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After Facebook Censored Iconic Photo, Norwegian Newspaper Pushed Back

Espen Egil Hansen, the editor-in-chief of Norway's <em>Aftenposten </em>newspaper, addressed Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in a front-page open letter on Friday.
Espen Egil Hansen, the editor-in-chief of Norway's Aftenposten newspaper, addressed Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in a front-page open letter on Friday.

Updated at 2:15 p.m. ET

To Norwegian author Tom Egeland, it was one of the most significant war photos ever taken.

To Facebook, it was a "display of nudity."

The social media site's removal of the image sparked an uproar — and, on Friday, the company announced it was reversing course and would be reinstating the image.

Last month, Egeland used the platform to post the iconic photo of a girl, screaming and naked, fleeing napalm bombs during the Vietnam War. The photo, taken by Associated Press photographer Nick Ut, was part of a collection of photos that Egeland said changed the history of warfare, the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten reports.

Facebook took it down and banned Egeland from posting anything for 24 hours. And Norwegians swiftly responded, posting the Pulitzer Prize-winning "napalm girl" photo on their own accounts in protest, The Associated Press reports.

Photo after photo was removed by Facebook, and fury grew. (Disclosure: Facebook pays NPR, and other leading news organizations, to produce live video streams that run on the site.)

Kim Phuc, the girl in the photo, is now 53 and runs an organization that provides treatment to child victims of war. As the protests were spreading, a spokeswoman for the organization told Norwegian paper Dagsavisen that Kim Phuc "is saddened by those who would focus on the nudity in the historic picture rather than the powerful message it conveys."

The AP, which owns the photo, also chimed in. The director of media relations, on behalf of the organization, expressed pride in the photo and recognition of its historical impact ... and noted that "we reserve our rights to this powerful image."

South Vietnamese forces follow terrified children, including 9-year-old Kim Phuc (center), as they run down Route 1 near Trang Bang after an aerial napalm attack on suspected Viet Cong hiding places, June 8, 1972.
Nick Ut / AP
South Vietnamese forces follow terrified children, including 9-year-old Kim Phuc (center), as they run down Route 1 near Trang Bang after an aerial napalm attack on suspected Viet Cong hiding places, June 8, 1972.

On Friday, Aftenposten — Norway's largest newspaper — ran a front-page letter directly addressed to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

The newspaper had published the image on its Facebook page until it, too, was removed.

"I am upset, disappointed — well, in fact even afraid — of what you are about to do to a mainstay of our democratic society," Aftenposten's editor-in-chief, Espen Egil Hansen, wrote in the letter. He pointed out that on top of deleting the image again and again, Facebook was blocking Egeland from making posts about the dispute.

"Listen, Mark, this is serious," Hansen wrote. "First you create rules that don't distinguish between child pornography and famous war photographs. Then you practice these rules without allowing space for good judgement. Finally you even censor criticism against and a discussion about the decision — and you punish the person who dares to voice criticism."

He argues that the photo itself illustrates the significance of the dispute:

"The napalm-girl is by far the most iconic documentary photography from the Vietnam war. The media played a decisive role in reporting different stories about the war than the men in charge wanted them to publish. They brought about a change of attitude which played a role in ending the war. They contributed to a more open, more critical debate. This is how a democracy must function.

"The free and independent media have an important task in bringing information, even including pictures, which sometimes may be unpleasant, and which the ruling elite and maybe even ordinary citizens cannot bear to see or hear, but which might be important precisely for that reason. ...

"The media have a responsibility to consider publication in every single case. This may be a heavy responsibility. Each editor must weigh the pros and cons.

"This right and duty, which all editors in the world have, should not be undermined by algorithms encoded in your office in California."

Hansen called Zuckerberg "the world's most powerful editor" and wrote that Facebook's prominence as a platform opens up possibilities — and risks.

"If you will not distinguish between child pornography and documentary photographs from a war, this will simply promote stupidity and fail to bring human beings closer to each other," he warned.

Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg joined in the protest on Friday. After Facebook removed the Kim Phuc photo, she reposted it with a censoring black rectangle — and gave several other historic images the same treatment.

Later on Friday, Facebook said in a statement that it would be reversing course on the image, given "its status as an iconic image of historical importance":

"After hearing from our community, we looked again at how our Community Standards were applied in this case. An image of a naked child would normally be presumed to violate our Community Standards, and in some countries might even qualify as child pornography. In this case, we recognize the history and global importance of this image in documenting a particular moment in time."

The company said it would reinstate the photo in places where it knew it had been removed — which might take a few days — and will adjust its "review mechanisms" so it can be shared on the site moving forward.

The social media giant did not apologize for the earlier decision to remove the photo.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.

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