By Meggan McCarthy & Kyle Robinson
A Grocott’s Mail article titled “O-Week aftermath”, which featured photographs of the accused of the recent alleged rape incident, created an uproar amongst Rhodes students. The ethics of journalism during legal processes has been brought into question and students remain divided in their opinions.
Steven Lang, Grocott’s editor, explained why the paper decided to publish the alleged accused’s photograph. “It was newsworthy; it was big news in the context that O-Week was a big news story for us. We’re also quite concerned about what happens in O-Week, there’s clearly a lot of interest in the subject,” he explained.
Lang said it was a controversial decision to make. “Obviously I was concerned about the consequences. It’s a very serious thing. We also think that the allegations against him are very serious. We are concerned about the fact that every year a number of students do get raped. We take it seriously,” said Lang.
Lang said that Grocott’s acted lawfully, “We were worried about how it would affect the young man particularly if he was to be found guilty, but the hearing took place in a public court, the public has a right to know. The constitution allows the right to freedom of speech. It was a public court and anyone could take pictures in the presence of the magistrate and defence attorney.” He added, “Our reporter spoke to his lawyer who was quite relaxed about sharing information.”
Lang is aware of the great commotion that the article has caused. “There have been a lot of people who have felt that it’s unfair to publish the picture of the young man and that reaction came mainly from his friends. On the other hand, women’s rights groups have been pleased with the fact that we published it. They said that if it deters one man from committing rape, it will serve its purpose. We’ve had a strong reaction from both sides. I have no regrets about publishing it,” he said. Kerry Hibberd, a third year student, agreed that having the pictures of the accused splashed across newspapers would “make people think twice before committing rape”. However, some students feel differently about the article.
Claire van Rensburg, a fourth year International Relations student, said, “It’s disgusting the way they handled it. It just can’t be legal.” Ozayr Dawjee, a second year, said, “Even if he is innocent, people will still look at him as a rapist. He will still have that bad image.”Lang believes that the strong reaction to the article has a lot to do with the fact that he’s seen as “one of our guys on campus”. “I am told that he is popular on campus and that has a lot to do with it. We’ve had other cases where we’ve published photos [of alleged perpetrators] and we’ve had zero reaction.” Lang added, “Whatever happens, we intend to report on it, it’s not as if we had anything against him personally.”
Rhodes University, however, felt very differently and released a media statement calling for the sensitive handling of the rape allegations.
Lebogang Hashatse, Rhodes University spokesperson, said Rhodes fully supports free journalism, it was just the “framing of the story” that caused problems.
Hashatse said, “The media was fuelling an emotional debate on the incident and passing judgement. They didn’t have the facts and they made assumptions.” He said the article influenced the “thinking on the matter that drives people to support one party or the other”.
Robert Brand, Pearson Chair of Economics Journalism at the Rhodes Journalism department, declined to comment on the specifics of this rape case, but gave a general overview of the media laws and ethics involved in criminal cases. According to Brand, the law is clear on what may and may not be published. “In terms of the Criminal Procedural Act 154, you are not allowed to publish any information relating to the case until the accused has pleaded to the charge. You cannot publish any information about that person until they have been formally charged, even if they have been arrested.”
Brand also explained that “there is freedom of expression, but no right is absolute. A person who has committed a crime also has rights and they have to be balanced against other rights. These laws exist because of the chances that the media publishing someone’s identity can undermine the chances of a person being successfully prosecuted. It’s not only about a perpetrator’s rights, but about the integrity of the judicial system.”
The rape charges were recently dropped by the woman and the accused has been told that he is free to go.
Activate believes that when reporting on individuals on trial, the news media should remain neutral and completely objective. Its sole purpose is to report the facts and not make assumptions or speculate. We believe the right to be “innocent until proven guilty” is vital within a democracy and that “trial by the media” can impede on this right.