Sunday, April 19, 2015

Manipulating images with digital technology

By Tazoacha Asonganyi in Yaounde.

In February 1994 the journal Scientific American published an article titled “When seeing is not believing.” The article showed a real photograph of Margaret Thatcher and George Bush that was used to create all types of images. The new images created from the original included an “angry” image and an “intimate whisper” image. Further, the article also discussed a faked photograph published in 1988 that showed PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat shaking hands with Israeli PM Yitzhak Shamir, with President Reagan looking on.

All of this was to highlight the fact that the production of such images had become easy using “paint” and “image processing software to rearrange, recolor, and otherwise transform the elements of a scene,” and that “digital technology can become a novel form of spin doctoring.”

The article also highlighted a 1991 cut-and-paste photograph that turned a 1923 picture of three soviet farmers into “evidence” to “confirm” the continued imprisonment of three lost fliers in Vietnam. That "evidence" photograph caused me to focus attention on a photograph that was circulating in the military court in Yaounde in 1999 during the famed secession case that showed Ebenezer Akwanga and his co-accused carrying guns and other weapons. I made a photocopy of the Scientific American article and gave it to Joseph Mbah Ndam, a member of the defence team, to use as an argument against the veracity of that photograph. After discussing it with him, he also produced a cut-and-paste photograph that was circulating in Cameroon at that time showing Fru Ndi in a “Change” national football  team, and promised to submit it with the article in defence of the accused.

Multiple exposures and printing, cutting-and-pasting, and retouching have always been weapons in the hands of political propagandists for doctoring photographs to manipulate public opinion. With the advent of digital technology, it has indeed become even easier and quicker to produce false images for all types of propaganda and spin doctoring.

In politics, spin doctoring is the art of turning the reporting of real events to your advantage. A spin doctor is therefore a person (political aide, press officer, etc) whose job includes the effort to control the way some events are presented to the public, in order to raise the profile of the politician in the public mind. It is about ensuring a favorable interpretation of the activities of a politician. To be successful, a spin doctor should have a very fertile mind, and always think ahead of the general population.

But the spin doctor should never take the people for granted, or underestimate their alertness and intelligence. The spin doctor should always guard against creating events that did not occur or adding shouting, imaginary elements to real events. When they indulge in such overzealousness, they easily blow their spin.

A recent example is what is today described as “photomontage” on the website of the civil cabinet of the presidency of Cameroon showing Paul Biya bowing over coffins of our fallen soldiers in the Boko Haram "war" during a ceremony in which it was common knowledge that he did not physically participate. The newspaper, La Nouvelle Presse, reported that those in-charge of managing the website declared as follows: «John Fru Ndi n’avait-il pas déjà  usé du même subterfuge en janvier 1993 pour faire croire aux Camerounais qu’il avait salué Bill Clinton?» [Did John Fru Ndi not use the same subterfuge in 1993 to give the impression to Cameroonians that he greeted Bill Clinton?].

Well, maybe he did, but the difference here is that John Fru Ndi was effectively in Washington at the Clinton inaugural, so even if his own picture was manipulated, people were likely to believe it because they did not know the truth. As for the "photomontage" of the civil cabinet, Paul Biya was not at the ceremony so only illiterates would have believed that he could have been out of the country and still been present at the ceremony. Unfortunately for the civil cabinet, only literate people visit their website and could not take the picture for real.

To add insult to injury, when the “photomontage” started trending in various networks, the “spin doctors” that had created it failed to provide a positive spin for an explanation. Many actors were left to fumble through explanations based on the senseless accusation of third parties or the peddling of the lie that the civil cabinet does not indulge in “photomontage.” Unfortunately for them, there was abundant evidence from the website that “photomontage” is common practice of the web managers.

Issa Tchiroma who chose to become part of the mess has now taken upon himself to report journalists and newspapers that covered the “photomontage” scandal and other issues to the National Communication Council (NCC). The vogue today is to invoke the fight against Boko Haram and link all reportage and opinions that are not favorable to the regime to the anti-terrorism law; the same law that the same Issa Tchiroma swore to Cameroonians that it would not be used to suppress freedoms. I hope the expert journalists in NCC will know that the journalists did only their job!

It is high time CPDM militants and their regime, know that a CPDM militant may be the president of Cameroon today, but the presidency is not the CPDM’s. Issa Tchiroma and others like him are giving the impression that Cameroonians have become so irrelevant to their exercise of power that they are not obliged to give any explanation or offer any apology for any actions that demean the presidency.

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