This morning the Weekend Post broke the news that Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi has been accused of rape by an unknown woman. The story quickly spread across social media as various news organisations ran their own versions of the recent allegations to plague the beleaguered (and often controversial) Vavi. Journalists’ coverage of the allegation have brought up ethical questions around the reporting of sexual violence.
Within hours of the news breaking, Cosatu issued a statement* explicitly naming the woman who accused Vavi of rape. Legal advisor for NGO Women’s Legal Centre Sanja Bornman said Cosatu’s publication of the woman’s name was problematic.
“It’s very disappointing that an organisation like Cosatu, that fights for people’s rights, would expose her in this manner,” she said.
Exposing the woman also raises serious questions about the trade union organisation’s commitment to creating safe work spaces for women, if this is how it chooses to respond to sexual violence allegations against its boss.
Shortly after Cosatu released its statement, AFP southern Africa news editor Andrew Beatty tweeted* the woman’s name. When challenged on Twitter about his publishing the woman’s name, Beatty responded: “Most cases you’re right, but she’s an adult, making claim against prominent individual not only to police, but within public org.” When accused of unethical behaviour as a journalist, Beatty “respectfully” disagreed.
Beatty appears to have come to the conclusion that, when an accuser names a prominent man as her rapist, she automatically forgoes any need for protection or a right to privacy. Several prominent news organisations disagree with Beatty’s assessment, however.
The South African Press Code quite clearly differs, stating: “The identity of rape victims and victims of sexual violence shall not be published without the consent of the victim or in the case of children, without the consent of their legal guardians and it is in the best interest of the child.”
This stance isn’t limited to South Africa, where sexual violence is rife and survivors are at exceptional risk. The Poynter Institute has grappled with this issue for over a decade, and the results of these discussions have overwhelmingly been that it is unethical to publish an accuser’s name without their consent. Ethics expert at the Institute Kelly McBride put it simply:
“Why don’t we name rape victims? Because of the stigma. Because rape is a unique crime that inflicts shame and blame on its victims. Because research shows rape victims are already unlikely to report the crime — and most rape victims say they would be less inclined to pursue legal justice if they thought their names would be published.”
AFP competitor Associated Press also explicitly directs their journalists to refrain from naming accusers in sexual assault stories:
“We do not generally identify those who say they have been sexually assaulted or pre-teenage children who are accused of crimes or who are witnesses to them, except in unusual circumstances. Nor do we transmit photos or video that identify such persons. An exception would occur when an adult victim publicly identifies him/herself.”
In the above examples, the accuser’s permission or consent is a requirement for the publication of her identity in news media.
Sexual violence researcher and expert Lisa Vetten said that had journalists obtained permission from Vavi’s accuser to publish her name it would be a different matter, as in the recent Johan Kotze case. Rape survivor Ina Bonette was publicly identified after she gave several interviews about the case against her husband – who was recently found guilty of the kidnapping, rape and assault of Bonette, among others.
Weekend Post journalist Kathryn Kimberley, who broke the story of the rape accusations against Vavi, confronted Beatty by tweeting: “I spoke to complainant and she asked not to be named. Respect that!!!” Kimberley later said she had it in writing that the woman did not want to be named. “She wanted the matter to be handled internally with Cosatu before going to cops because she knew the publicity it would attract,” Kimberley said.
Considering this, it’s clear that, by tweeting the name of Vavi’s accuser, Beatty violated commonly held journalistic standards and ethical codes with regards to the publication of accusers’ names in incidents of sexual violence.
Vetten also strongly criticised Beatty’s publication of the name of Vavi’s accuser.
“Have journalists learnt nothing from the Zuma matter? The issue is being used to settle a political score. This is the same issue but with a different face,” she said, referring to the 2006 rape trail against now President Jacob Zuma.
“Journalists are politicising the issue [sexual violence] for men, I repeat, for men’s political game. It’s men’s battle for political power where women’s bodies are the canon fodder,” Vetten said. “I can see we’ve got another circus in the making,” she added, again referring to the Zuma rape trial.
Kimberley said Vavi’s accuser was likely to open a criminal case now that her name was published. If this woman does in fact open a criminal case against Vavi, the conversation about naming her will not only be one of journalistic ethics, but also of South African law.
Beeld journalist Pauli van Wyk responded to Beatty on twitter by pointing out that naming a complainant or accuser in a sexual violence case is strictly illegal. Vetten confirmed van Wyk’s claim: “It’s illegal, end of story.”
“In terms of the Criminal Procedure Act, it is a criminal offence to name a complainant,” Vetten said, explaining that, due to the nature of sexual violence cases, complainants are often at risk of intimidation. “It’s such a stigmatised position, and more often it’s the victim that is vilified, to the extent of receiving death threats,” she said, adding that even in a best case scenario, publishing the woman’s name was an infringement of her right to privacy and dignity.
The Jacob Zuma rape trial was nothing short of controversial, not least of all because of the death and rape threats directed at the woman who made the accusation. Once the woman’s identity was made public, Zuma supporters burnt pictures of her outside of court while chanting: “Burn this bitch.” While Zuma was eventually acquitted of the rape, the woman still lives in self-imposed exile, too afraid to come home to South Africa, Vetten said. This was also confirmed by sexual violence activists involved in the 1in9 campaign, who said that while the woman’s name wasn’t published in the media at the time, she still lives in exile as a result of ongoing threats against her life.
Despite quite an extensive search of the AFP website, I have yet to find any trace of a code of ethics for AFP. While this might explain Beatty’s behaviour were he a cub journalist, his position as a senior journalist and editor makes his publication of this woman’s name nothing less than a worrying and appalling ignorance of press ethics and critical debates within the profession.
While Beatty may be under the grossly mistaken belief that his behaviour was not unethical, journalists and ethicists have long ruled actions such as his are just that.
*I have intentionally refrained from linking up to Cosatu’s statement and Beatty’s tweet in order to protect the identity of the woman who has accused Vavi of rape.
[EDIT: Grammar, spelling, typos etc.]
Please see the below list for journalism organisations (some well-known, others obscure) that direct journalists not to name sexual violence victims and accusers without their express permission, or to only reveal their identity with extreme caution:
- Hurlburt, Mary Kate. 2011. “To name or not to name? That is not the question: an examination of journalistic standards and ethics in media rape coverage.” Stanford University.
- South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) [PDF]
- Associated Press
- South African Press Council
- Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma
- News media guide for victim service providers
- News Broadcasting Association (India)
- Michigan State University School of Journalism – Victims and Media program
- Journalists’ Union of Belarus
- Charter of Duties of Journalists (Italy)
- Journalists’Code of Practice (Cyprus)
- Society for Professional Journalists