US media group Vice has removed altered photographs of Khmer Rouge genocide victims from its website after a furious backlash in Cambodia and on social media.
The New York-based company on Friday published an interview with Matt Loughrey, an Ireland-based artist, who had colorized images of photos from the notorious Tuol Sleng S-21 torture prison in Phnom Penh, where at least 14,000 people lost their lives under the tyrannical rule of communist leader Pol Pot.
The article came under heavy criticism from readers, who said the artist had added smiles to some of the shots. On Monday, Vice said that it had removed the story and photos from its website.
The article “included photographs of Khmer Rouge victims that Loughrey manipulated beyond colorization,” Vice said in a statement.
“The story did not meet [our] editorial standards,” the publication added. “We regret the error and will investigate how this failure of the editorial process occurred.”
Despite the retraction, Cambodian authorities have strongly objected to the use of the images, after a government review found that several photographs were changed to add smiles.
“The alteration of these photographs shows an utter insensitivity for the people who died, the families who have had to continue on without their loved ones, and historical truth itself,” Phoeurng Sackona, Cambodia’s minister of culture and fine arts, said in a statement to CNN Business on Monday.
“We understand and respect artistic freedom. However, in this case, the artist has clearly desecrated the memories of the dead and robbed the victims of the Khmer Rouge of their dignity. The distorted photographs have needlessly once again traumatized the families and our nation.”
The minister is now calling on the artist “to immediately stop spreading these horrific images and specifically to take them off his website and out of public view.”
Loughrey did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Over the weekend, a petition was circulated online, demanding that Vice take the article down. By Monday, it had gathered more than 7,000 signatures. Campaigners called on Loughrey to “please stop using photos of Cambodian genocide victims for your experimentation and entertainment.”
On Monday, they noted that while the story had since been retracted, “there has been no apology from either Vice or Mr. Loughrey.”
There is now a new petition by the same group demanding an apology to the Cambodian community.
At least 1.7 million people — nearly a quarter of Cambodia’s population — died from execution, disease, starvation and forced labor under the Khmer Rouge regime that ruled the country between 1975-1979.
In 2018, almost four decades after the collapse of the brutal regime, a UN-backed tribunal ruled that the Khmer Rouge had committed genocide.
— CNN’s Helen Regan contributed to this report.