Me­dia must be rape ac­tivists, not by­s­tanders

It’s not enough to re­port dis­pas­sion­ately on sex­ual pre­da­tion. We have to lobby where the law fails

Mail & Guardian - - Comment Analysis - Anthea Gar­man

In ori­en­ta­tion week of 2008 I had a new group of jour­nal­ism stu­dents work­ing in the Gro­cott’s Mail news­room in Gra­ham­stown. We ar­rived for duty to dis­cover that over the week­end there had been a rape in a lo­cal pub and a young man had ap­peared in court.

The news­pa­per had cov­ered the court ap­pear­ance, taken his pho­to­graph and made it the front-page story in the Tues­day edi­tion. There was in­stant hor­ror and worry. “Was this le­gal?” was the first ques­tion at news con­fer­ence, fol­lowed by: “But what if he turns out to be in­no­cent?”

As the con­se­quences un­folded (which in­volved the re­al­i­sa­tion that he hadn’t had charges of rape put to him in court and so iden­ti­fy­ing him was tech­ni­cally il­le­gal, re­sult­ing in the news­pa­per be­ing sued for dam­ages to his rep­u­ta­tion), I came to hear sto­ries about this young man’s ha­bit­ual sex­u­ally abu­sive be­hav­iour.

There was never a trial — the pros­e­cu­tor de­cided that there was not enough ev­i­dence that a “rape” had taken place. The woman left univer­sity, bro­ken and ashamed. The man stayed and got his de­gree. As a lec­turer in jour­nal­ism, I held on to the prin­ci­ple that “in­no­cent un­til proven guilty” was not only le­gal but im­por­tant to en­act as a jour­nal­ist.

Then, last year, some­one put out a sim­ple list of 11 names on one of the Face­book pages Rhodes Univer­sity stu­dents use. Just names, no ac­cu­sa­tions. It was called #RURef­er­encelist.

The list it­self was enough to gal­vanise hun­dreds of stu­dents into mount­ing a two-week protest with bar­ri­cades and class shut­downs. The po­lice came on to cam­pus, shot at and ar­rested stu­dents, and the univer­sity got an in­ter­dict against protest ac­tion, and is still pur­su­ing women for “kid­nap­ping” men from their res­i­dence rooms.

Again I was told sto­ries about se­rial sex­ual as­sault, about ha­bit­ual preda­tory be­hav­iour. I was con­sulted by young women want­ing to go pub­lic, em­bold­ened by the list to make known that the men who had as­saulted them were do­ing it to oth­ers too, and they were not be­ing stopped.

Many of th­ese young men were the univer­sity’s finest — lead­ers and achiev­ers. Many of the women were be­ing se­ri­ally iso­lated (the univer­sity was treat­ing each case in­di­vid­u­ally and not con­nect­ing the se­rial of­fences) and there­fore dis­be­lieved.

I have known for a very long time that rape is more about the fa­mil­iar, “nor­mal” man us­ing his power than the dan­ger­ous stranger. I have known too that rape vic­tims are vic­timised again be­cause our laws de­mand that they ac­cuse and stand up and make the com­plaint, and be tested for the de­gree of the harm done to them and the va­lid­ity of their claim.

But what last year’s protests showed me (and this came mainly from the right­eous anger of young women de­ter­mined not to be fobbed off) was that sex­ual abuse and as­sault is deeply en­demic in our so­ci­eties. It is not just the pow­er­ful and fa­mous who abuse. More im­por­tantly, our sys­tems are com­pletely in­ad­e­quate to the task of deal­ing with this un­der­the-radar pre­da­tion.

It’s not sur­pris­ing that the vic­timised are tak­ing things into their own hands — such as the “Re­mem­ber Kh­wezi” protest — and shov­ing this stuff in all our faces so that we can no longer turn away from it. But it’s one thing for an as­saulted woman to weigh up the risks of putting her ex­pe­ri­ence out in pub­lic, and an­other for jour­nal­ists to fig­ure out what im­pacts re­veal­ing or with­hold­ing in­for­ma­tion will have on a par­tic­u­lar sit­u­a­tion and on the wider si­lenc­ing cul­ture that feeds pre­da­tion.

So it was with in­ter­est that I read the Jen­nifer Fer­gu­son ac­cu­sa­tions against anti-apartheid ac­tivist Danny Jor­daan (re­ported in the Daily Mav­er­ick) and the Mail & Guardian story about Si­bongile Khu­malo’s ac­cu­sa­tions against for­mer Pan African­ist Congress leader Pot­lako Le­ballo.

The in­ter­est­ing thing about the Fer­gu­son ar­ti­cle writ­ten by Re­becca Davis is the four rea­sons given for nam­ing Jor­daan:

O His name was al­ready in the pub­lic do­main via so­cial me­dia (so to con­ceal his name would not have pro­vided him any pro­tec­tion; how­ever, it would have pro­tected the on­line pub­li­ca­tion if Jor­daan got liti­gious);

O He is a po­lit­i­cal fig­ure in the pub­lic do­main — this is an old jour­nal­is­tic de­fence but usu­ally not used in cases of sex­ual as­sault and rape;

O Stren­u­ous ef­forts were made to give Jor­daan a chance to re­spond to the ar­ti­cle — again; this is a usual jour­nal­is­tic de­fence, but not usu­ally used for rape ac­cu­sa­tions; and

O It is highly un­likely that the ac­cu­sa­tion will ever sur­face in court.

This last point is the most in­ter­est­ing — not be­cause it speaks to Fer­gu­son’s in­ten­tion or to the im­pos­si­bil­ity of some­thing hap­pen­ing so long ago com­ing to court, but be­cause it touches on the fact that the le­gal route fails so ut­terly to ad­dress th­ese as­saults and stop se­rial of­fend­ers.

In the Fer­gu­son story and the Khu­malo story, there are hints that both women know that men with this kind of power do not do this once and then cor­rect them­selves. Fer­gu­son apol­o­gises if her si­lence has meant that other women have suf­fered the same fate.

By pub­lish­ing her ac­cu­sa­tions and nam­ing the ac­cused, the Daily Mav­er­ick takes a stand and con­trib­utes to mak­ing vis­i­ble this form of en­demic abuse, recog­nis­ing that legally it will never be ad­dressed.

In the face of such sys­tem­atic and egre­gious le­gal and so­cial fail­ure, what is the news me­dia’s re­spon­si­bil­ity? If we take re­ally se­ri­ously that this be­hav­iour is widely preva­lent, jour­nal­ists have to align them­selves with ef­forts not only to make known the sit­u­a­tion but also to pro­voke ef­forts by law­mak­ers and pol­i­cy­mak­ers to think and work dif­fer­ently. Just re­port­ing when some­thing be­comes known and stay­ing within the tracks of the le­gal obli­ga­tions, I think, is no longer con­scionable (if it ever was).

To go even fur­ther, why are we com­fort­able with the abysmal per­for­mance of the po­lice and courts (and em­ploy­ers and uni­ver­si­ties) in pros­e­cut­ing sex­ual as­sault? We use the rep­re­hen­si­ble sta­tis­tics so fre­quently that they be­come the norm in our minds. How is it pos­si­ble that we think this level of fail­ure is okay?

It’s not sur­pris­ing that so­cial me­dia have be­come the per­fect ve­hi­cles for women to speak out about their as­saults be­cause they af­ford them con­trol over what they want to say and a com­mu­nity to speak to; a lis­ten­ing, be­liev­ing com­mu­nity.

Some of the re­search I’ve done has in­volved read­ing the ar­gu­ments about whether “nam­ing and sham­ing” and “so­cial me­dia vig­i­lan­tism” is right and proper. In the ab­sence of func­tional, so­cially sanc­tioned re­dress, “vig­i­lan­tism” is go­ing to flour­ish. Why should women re­main silent in the face of such ma­jor mal­func­tion?

But this isn’t the con­cern of jour­nal­ism. The con­cern is how to show through re­portage that the sit­u­a­tion is se­ri­ous and worth at­ten­tion, and that be­liev­ing the vic­tims and re­port­ing their ex­pe­ri­ences is crit­i­cal.

As to the is­sue of nam­ing and defama­tion: I re­turn to an ar­ti­cle writ­ten by He­len Scott, pro­fes­sor of pri­vate law at the Univer­sity of Cape Town, in April 2016. Scott said of the #RURef­er­encelist that, although ac­cus­ing some­one of be­ing a rapist is no doubt defam­a­tory, the de­fence would be “state­ments which are both true and in the pub­lic in­ter­est”. She elab­o­rated: “The stan­dard of proof — ‘on the bal­ance of prob­a­bil­i­ties’ — is lower than that ap­plied in crim­i­nal cases — ‘be­yond rea­son­able doubt’ — and could po­ten­tially be sat­is­fied by vic­tims’ tes­ti­mony.

“An­other im­por­tant de­fence is that of priv­i­lege. This pro­tects state­ments made by some­one who is un­der a moral or le­gal duty to make them … It could be ar­gued that those who orig­i­nated and cir­cu­lated the list were un­der a moral duty to do so and that their proper au­di­ence — those with an in­ter­est in hear­ing the al­le­ga­tions, or a duty to hear them — is not only the po­lice and univer­sity author­i­ties but [also] the greater pub­lic.

“This ar­gu­ment as­sumes that the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem can­not pro­vide ad­e­quate re­dress to the vic­tims of rape, and that for this rea­son di­rect ac­tion against rapists is jus­ti­fied.”

The re­cent ar­ti­cles in the Daily Mav­er­ick and the M&G are nec­es­sary. Women who make th­ese al­le­ga­tions must be seen to be be­lieved in the pub­lic do­main. But a sec­ond step is nec­es­sary too: jour­nal­ists must de­cide whether to name the per­pe­tra­tors — be­cause of the fail­ures of the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem. But this should be done mind­fully. The ex­am­ple pro­vided by Davis in mak­ing ex­plicit the de­ci­sion to pub­lish is a use­ful model.

It’s time that jour­nal­ists (and their em­ploy­ers and lawyers) do the right thing about rape and sex­ual as­sault and de­fend this stance.

As an ed­u­ca­tor of emerg­ing jour­nal­ists, I now take an ac­tivist po­si­tion. This fun­da­men­tal so­cial wrong must be ad­dressed by jour­nal­ism — and it must be (and is) de­fen­si­ble to do so. The law must also be made to be on the right side.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from South Africa

© PressReader. All rights reserved.