Shocking visuals – will the real editor please stand up?

Tshwane violence 1

Too shocking to watch? A public bus torched in Tshwane during violent demonstrations against the ANC’s choice of a mayoral candidate in local elections in August. Five people were killed in the protests.

AN ENCOURAGING outcome from SABC boss Hlaudi Motsoeneng’s crude attempt to censor visuals of “bad” news and give South Africans sunshine journalism portraying the ANC in a good light, is the massive outcry against him. Eminent journalists, communications regulator ICASA, the public protector Tuli Madonsela, former SABC board members and even members of the ANC have got involved in combatting his abuse of his powers at the public broadcaster.

Images can be highly provocative, of course, and the media should not be a free-for-all in which any visual, however grotesque, should be aired. Editors face tough decisions when reporting on violence and bloodshed – Motsoeneng, however, is not an editor and should not be making editorial policy.

Responsible media channels are – or should be – careful in how they show visuals which violate the dignity and privacy of people who have gone through terrorist bombings or other traumatic events tearing them apart. Where to draw the line is not a rule set in stone, however – different editors will make different judgments in different circumstances.

Should a bereaved Israeli mother sobbing over the coffin of her murdered teenage daughter be shown to millions of anonymous viewers worldwide? Should a body with its head blown off by a suicide bomber be shown? Most good editors would be careful about how they use such visual material. At the very least, responsible media should give adequate warning to viewers about the disturbing nature of material they publish.

Political agendas may play a role in the editor’s decision and sometimes override considerations of dignity. For example, the shocking images published in May 2008 of Mozambican Ernesto Nhamuave being set alight by a mob in Ramaphosa informal settlement on the East Rand during a xenophobic rampage, served an important role in raising revulsion among citizens and authorities and stopping the attacks – although there have been subsequent similar attacks.

Likewise, the horrifying image – which immediately went viral on social media – of a Syrian boy’s lifeless body washed up on a Turkish beach as thousands of refugees fled the Syrian civil war in rickety boats, played an important role in making people worldwide understand how desperate was the refugees’ plight.

What the SABC has done, however, has nothing to with editorial sensitivity or respect for human dignity. In banning images of mobs burning government and other buildings and property, and claiming that this is to prevent viewers being influenced to do the same, the aim is to prevent people understanding how catastrophic ANC rule has been for this country, and how angry South Africans are about not receiving what the party promised them year after year. When mobs burn down tens of schools in Vuwani, torch public buses in Tshwane, and engage in similar acts, they are expressing their rage.

Sadly, these kinds of violent actions have almost become a norm in South Africa today, where people feel they will only be listened to if they become violent, burn things or kill people. This poses grave dangers to the country. South Africans are in the main extremely generous and warm-hearted, but a poison has taken root in the society. Strong leadership is needed to turn the ship of violence around – or else we will see more scenes like the burning Mozambican.

Motsoeneng is said to be close to President Jacob Zuma and has an interest in protecting him. But it’s incredible that the people running the public broadcaster from whom 7 million people receive their news, still think they can get away with censorship and sunshine journalism in the era of the internet. What kind of bubble do they live in? Hopefully the saga will end with him being fired together with his board of lackeys. Perhaps this saga might even be the tipping point when South Africans say “Enough!” to Zuma and his cronies and their contempt for the law?

(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: geoffs@icon.co.za)

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