Women in Action et al vs. Die Son


Wed, Nov 21, 2018

Ruling by the Press Ombud

21 November 2018

Particulars

Complainants: Women in Action, and its representatives Ms Patricia Zorah Motasi and Ms Ingrid Adonis. The complaint is also on behalf of the victim (who should not be identified)

Lodged by: Motasi

Date of article: 30 August 2018

Headline: Ou ‘n terror, selfs in mang

Author of article: Basil Afrika

Respondent: Neil Scott, Son News editor

Complaint                                            

Women in Action complains that the article:

  • contained explicit details about the rape and the victim that was of a personal nature and damaging to the victim’s reputation; and
  • created the impression that the movement had furnished the newspaper with all the information – which angered members of the family who blamed it for disclosing intimate details about the incident.

The text

The story was about a man (32) who had raped a woman (24) in her home in Lwandle (near Somerset West, Cape Town), while the rapist held a knife at her four-year old daughter’s throat.

The story quite vividly described what the man did to the woman.

 

Afrika quoted Motasi about what had happened. He spoke to Ms Ingrid Adonis too, also from the Women in Action movement, about the effect of the incident on the family and what the movement was doing in the wake of what had happened.

The arguments

At the centre of MOTASI’s complaint is the reporting of the allegation that the rape victim had to suck the perpetrator’s penis.

She says the reportage has infringed on the dignity and human rights of the victim, and has cause her added trauma and suffering. To add insult to injury, she says, some people in the community were aware of the victim’s identity.

Motasi also submits the story did not disclose the identity of its source, and the public concluded that it had to be Women in Action. This, she says, did enormous damage to the good name of the movement in the community. She adds that many people are angry at the movement as some of the victim’s family blamed it for the reporting of the allegation in question.   

She says Women in Action works with women who are victims of sexual and physical abuse. For that, she argues, it needs the victims and their families to trust them. However, she says: “[t]his article destroyed all that; no victim will ever trust us again!”

SCOTT says that, as with all other rape cases, it was the newspaper’s duty to protect the identity of the victim. He says a close family member of the victim informed the newspaper of the details of the incident. However, if he would disclose who the source was, he would have revealed the victim’s identity.

He adds that the article did not state the reference to the man’s penis as fact, but as an allegation.

The editor concludes: “The intention of the article was never to cause harm or trauma to any person or group, but to expose the violent nature of this criminal act to the public. As a newspaper Son unfortunately cannot sway away from the facts before us, although we are always sensitive to the victims. Son never attributed the mentioned quote to the women’s group and I cannot see how this could’ve caused confusion to any reasonable reader.”

MOTASI replies that the reportage was shocking, self-serving and malicious towards the victim, and argues that it was not in the public interest to use such explicit language.

She also wants to know why the newspaper did not attribute the sentence in question to a close family source (as Scott indicates in his email). She says she believes the idea was to mislead the public into thinking the Women in Action made that statement. “We as the women’s group was misrepresented and it was not fair. We think it was done on purpose and with intent,” she concludes.

Analysis

In the centre of the complaint, which stands on two legs (the effect of the reportage on the victim, as well as on Women in Action), is the following sentence in the story: “The woman allegedly had to suck the pervert’s penis.”

This case is more complicated than may meet the eye…

The victim

Firstly, the newspaper did not identify the victim – for which it should be commended. Section 3.4 of the Press Code is clear about this. It says: “Rape survivors and survivors of sexual violence shall not be identified without the consent of the victim…” The newspaper adhered to this requirement.

However, more is at stake here. In fact, much more.

The first issue is that the sentence in question was presented as an allegation, as Scott says – but it was not clear who had made it. It is noticeable that this sentence preceded the reporting on what Motasi had said, which made it unlikely that she was the person whom Afrika quoted in this regard. (I’ll come back to this vital point below.)

This means, at the very least, that it was unclear from whom this allegation came. This was not helpful. Afrika did not even state it came from an anonymous source – it just hung in the air.

I also need to take into account that at least some members of that (quite closely-knit) community had to know who the victim (and therefore also her four-year old daughter) was – which brings me to the question why it was necessary to use such explicit language.

I shudder to think what added impact / trauma the allegation in question must have had on the victim, and perhaps also on the child (even in future, if not at present).

The question, now, is simple: Given the atrocity of the incident (which was in the public interest to report), was it really in the public interest to report the allegation that the woman had to suck the rapist’s penis? What purpose did that allegation serve?

In normal parlance, I would say, that is called “over-share” – as I do not believe for one moment that the allegation in question was in the public interest to know.

I therefore do not believe that Die Son has adhered to Section 9.2 of the Press Code that states: “Content which depicts … explicit sex should be avoided unless the public interest dictates otherwise…”

But even that is not all: The rest of Section 9.2 reads: “… in which case prominent indication and warning must be displayed indicating that such content is graphic and inappropriate for certain audiences such as children.”

Die Son did not publish any such warning.

Given the impact this must have had on the victim and possibly also on the child, and therefore seen from their eyes, the newspaper did not exercise the necessary care and consideration regarding their dignity and / or reputation by using such explicit language (Section 3.3 of the Code).

I do not want to be misunderstood: I am not for one moment criticising Die Son for reporting the matter, and for the way it did so. The only issue at stake is the unnecessary reference to the allegation in question.

The fact that some members of the community would know who the victim and her daughter was, is unfortunate – but that was not the newspaper’s fault. Its only mistake was the over-share, as I have pointed out above.

Women in Action

This part of the complaint does not have any legs to stand on. This is because:

  • The article did not attribute the allegation in question to Women in Action, or to any of its members or representatives; and
  • That allegation was reported prior to the part in which Afrika quoted Motasi, and therefore it was not reasonable to interpret it as coming from Women in Action.

Finding

The victim

The allegation that the victim had to suck the rapist’s penis was in breach of the following sections of the Press Code:

  • 3.3: “The media shall exercise care and consideration in matters involving dignity and reputation. This dignity or reputation of an individual should be overridden only if it is in the public interest…” (which it was not);
  • 9.2 (a): “Content which depicts … explicit sex should be avoided unless the public interest dictates otherwise…” (which was not the case); and
  • 9.2 (b): “… in which case prominent indication and warning must be displayed indicating that such content is graphic and inappropriate for certain audiences such as children” (which it did not do).

These findings are made in the belief that the allegation in question has unnecessarily added to the victim’s trauma and suffering, and to the potential it has for doing the same with regards to the child.

Women in Action

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

Seriousness of breaches                                              

Under the headline Hierarchy of sanctions, Section 8 of the Complaints Procedures distinguishes between minor breaches (Tier 1 – minor errors which do not change the thrust of the story), serious breaches (Tier 2), and serious misconduct (Tier 3).                                              

The breaches of the Press Code as indicated above are all Tier 2 offences.

Sanction

Die Son is directed to apologise to the:

  • victim and her daughter for reporting a sexually explicit allegation, because it:
    • was not in the public interest to impugn her dignity and reputation in such a way; and
    • unnecessarily added to the victim’s trauma and quite possibly also to that of the child; and
  • public for not displaying a prominent warning indicating that the graphic content of that allegation is inappropriate for certain audiences such as children.

The newspaper is directed to publish:

  • the apology:
    • at the top of the same page where the story was carried, with a headline containing the words “apology” or “apologises”, and “rape victim”; and
    • online (at the top of that page), with a similar headline.

The text should:

  • be published at the earliest opportunity after the time for an application for leave to appeal has lapsed or, in the event of such an application, after that ruling;
  • refer to the complaint that was lodged with this office;
  • end with the sentence, “Visit www.presscouncil.org.za for the full finding”;
  • be published with the logo of the Press Council (attached); and
  • be prepared by the publication and be approved by me.

Appeal

The Complaints Procedures lay down that within seven working days of receipt of this decision, either party may apply for leave to appeal to the Chairperson of the SA Press Appeals Panel, Judge Bernard Ngoepe, fully setting out the grounds of appeal. He can be contacted at Khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.

Johan Retief

Press Ombud