Media Fair Play
Mail and Guardian
Jacob Zuma emerges from the Johannesburg High Court after being roundly cleared of rape, and makes just two points to the crowd of admirers: he thanks them, and he hits at the media.
Echoing comments by Judge Willem van der Merwe, he accuses the media of having found him guilty before all the evidence was in.
Since then, the point has been made by others in his camp. In the Mail & Guardian, Zizi Kodwa, African National Congress Youth League spokesperson, referred to “a brood of fangless vipers in the mass media”.
As so often, the media make an easy target. In fact, though, coverage of the trial was largely fair to Zuma. The M&G and other media were generally careful to avoid pronouncing on his guilt or innocence before the judge did.
Our legal system expects outside parties to leave the courts alone to consider the cases before them, even though the past few years have seen much greater tolerance of public debate. During the course of the trial, there was discussion of some of the paths it took, and after its conclusion, there was much commentary on the decision.
The M&G carried a good deal of this. In the week of the acquittal, the paper’s Comment & Analysis section was dominated by the issue, and the letters pages have also been full of it.
Public discussion of decisions of such importance is necessary and useful. The notion of a judiciary that is insulated from the rest of society is simply archaic.
When it comes to Zuma’s own complaints of a media vendetta, he conveniently confuses the question of his guilt or innocence with discussion of his claim to leadership.
The trial offered plenty of material, even in his own version of events, to fuel that discussion, which will continue despite his subsequent apology. A certain, shall we say, vagueness in his understanding of HIV was unexpected from a man who previously presided over national initiatives to fight the pandemic. It’s neither responsible nor smart to risk HIV infection in the way that he did.
And the anti-Aids shower has become a national joke.
There’s an important distinction to be made between Zuma the accused and Zuma the public figure.
As an accused, he has the same rights to a fair trial as anybody else. As a public figure who aspires to lead the country, he must expect his actions to come under close scrutiny. There is a fine line between the two, but it can be observed.
The media have been criticised in quite different terms from other quarters. It has been said that the detailed reporting of intimate sexual details has been offensive, and has re-victimised the complainant.
This is a more difficult issue.
Because justice must be seen to be done, court proceedings are almost always public. Anyone can attend, either in person or by proxy, by following media reports, so that they can see how decisions are made and, hopefully, accept them as reasonable and legitimate.
Whether courts are dealing with murder, fraud or other crime, the chances are great that the evidence will include some ugly stuff. And people are easily hurt, particularly where public interest is high.
Rape is in a special category. In any crime, the reputation of the accused is at stake — and can be damaged even if they are cleared in the end. But uniquely in rape, the reputation of the complainant can come under scrutiny, as it did in this case, and be shredded. All of this takes place with raw material of the most intimate kind.
Given the nature of his defence, detailed scrutiny of what happened in November between Zuma and the complainant was probably unavoidable.
The M&G generally retained a more sober tone, but some news-papers turned the story into porn. It became a trashy X-rated novel, an opportunity to put sex into the headlines. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that this was done to boost circulation by feeding people’s appetite for the sensational.
In fact, rape is violence of a particular kind. Even if the judge finally decided that this was ordinary sex, more sensitivity in coverage would have been in order.
With acknowledgements to Franz Krüger and the Mail & Guardian.