Publication of Michaela McAreavey crime scene pictures presents a significant problem for Mauritius
“Beyond reasonable doubt” is always a good place to start when assessing guilt, especially when those accused are faced with the prospect of 60 years behind bars. So it didn’t come as a huge surprise when two hotel workers, Sandip Moonea, 43, and Avinash Treebhoowoon, 32, were acquitted of the murder of Irish honeymooner Michaela McAreavey (with husband John, right) at the Supreme Court in Mauritius on Thursday.
The 27-year-old Irish language teacher and former Rose of Tralee contestant, the only and much-loved daughter of legendary Tyrone Gaelic football manager Mickey Harte, was staying with her husband John at the 5-star Legends resort at Grand Gaube in the north-west of the island, when she was brutally murdered on 10 January 2011 after disturbing an intruder when she returned to the honeymoon suite after lunch to find a dark chocolate KitKat.
After I wrote an earlier blog piece for The Independent, sketching some details of the social and cultural context in which the trial was taking place, using insights from social anthropology, I was contacted by a number of Irish news organisations, keen to make some sense of an event taking place in a “paradise island” located on the other side of the Equator. There, Irish and UK journalists were often describing what was going on inside and outside the courtroom as “chaotic”, mainly because events did not conform to what is believed to happen in similar cases heard in Cork, Limerick or London.
I suggested that the comparison about the way the trial is being conducted in Mauritius was not between “order” and “chaos”, but between “formality” and “informality”. Seen from this perspective, legal processes in Europe and North America are peculiarly attached to formality. But Mauritius is not Europe or North America, so other rules apply, many of which reflect the informality of the local culture. That doesn’t make the legal system inferior, merely different.
I made a further point that while barristers are generally recruited from middle and upper middle-class families, the same cannot be said of members of the police service in Mauritius, who tend to come from “respectable” but lower socio-economic groups. For sure, the police officers involved in the case would not have benefited from the extended higher and cultural education in Europe and North America that many Mauritian barristers and solicitors have had. Put simply, there is a social and cultural asymmetry between the two groups. It is relatively easy for sophisticated, cosmopolitan lawyers to get one up on locally educated, low-ranking and even high-ranking police officers in the courtroom – which is exactly what happened in the McAreaveytrial.
Yesterday, 12 black-and-white crime scene pictures of Michaela McAreaveyappeared in the Mauritian Sunday Times, a relatively new newspaper on the island. Under an ‘Exclusive’ banner on the front page was a picture of the corpse, while inside there were photographs of the hotel room and bathroom, as well as close ups of the injuries sustained by Mrs McAreaveyin the attack. Unsurprisingly, this has caused great distress to the McAreaveyand Harte families, who branded the pictures as “reprehensible and repugnant”.
Politicians on both sides of the Irish border have also been quick to react. Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said that the decision to print the pictures could not be justified. He also reminded the Mauritian authorities that the spotlight would stay on the country and its justice system until matters were resolved. Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny stated that his government would be lodging a formal complaint with Port Louis after a meeting today in Dublin with the Irish ambassador to Mauritius, Brendan McMahon.
How to explain the publication of the pictures? Since its independence from the UK in 1968, Mauritius, which has a polyethnic population of 1.3 million living in a volcanic island the size of Surrey, has undoubtedly created one of the liveliest democracies in sub-Saharan Africa, if not the world. Moreover, newspapers are a hugely important part of the democratic tradition. But while the major circulation dailies like l’express , Le Matinal and Le Mauricien would not print pictures of murder victims, smaller weekend newspapers will. Indeed, there is a long-standing tradition of publishing gore in Mauritius by ‘la presse sensationnelle’ — think of turbo-charged News of the Worlds – and it looks like official photographs of Michaela MacAreavey has been used to boost the circulation figures for a new entrant in already crowded marketplace.
Of course, the finger of suspicion about the leaking of the photographs may well be pointing at members of the police force, with speculation about whether they have decided to try and get even after the severe criticism the service has received both inside and outside courtroom number 5. Today, the Mauritius Police Force confirmed that an investigation into the publication of the photographs has been launched, but have made no official comment regarding allegations that they were leaked by its own officers. Sunday Times editor Imran Hossenee says he will clarify where the photographs came from in the next couple of days.
If it were the police who leaked the images, it would undoubtedly makes sense from a local perspective, but would also be bad news for the tourist industry which, by definition, is outward facing and is therefore, obliged to take into account the cultural traditions and sensibilities of other societies, especially European countries from which two thirds of visitors to Mauritius come.
Of course, cultures differ in how pictures of the dead are perceived, but, by and large, murder victims are in a special category. Certainly from a mainstream European (and North American) perspective, graphic representations of the fatally injured or murdered are taboo. Even if available they are never published – witness the furore when the paparazzi photographed Princess Diana as she lay dying in a wrecked Mercedes in the Alma underpass in Paris in August 1997.
In Mauritius, revenue from tourism makes up around 10 per cent of the near $11 billion economy, and is the country’s largest source of foreign exchange. But tourism is more than just another business – it is also an important building block for the the burgeoning offshore, business outsourcing, luxury real estate and higher education sectors as Mauritius positions itself as the gateway between the growth economies of Africa and Asia.
One thing is certain: in a globalised world the Mauritius Government needs to act fast and prevent the pictures of Michaela McAreaveyreaching the Internet.
Dr Sean Carey is research fellow in the School of Social Sciences, University of RoehamptonTagged in: crime, Gaelic football, ireland, Martin McGuinness, mautirius, Michaela McAreavey, Mickey Harte, murder, newspapers, photography, press, tourism
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