As It Happens

Syrian refugee sues Facebook after his Merkel selfie is falsely linked to terrorism

What started as an innocent selfie has turned into a massive problem for Syrian refugee Anas Modamani. People keep sharing his image and falsely linking him to terrorist attacks.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel poses for a selfie with Anas Modamani after she visited a Berlin shelter for migrants in September 2015. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Read Story Transcript

Anas Modamani was just a teenager when he snapped a quick selfie with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

But ever since, over and over again, that frozen moment has come back to haunt the Syrian refugee.

The image has been shared on Facebook repeatedly in the wake of terrorist attacks in Europe, in posts falsely calling him the perpetrator. Fed up and afraid, Modamani is now suing Facebook, seeking an injunction against the use of his image on the site. 

Chan-jo Jun is Anas Modamani's lawyer. (Chan-jo Jun)

Chan-jo Jun is Modamani's lawyer. He spoke with As It Happens guest host Helen Mann about his client's case against the social media giant. Here is part of their conversation.

Helen Mann: Mr. Jun, let's start with this photograph of your client with the German chancellor. How did that come to be in the first place?

Chan-jo Jun: It was 2015 and Anas Modmani had just arrived to Germany. He was at a refugee shelter in Berlin and some important person showed up. At that time, Anas did not know it was Chancellor Angela Merkel. He just walked up and took a selfie picture with her. He did not realize he just took a first selfie with the German chancellor.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel poses for a selfie with Anas Modamani. (Anas Modamani/Facebook)

HM: What was the reception to the photograph at the time?

CJ: Very, very different. At that time, a lot of people were applauding Angela Merkel for her politics, for giving humanity a chance and letting people in, even though they should have gone through the procedures in Greece. But at the same time, a growing number of people were strongly opposed to Merkel's politics. What happened then is people used this picture as a symbol for Merkel's refugee politics when they hated it.
HM: How else has the photograph been used since?

CJ: Whenever something happens related to terrorism or refugees, people come up with the picture and a number of times people were saying Merkel took a picture with a terrorist or with a perpetrator. Especially with the Brussels attack last year, people were raising questions — did Merkel take a picture with a terrorist? A lot of people thought she did.

HM: What effect has all this attention had on Anas Modamani?

CJ: When he was first linked to the bomb attack in Brussels, he thought things will go over. He deactivated his Facebook account at that time. He was afraid to go out on the street. In December, just a couple of weeks ago, another picture showed up with a group of refugees setting fire to a homeless person as an attempted murder. People claim that he was one of the perpetrators saying, again, Merkel took a picture with one of the perpetrators of that attempted murder. They implicate him with everything. Whenever crime happened in Germany, this picture showed up, sometime linking him directly or just associate him with Merkel's politics.
HM: So on what grounds are you taking legal action against Facebook?

CJ: Libel is a criminal offence in Germany. And also, in a civil court, when someone claims you are a committing a crime, which you didn't, or are a terrorist, spreading this news is illegal. Facebook refused to take down the posting and the picture. It is still online today as we speak. I have been reporting many incidents of this picture. They have taken down some and they claimed with the British press that they have fulfilled my request and taken it down. But they haven't. I still saw the picture yesterday, even though I had reported that very photo.
Mark Zuckerberg (Kimihiro Hoshino/AFP/Getty Image)

HM: Given the number of people who use Facebook, how viral this image has done, do you think it's even possible for them to successful control how much it spreads?

CJ: Actually, it's pretty easy with a photograph because the same image has been used many times and has been uploaded many times. Facebook has done the same thing when the Paris attack happened. There was one photograph that was tried to be uploaded more that 30,000 times and they were using a picture recognition software to prevent that picture from being spread.

HM: How is Modamani doing now? How has he settled in Germany?

CJ: Currently, he is afraid. He stayed away from home for a couple of days and went into hiding. He has settled very well. He speaks fluent German and works everyday at a fast food joint in Berlin. He has his hobby. He likes photography and he keeps in touch with his family in Syria. He hopes to be able to stay in Germany for at least as long as the war is going on.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. For more on this story, listen to our full interview with Chan-jo Jun.