Gillian Harlick (@FutureGillian) Sept. 2, 2015

    As the photographs appeared again and again in timelines on Facebook and Twitter, spurred in part by their publication on the websites of major European newspapers, a debate broke out about the ethics of sharing such graphic images of a dead child.

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    At least ten tweeps sharing same image of the little deceased boy washed up on the shore within a two second of scrolling. ENOUGH.

    — Dima S. ديمة (@YasminWaQahwa) Sept. 2, 2015
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    Hard to be online anymore. Respect the dead. Find out their name, origin, struggle, story anything but please respect the sacred bodies

    — Dima S. ديمة (@YasminWaQahwa) Sept. 2, 2015
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    For God's sake, now I see memes on FB of the little boy on the shore with some cheap sentimental lines attributed to it. Disgusting

    — Dima S. ديمة (@YasminWaQahwa) Sept. 2, 2015
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    Imagine being a family member left behind- a Syrian father hoping to join his baby in safe EU only to see his image circling for cheap hits

    — Dima S. ديمة (@YasminWaQahwa) Sept. 2, 2015
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    This little boy lying dead on a beach is heartbreaking. But it must be seen. Because we are not doing enough to help. http://t.co/jpTiVmoYxf

    — Conor Pope (@conor_pope) Sept. 2, 2015
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    People should b offended by their politicians lack of action in face of such suffering and death, not by the pics showing results of failure

    — Peter Bouckaert (@bouckap) Sept. 2, 2015
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    What is offensive is dead kids washing up on our beaches when deaths could have been prevented by EU action, not the pictures themselves.

    — Peter Bouckaert (@bouckap) Sept. 2, 2015

    There were also disagreements inside newsrooms about whether to publish or even share the images. A number of reporters argued forcefully that it was necessary to confront the public with the human toll of the war in Syria, and the impact of policies that make it difficult for refugees to find asylum in Europe. But many editors were concerned about shocking their readers and wanted to avoid the appearance of trafficking in sensational images for profit.

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    #Syria has become the #1 source of viral photos of dead children. Thank you, world.

    — Lina Sergie Attar (@AmalHanano) Sept. 2, 2015
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    To people saying I violated the dignity of the dead Syrian boy on the beach, 2 suggestions: 1) read about Syria 2) look up "dignity".

    — Liz Sly (@LizSly) Sept. 2, 2015
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    I don’t say this to be scoldy or self-righteous or whatever, but I’m pretty uncomfortable with people tweeting photos of dead migrant kids.

    — Max Fisher (@Max_Fisher) Sept. 2, 2015
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    Apparently, nothing! "If images of dead #Syria child refugee on beach don’t change Europe attitude, what will?" http://t.co/43DWL0z88Q

    — Rime Allaf (@rallaf) Sept. 2, 2015

    By the end of the day, there was unusual agreement among the editors of newspapers across the political spectrum in Britain who decided to feature the images on their front pages, along with calls for action from Prime Minister David Cameron.

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    Guardian front page: The shocking, cruel reality of Europe's refugee crisis https://t.co/apmPiXiCfF

    — Katharine Viner (@KathViner) Sept. 2, 2015
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    Tomorrow's front page: Mr Cameron, deal with the biggest crisis facing Europe since WW2 http://t.co/AVYx3x4pBU pic.twitter.com/CtwjldJkIA

    — The Sun (@TheSun) Sept. 2, 2015
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    Dear @David_Cameron, right now you look heartless and out of touch. Show leadership: say #refugeeswelcome in Britain pic.twitter.com/WXXgYoacnr

    — amol rajan (@amolrajan) Sept. 2, 2015
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    Thursday's @DailyMailUK #MailFrontPages pic.twitter.com/EUBXwWmSmx

    — Daily Mail U.K. (@DailyMailUK) Sept. 2, 2015

    The images of the dead child were quickly absorbed into the vernacular of social media, used to create Photoshopped memes and tribute videos, with footage of the small body being removed from the beach that were difficult to watch.

    After enduring some online criticism for not showing the most powerful images, BBC News broadcast a report from the beach late Wednesday that did include some Turkish news agency video of the young boy being carried away by a policeman.

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    For sanitised & blood-free news go to the BBC. The reality of death must be seen by everyone who shares responsibility in stopping it.

    — Ala'a Shehabi (@alaashehabi) Sept. 2, 2015
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    A BBC News video report on the drowning of Syrian refugees produced late Wednesday. BBC News, via YouTube

    Many news organizations in the United States decided to publish pictures of the dead child in their print or online editions, but they were divided over whether to show the more distressing, close-up images of the boy lying in the sand with his face partially visiblewhich attracted so much attention on social networks.

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    The New York Times published a less jarring image that shows a Turkish police officer carrying the child away but conceals his face. Several other newspapers, including The Wall Street Journal and The Baltimore Sun, followed the same course of action.

    “We debated it, but ultimately we chose to run a powerful version of this photo because it brings home the enormity of this tragedy,” said Dean Baquet, executive editor of The New York Times.

    The more jarring images appeared, though, in two major American dailies, The Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post. The Globe and Mail, Canada’s largest national newspaper, also published a close-up image.

    Kim Murphy, the assistant managing editor of The Los Angeles Times for foreign and national news, said there had been a consensus among the paper’s senior editors to show the boy as he was discovered, face down on the beach.

    “The image is not offensive, it is not gory, it is not tasteless — it is merely heartbreaking, and stark testimony of an unfolding human tragedy that is playing out in Syria, Turkey and Europe, often unwitnessed,” she said. “We have written stories about hundreds of migrants dead in capsized boats, sweltering trucks, lonely rail lines, but it took a tiny boy on a beach to really bring it home to those readers who may not yet have grasped the magnitude of the migrant crisis.”

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    I keep thinking of the calculations this Syrian boy's mother must have made to keep this child from danger. http://t.co/UWA4f1s7jM

    — Kim Murphy, LA Times (@kimmurphy) Sept. 3, 2015

    Online news outlets weighed the same considerations as traditional newspapers. The image appeared on BuzzFeed News but was absent from Vox Media, which declined to publish it in part because of “a certain viral aspect the photo has taken on,” said Max Fisher, its editorial director. He worried that for some the image had become “less about compassion than about voyeurism.”

    “I understand the argument for running the photo as a way to raise awareness and call attention to the severity of the refugee crisis, and I don’t begrudge outlets that did,” he said in an email message, “but I ultimately I decided against running it because the child in that photo can’t consent to becoming a symbol.”

    A survivor of the capsizing, Omer Mohsin, told Turkey’s Dogan news agency that he was one of 17 Syrian refugees packed onto a small boat with a capacity of 10 that went down early Wednesday just after setting off from Bodrum. A second boat, with six passengers from the Syrian city of Kobani, also capsized en route to Kos, Dogan reported.

    Mr. Mohsin said that smugglers had charged him and his brother 2,050 euros, about $2,300, each. His brother was among those still missing on Wednesday afternoon when the beach was filled with tourists unaware of the tragedy.

    An estimated 2,500 refugees or migrants have died or disappeared this year trying to reach Europe, a spokeswoman for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said last week.

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