For those of you who check in regularly, you may have noticed that I have removed two posts on the subject of child sacrifice in Uganda by the photographer Marco Vernaschi. I took my time in making this decision and I believe that the details should be revealed to the public so that it is clear how I became involved in this story and what led to my decision to retract the interview. If you have not already read Mr. Vernaschi’s article on the Pulitzer Center’s website, please do so now.
Mr. Vernaschi is an extremely talented photographer. His photographs hit you like a ton of bricks. I don’t think anyone will argue with me on this point. However, the manner in which he acquired some of these images and the way in which the supporting data was related begged a number of troubling questions.
I interviewed Marco, first because I felt his work was strong and covered an issue that sincerely needed attention. But I also wanted to pose some questions to him because I felt that the captions provided on his archive made sweeping statements, which were either the result of a language barrier (Mr. Vernaschi is Italian) or of carelessness and/or preconceived notions about Ugandan society. His answers were unsettling to me, and I told him he might catch hell in the comments section, but since I had never been to Uganda and knew virtually nothing of the subject, I would not be the one to argue with him. The discussion I was hoping for never materialized in the comments, but I soon started to receive electronic correspondences from various people who questioned the context of Mr. Vernaschi’s work and his approach to his subject.
Then, on April 15, I received a mail from photographer Andre Liohn who was just returning from Uganda and had apparently uncovered some rather unsettling details about how one of Mr. Vernaschi’s images was acquired. I make reference here to a photograph, that was featured with the interview, of a 10 year-old girl by the name of Babirye Mergret, who was allegedly brutally murdered in a ritual sacrifice.
Mr. Liohn’s mail was difficult to read as he is not a native English speaker, and his motives were not clear to me, but he claimed that Mr. Vernaschi had asked the family of Babirye to dig up the body of their daughter so he could photograph it. I was incredulous at first, but after further correspondence with Mr. Liohn, I was rather convinced what he was saying was true. Before jumping to any conclusions, however, I wanted to hear everyone’s side of the story.
I confronted Mr. Vernaschi on this issue and he did not deny that Babirye’s body had been exhumed, and, in confidence, provided a draft of the text that was soon to be published on the Pulitzer Center’s website that recounts the events of that fateful night. In my conversation with Mr. Vernaschi, I also noted a discrepancy between the caption on the photo of Babirye on his archive and the caption he provided me with the photograph for the interview. The girl’s name he initially provided to me was Jessica, aged 12. He excused himself for his carelessness in consulting a list of victims, and I made an adjustment to the caption. I did not think there was anything more to it than that, but now fail to understand how one could “forget” the name of a girl whose body you pushed a grieving mother to dig up in the middle of the night.
In the meantime, I contacted Mr. Moses Binoga, head of the Anti-Human Sacrifice Police Department in Kampala and asked him to corroborate some of the claims Mr. Liohn made to me in his emails. We spoke first by telephone at which point he asked me to submit my interview questions to him in written format so that he could be sure he would not be misquoted. Mr. Binoga responded by saying that he did not wish to be involved in what he saw as a kind of jealous rivalry between two international journalists and that his main concern was helping his country to eradicate human sacrifice. The case was not closed in my mind, but clearly the star witness was not talking. So I waited.
I did not engage in the public debate that was exploding on Facebook about this issue except to relate Mr. Binoga’s response to my inquiry. I also needed to wait for Mr. Vernaschi to publish his final report on the Pulitzer Center’s website, and wanted to take the time to think things through properly. The draft Mr. Vernaschi provided me was rough, but clearly stated that the body of Babirye had been illegally exhumed, yet somehow this reality had not yet sunk in. I believe it came as such a shock that I was unable to properly process the information for several days, or perhaps I was unable to confront my own sense of guilt by association. I couldn’t reconcile the lovely gentleman I had had on the telephone and the image of a crazed journalist digging up a body in the middle of the night.
As soon as I read the article that went up on the Pulitzer site, I sent a mail to Mr. Vernaschi telling him I needed time to digest. Just as I was retiring to bed I received a mail from him asking me to make a note to the interview caption that Babirye had not been raped, as police had initially suspected, and then he asked me to delete a line which said that her brain and heart had been removed. At this point, things really started to unravel in my head.
I contacted Mr. Binoga asking him to verify the forensics data regarding this case. I knew something was profoundly wrong here, but I couldn’t figure out how exactly I should proceed. I wanted to be fair and not fly off the handle, but that required time. A colleague came to visit for a few days, so I took the opportunity to take a short trip to the country, clear my head, and discuss the matter with him. When I returned, I had a mail from Mr. Binoga who volunteered the following information to me:
According to official records based on the postmortem report, there is no proof of rape or removal of brain and the heart. In fact I made this clarrification to Marco when he sent me a raft of his report.
I also made the following clarrifications to Marco, which i want you to take note, in case he ignored them:-
• That the case of Babirye is still in court and the suspects are on remand and not convicted. According to Ugandan juducial system, capital offences including murder are usually concluded after one year. At a certain stage, the State Prosecutor will be required to produce evidence against the accused, then they waill give their defence before a final verdict shall be made.
• It was very wrong to indicate that justice in Uganda is for those with money. The money he gave the mother was actually to influence her to allow for the illegal exhumation of the body but not for a defence lawyer over a crimial case because according to our juducial system, the suspects in such cases are accused by the State and not by the relatives of the victim. However, at a later stage the relatives of the victim may open up a civil suit against the accused party. I know he was misled by the Ugandan people he was with and thats why i decided to keep quiet over the same.
• I wish to tell you that the situation of human sacrifice in Uganda has continued to reduce and very soon those opportunists may have nothing to lie about.
I related the mail to the Pulitzer Center, informing them that I was retracting my interview because I could not in good conscience associate myself with Mr. Vernaschi’s work, and asked them to also remove the link to my post on the project page. Mr. Vernaschi’s inability to get his facts straight and the horrifying manner in which he made this photograph led me to one clear conclusion: that the report on Babirye was deeply flawed, unethical, and I could not be seen as supporting such irresponsible journalism.
Moreover, after consulting a contact in Africa who knows a great deal about ritual sacrifice on the continent, I was informed that the case of Babirye Mergret hardly exhibits traits typical in this practice. The wound to her head is not made in such a way when removal of brain is intended, and indeed, Mr. Binoga maintains that the brain was left intact. My contact relates that rituals involving brain removal typically involve making a cut along the cranium in circular fashion with a very sharp tool, not a perpendicular wound made with a blunt object as we see in the picture. Additionally, the missing left leg and right arm would more likely indicate Islamic punishment for thievery rather than ritual sacrifice, throwing the very assertion that Babirye was murdered in ritual sacrifice into doubt.
Nothing surrounding this case holds water. Mr. Vernaschi was unable to stick to a story line, constantly changed the “facts” about Babirye, was very likely manipulated by Ugandan elements, and publicly confessed to something that is so hard to fathom, and so far from the ethics of journalism that I cannot comprehend how the Pulitzer Center ever allowed for it to be published in their name. I spoke with them at length yesterday and clearly they were grappling with the moral issues at hand. Late last night, they issued a public statement, which can be read here. They also removed the photograph of Babirye as did Mr. Vernaschi from his website. This is a welcome development, to say the least, but I suspect it will be difficult for them to live this one down. Everyone makes mistakes, yes, but such an error of judgment in editorial as well as human terms is sure to haunt them for some time to come.
I manage a small, insignificant blog with no remuneration and no time to properly take on the role of an editor. I naively assumed that Mr. Vernaschi, having come thus far in his career and being sponsored by an institute as prestigious as the Pulitzer Center, would have similar ethics to mine. In that I was gravely mistaken. When I learned of the exhumation I could only come to one conclusion and that was that Mr. Vernaschi’s report was profoundly unethical both in human terms and within the ethics of journalism. It pained me to “turn my back” on Mr. Vernaschi amid this polemic because, on the whole, my dealings with him have been genuinely positive, and I still maintain that he is a great photographer. His credibility as a journalist, however, has been seriously cast into doubt. I believe he truly felt that what he was doing was going to help bring attention to a very real problem, but it’s remarkable how easily we can delude ourselves when years spent covering violence make the moral compass go haywire. Clearly he has a lot of thinking to do, and he will have to go to great pains to restore his reputation among his colleagues, but the western editorial world might overlook this issue just as they do so many others worth redressing.
I started this blog in 2007 and I am largely responsible for most of its content. Over the last year I decided to make this more of a community project, giving other photographers a space to showcase their work covering issues that have largely been ignored by the mainstream press. Taking on an editorial role has proved to be much more complex than I imagined, and I wish to apologize to my public for not properly vetting Mr. Vernaschi’s work. I wish also to express my deepest condolences to the family of Babirye Mergret. This act, this desecration in the name of journalism is beyond debate. It is immoral, perverse and cannot be endorsed, condoned or explained away by Mr. Vernaschi or the Pulitzer Center. What’s done is done. As you make your bed, so you must lie in it.
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