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By Sunil Saxena

Last Updated ( Wednesday, 20 December 2006 09:19 IST )

First it was South Indian film star Khushboo whose photograph was morphed. Then
it was Rajya Sabha member and CPM leader Brinda Karat. In both cases, the
morphing was done by Maxim, a top-selling international mens magazine that was
given licence to start publication in India this year. In the first case, copies of the
magazine were released for sale before the film star objected. In the second case,
the morphing, according to the magazine, was done not for public release but for
being shown to advertisers. Both cases caused a furore.

The second case spurred Union Minister Priya Ranjan Dasmunshi to join battle.
The Minister of Information and Broadcasting shall not sit with his eyes shut if the
honour of the Indian woman is compromised. I can issue notice to such magazines,
threatened the I&B minister.

His threat was not ill-founded. No publication has the right to manipulate
photographs, and this applies not only to the photographs of celebrities but even to
those of ordinary men and women. The media's job is to report facts, not to distort
words and images to suit its requirements.

However, this is not the first time that photographs have been manipulated in the
Indian media. The most offensive instance in the recent past was the drawing of
bars over the photographs of kar sevaks to show that they had been arrested.
Swatantra Bharat, a respectable Hindi newspaper published from Lucknow, did the
manipulation to give lie to the government's claim that no kar sevaks had been
arrested during the Ayodhya movement.

This incidentally was a case of simple manipulation, carried out by an artist using a
wooden ruler and a black pen. In doing so, he also left proof of having done it,
because the photograph became a piece of evidence. The newspaper could not
produce a negative that showed kar sevaks behind bars and had to suffer public
ridicule when the Press Council of India examined the complaint of manipulation
and passed severe strictures.

Morphing, in contrast, is a far more serious issue. When carried out by an

accomplished artist, it leaves behind no tell-tale marks, especially if the morphed
image is transferred to another computer, which reads it as an original file or
Version 1.0. Experts, who are trained in digital forensics, have to locate the
computer on which the original morphing was done; only then they can peel off the
layers of falsehood that the digital artist has imposed. Otherwise, the morphed file
stands as original.

The dangers of morphing are not only limited to media outlets. Even individuals,
who have an axe to grind, can play havoc. We all remember what happened to
RSS leader Sanjay Joshi. The CD that was mailed to select BJP and RSS leaders
showed Joshi in intimate poses with a woman. Was it a genuine sting or a morphed
digital document? The truth may or may not come out, but Joshi's political career
was destroyed.

This is why media organisations have to be doubly careful when it comes to

morphing. Unlike individuals, they have a wide distribution network. Anything that
they publish or broadcast goes to thousands of readers or viewers and can cause
incalculable embarrassment and damage to the reputation of an individual.

The media must draw a sharp line between picture editing and morphing. No one
will complain if a picture is digitally enhanced to improve its quality. In fact, there
will be all round appreciation.

However, when a picture is altered intentionally, then there will be anger and
dismay. No media house should allow parts of a photograph to be changed or
replaced. This is ethically indefensible, a moral crime, especially if it alters
meaning or demeans a public figure.

This also applies to the use of digital pictures supplied by third-party sources.
Here too, the gatekeeping must be impeccable. The pictures must be checked and
cross-checked for authenticity. As the saying goes: It is better to be safe than sorry.
There is no point in rushing with a juicy picture that may later turn out to be
doctored â€" especially in today's environment, where morphing software is freely

Media companies should also be careful about pictures that are available on the net.
Quite a few of them " especially of female stars " are morphed. These can only
cause red faces and embarrassment if printed in mainstream publications; a few
may even invite legal notices.

The fact that this has not happened in India so far is not sufficient reason to
continue with this indefensible practice. Morphing, or the use of morphed pictures
without knowing that the photograph has been doctored, cannot be defended. We
must remember that the individual who has suffered has a right to legal recourse,
and must do so.

A vigilant reader or viewer will only strengthen the media. There will be a new
look at the checks and balances leading to more accountability and more
responsibility. This is of utmost importance especially in view of the new writing,
editing and distribution tools that the new technology has created " tools that make
everyone an editor and publisher. The mainstream media will have to scale new
moral heights if it wants to retain people's faith and trust.
(About the author: The author is the Dean of www.OCMS.in, India's first
online School of Journalism and a major media vertical. Read more articles
by the author on www.OCMS.in.)