Pulitzer Center Update

Uganda: Response to Critics

Merco Vernaschi, for the Pulitzer Center

(Editor's note at end of post)

During the past week a few blogs have unleashed a wave of criticism on my work about child sacrifice in Uganda, questioning my ethics and values and the Pulitzer Center's guidelines. Much of the criticism has focused on the picture of Margaret Babirye Nankya, a child who was killed during a ritual sacrifice, and whose body was exhumed to be photographed.

As I wrote in my post to "Untold Stories," I drove at night to the house of the child's family, as soon as a local journalist informed me of the murder. After introducing myself to the family, and after explaining to them that I was working to expose the crime of child sacrifice, I asked them to permit me to see the body of Babirye, who had been buried a few hours earlier.

In retrospect I believe this decision was a mistake (as noted in a statement by the Pulitzer Center on Untold Stories on April 22). But it was decision which I made in good faith and for a good purpose, and not because I lack moral or ethical values. I definitely was not looking for a sensationalistic picture but I did feel, under these circumstances, that an image of Babirye would help people to understand the enormity of this crime, one that is very little known outside Uganda and extremely difficult to accept.

A few blogs published charges that I offered money to the family as a means to get the body exhumed. This is absolutely false, and I can prove it. Before publishing the article on Untold Stories I sent the draft text of my piece to Inspector Moses Binoga (head of the Police Department's Anti-Human Sacrifice and Organ Trafficking section, and someone with whom I worked closely during my two months in Uganda). I forwarded the draft text to Binoga for two reasons:

  • To fact-check and update my information about the forensic details surrounding the murder of the child
  • To make sure that the article wouldn't damage Binoga's position.

He replied to my email giving further information on the case. He told me that police hadn't managed to prove that the girl had been raped before her murder, as they had suspected at the time of the initial investigation. The police report on the murder also contained no reference to the removal of the girl's brain and heart. I had documented the removal of her brain with my own photographs and had been told of the removal of the heart by the village elder on the night the body was exhumed. Because these details were not included in the official report I decided in consultation with the Pulitzer Center not to include them in my Untold Stories report. I also asked that these details be removed from an earlier interview I had given to the blog Vigilante Journalist. These revisions have led to accusations of reckless misreporting; in fact they reflected our attempt to be as scrupulous as possible in reporting the facts and documenting how we obtained them.

Binoga asked to meet with me the day after the exhumation, and at that meeting he said he knew I had been to the murdered girl's house the night before and that I had photographed the corpse. I told him, as I recounted on "Untold Stories, how I gave the family what money I had with me – about $70 – in response to their pleas for help in obtaining legal help to bring the child's killers to justice. In his subsequent email responding to my draft account of how that came about he wrote as follows:

"I have no problem with you mentioning what happened between you and the family and my cautioning to you. However I would prefer for you to mention that the money you gave the mother was for condolence as per our local culture and not for justice because the defense lawyers for capital offences are hired by the Government on behalf of the concerned party."

I believe that Inspector Binoga, who has an institutional role, gave this suggestion as he needs to protect the reputation of the Ugandan judicial system. From his perspective I understand that and cannot blame him, but in my reply I said I could not follow his suggestion, as the money was requested after the exhumation and for the purpose of legal expenses. I wrote as much to Binoga, that "as for the money I gave to Babirye's mother, this is exactly what she said when she asked -- that they would have need of funds to afford a lawyer."

I had gone to this house with my colleague, Sebastiano Vitale, led by a local journalist who works for a Ugandan newspaper, and by a female freelance journalist who was with us at dinner, and who was making contacts for us. These people helped with the translation and are witnesses to how events transpired that night.

Earlier this month I deleted from my website another photograph, one showing a coffin. This image was taken in Luwero, where three children were killed by their father and grandfather who had started a "cult". We visited the family with four members of RACHO, the local NGO that has worked to expose and combat child sacrifice and that has followed this case since before I arrived in Uganda this January. We interviewed the mother of the children, who was held captive while her husband took part in their murder. A villager then led us by the hut were the children had been killed, and showed us where their corpses had been buried by the murderers. They also led us to the children's graves and agreed to show us the coffins of the three children. Photos of the coffins were taken in full agreement with the family, with no payment and only after informing the local chief of police in Luwero. We decided to delete these images from the project on child sacrifice, however, in keeping with the decision we made regarding the photo of the murdered girl.

During the last few days, on several blogs, I have been accused of every sort of indecency on the base of inaccurate or distorted information, hearsay, and speculations that are presented as "an investigation." Some readers will no doubt take this at face value – a big problem within the blogosphere. I have been heartened to receive emails from editors, curators and colleagues expressing their solidarity, even from those who agree that the exhumation itself was a mistake. They have said my best response will be to let this work speak for itself, through the publications that will distribute it and help us shed light on a horrific crime that is savaging lives of a growing number of Ugandans.

Some of the harshest accusations on the blogs have been driven by personal vendetta and a desperate push for self-promotion. Allegations that are false and defamatory will be addressed within a legal frame, not as part of a blog debate. The Internet is a great resource but it also has a dark, worrying downside: It allows some people's rants, half truths and character assassinations, the opportunity to be taken seriously. Lemmings follow. People with perspective understand.

Editor's note: A key "fact" in the blog debate on Marco Vernaschi's reporting was an email that police inspector Moses Binoga wrote to photojournalist Anne Holmes of Vigilante Journalist, in which he wrote: "The money he [Vernaschi] gave to the mother was actually to influence her to allow for the illegal exhumation of the body…" On receiving a copy of this email the Pulitzer Center contacted Binoga and discussed the issue at length. He acknowledged that his statement to Holmes was pure speculation – that he was not at the scene on the night of the exhumation and had no way of knowing whether payment had been made or for what purposes. He also said that he had seen no photos of the girl's body himself and could not speak as to its condition – a statement that gives considerable weight to Vernaschi's belief that it was important to gather visual evidence of what had happened.

Vernaschi's videotaped interview with the mother and brother of Babirye is now available, as is his interview with Ugandan lawyer Richard Omongole, a former national director of Amnesty International. Each speaks to the enormity of this crime, to the inadequacy of the police response this far, and to the need for public exposure.

We do not suggest that the decisions involved in this reporting project are anything but difficult, as we hope was apparent in our statement accepting responsibility for what we believe was a mistaken decision to exhume the body of Babirye and to publish the image on our site. It is our hope that these issues can be discussed without malice, distortions and groundless attacks on the personal motivations of others.

-- Jon Sawyer, Pulitzer Center Executive Director