Sex scandal sells the media short

How ironic that during a month when we are celebrating women’s rights a young woman is paraded naked in the media, something gender activists said, rightly, bordered on pornography.

An overly zealous Sowetan took the alleged incident, of a prison warder and a policewoman copulating, to the extreme, in the process abusing notions of public interest and freedom of expression, simply to accrue profits and negating the rights of the people concerned.

Instead of standing for justice, the Sowetan was no better than the criminal behaviour of the people who circulated the video to undermine the integrity of the people it exposed.

To put it in perspective, recently Eric Miyeni, who criticised the editor of the City Press, was fired and there was an incoherent apology by editors under the auspices of the South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef), whose actions can be interpreted as having been influenced by the desire to protect one of their own.
It seems editors and others in the media have this feeling of being perpetually under siege and as a result any criticism sees them cuddling together as though they are allergic to criticism and as though criticism is reserved for other mortals in society.

I found the story in the Sowetan on August 15 about the sexual scandal of the warder and policewoman, with the explicit photographs, highly unacceptable. Indeed, cheating is anathema. It is detested by many, although possibly it is committed by an even larger number of people.

So the issue is not to debate the moral issues of the incident, which are a subject fit for Sunday sermons. What is the issue is the manner in which this story was carried by the Sowetan at the expense of the people in the story. Much of the reaction was focused on what images like that do to society, as though society was the primary victim, when the primary victims were the two officials.

From this arises the question of peer review in the media as a suitable mechanism to ensure that such poor reporting is dealt with. IsiZulu has a saying for the manner in which the Sowetan published the article—ukuqhuba intwala ngewisa, meaning to kill a flea using a knobkerrie. Even attempting to speak out against this injustice by the media is, to use another idiom, farting against thunder.

Could it not be said that Zapiro, and by extension Sanef, his guardian angel, underestimated the gravity of rape when he depicted the president, with the help of ANC officials, preparing to rape Lady Justice, just as Miyeni possibly underestimated the gravity of necklacing?

What are the contexts in which freedom of speech is permissible or not?

Back to the issue of the two officials whose pictures were put on show—was this not a violation of their constitutional right to privacy, never mind whether the act was immoral or not?

Perhaps the Sowetan and Sanef need to tell us what public interest is served by scandalising the two. Before one is misinterpreted, it should be stated that it was abominable that the two officials did what they did, especially inside government-owned property. And, to add to this, serious action ought to be taken against them—there is no doubt about that.

The administrators of the hospital building where this act allegedly took place must take appropriate action. But where infidelity is concerned, the appropriate measures must be left to the spouses of the two officials. They need to make decisions without the consequences of public exposure.

The two individuals were treated in an inhuman way; it reduced them to animals. Even those most concerned about morals in society, such as Christians, must be wary about throwing the first stone. Jesus Christ himself cautioned against sinners condemning others in public.

If we say we have no sin in us, we make him a liar because we mean he died for nothing. It was only in private after the hypocrites had failed to take up the challenge that he without sin should cast the first stone that Christ questioned the woman who was accused of sexual infidelity. He then forgave her, because he had come to die for sinners like her, and cautioned her not to do it again, saying “go and sin no more”.

What moral code informs the Sowetan and Sanef, whose silence on such issues raises questions about their role regarding the interests of those beyond the media institutions?

Even our African culture, which partly informs our laws, is against such a ruthless and reckless exposure of sexual conduct in public, particularly where no crime was committed.

On whose behalf or public interest was the story, which sold the paper until there was not a copy left on the shelves by midday of the day on which it was published?

While the media is outspoken on the need for integrity in the exercise of political power and the relevance of the peer review mechanism within the African Union, it seems the thrust of peer review as a principle is anathema among the media establishments. This explains the kneejerk response that saw Miyeni fired.

As the two victims of the report bit the dust, the Sowetan had the audacity to tell the nation that it had smiled all the way to the bank. Profit-making at the expense of two powerless and defenceless souls—this must be a new low in our democracy and we collectively must be ashamed. The woman’s dignity and pride, her womanhood, was shredded during a month celebrating women’s dignity.

If the behaviour by the two officials was believed to be criminal, for instance, a violation of public decency, why not lay charges and have the courts deal with it, instead of what was analogous to a kangaroo court?—which is what the notorious necklacing was, after all.

Phillip Musekwa is an ANC member from Tshwane

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