Wednesday, 4 May 2011

To publish or not to publish

I am still digesting the news of Osama Bin-Laden's assassination and the possible consequences for international relations, propaganda and public diplomacy. I am sure that it will take a long time before we are able to assess fully how his death will re-shape events in the war on terror and reaction to them.

Today we have learned that President Obama has decided that photos of Osama's body should not be released and published. Again, it is too early to understand the implications of this, but my initial thought (which I am sure will change with more careful thought) is that this is a mistake.

Only a few weeks ago in March 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the Senate's Foreign Affairs Committee, 'We are in an information war and we are losing that war.' Like it or not, the death of Osama Bin-Laden is part of that information war, and releasing the photos of his body will, I think help attempts to counter the narratives which will surface about the veracity of the US's claims. No doubt conspiracy theories are already circulating on the web, that great repository of the weird and wonderful, that he is not dead (maybe he is living on an island somewhere with Elvis, Princess Diana and Shergar).

Of course there will always be conspiracy theories, and publication of the photos will not prevent people from speculating about alternative narratives. Any photos will be denounced as fakes, the body will have been photo-shopped, or is quite simply is the wrong guy. Nevertheless, the absence of photos, together with the rather swift burial at sea, will only fuel such beliefs. President Obama has said there would be security concerns if the photos are released, but surely he realises that the assassination of Osama raises serious security concerns anyway. We are now all told to be vigilant against revenge attacks. Is a photo going to make any difference? If this is a war of ideas - if Secretary Clinton is correct that this is an information war - then the US needs all the ammunition it can get.

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