May 26 (UPI) -- After originally defending its decision, the humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders apologized Thursday for publishing photographs of a teenage rape survivor on its website.
The non-governmental organization, based in Geneva, Switzerland, and formally known as Médecins Sans Frontieres, said in a statement it is strengthening its photo guidelines to safeguard minors.
The photos in question involve a 16-year-old girl from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who was seeking treatment after being gang-raped by armed men.
Her face is identifiable in the since-removed photos, despite the fact she was both a minor and victim of sexual assault.
"In recent weeks, MSF has been rightly challenged on social media and in the media about the use of sensitive photographs in our public communications," the group wrote in a statement on its website.
"Among the issues highlighted was our decision to publish identifiable photographs of a 16-year-old girl who was the victim of rape in Ituri, Democratic Republic of Congo. We acknowledge that the publication of these images was a mistake, and we are sorry. We have removed these images and other sensitive photographs from the online article and are taking a series of actions to put better safeguards in place."
The photos were originally published in early May, taken at the Drodro refugee camp, located in the country's Ituri province, which has seen a large amount of violence.
"In the case of the victim in Ituri, she provided consent to the photographer and came forward to share her story, with the support of medical and psychological staff. As an orphan, she had no parent or guardian to support her. We recognize that we should have taken additional steps to protect this survivor's identity, considering her status as a minor," reads the group's statement.
The apology comes after MSF initially defended its decision to publish the images.
"There is always a genuine dilemma between protecting patients and respecting and accompanying their desire to be vocal about the story they wish to share," MSF wrote on Twitter May 6.
"For this story, because the topic was so sensitive, there were prior conversations with the medical & psychology teams to identify women who wanted to testify publicly. Many more women showed spontaneous interest in telling their story & came directly to us & the photographer.
"A dilemma arose about the testimony shared by Giselle, who was only sixteen and in charge of a household. The decision to use her story/image came after deliberation with the medical team and her strong desire to testify. We decided to stand by this call, to respect her wishes."
After weeks of criticism from human rights activists, the group has now changed its position.
"We must ensure that our vital work of bearing witness to suffering and abuse does not cause further harm," MSF International President Christos Christou wrote Thursday on Twitter.
The group had already announced a full review of its audio-visual archives.
"We have a clear duty to 'do no harm', in line with our medical ethics. If we fail to respect people's dignity and agency, it is also a failure of our humanitarian mission," the group said in its statement.