Media plays games with abuse

Agnes Odhiambo

In the aftermath of the acquittal of Jacob Zuma on charges of rape, Kwezi, his accuser, disappeared from the public space.

She was spirited out of the country and there were no more screaming headlines. The media put her on the public stage, and like all actors, she vanished to the backstage.

In a newspaper interview she said: "I haven't spoken out before because I did not want to be part of the games-playing that I saw happening through the media. I see myself being described and defined by others. The media, the defence, the judge. I see analysis and judgment from all sides."

Kwezi's case raised the question of media ethics, the role of the media as a catalyst for social change, and how it deals with cases of gender violence.

We heard less about the manner in which Kwezi, and any other victim of rape whose case may attract such media attention, becomes a serial victim because of "trial" by the media, the public and the justice system. This is the point that Kwezi seeks to make in the quotation above.

In Kwezi's case, a series of reports and counter-reports followed, projecting the victim as undecided.

Consequently, a private experience became a public subject.

Sensationalism took over rational and responsible reporting and seemed to infect even the court process.

When Kwezi's sexual history was bared in court, it was a deliberate and orchestrated public unclothing of a woman without any consideration for her dignity.

The symbolism was taken a step further by the members of the public tearing underpants for the entire world to see their chastisement of the woman.

Of course these were on the newspapers' front pages. The media could not have colluded more in this perpetuation of victimisation.

The trial was a reminder of the good and the bad that media can do even when it presupposes to serve public interest.

Kwezi became carrion for media as scavenging reporters indulged in all manner of speculation.

In a society where women are victims of sexual violence, the media in this case should have formed part of an ongoing debate about how to rectify the social ill.

It should have broadened its coverage of gender violence and defined what this case was all about: a serious violation of human rights and a woman's dignity.

As we celebrate 16 years of the 16 days of Activism against Gender Violence, the media should introspect on these issues, develop and implement policies that will guide reporting gender violence. Such violence is against universal human rights, which media everywhere are naturally expected to protect.

l Agnes Odhiambo is the HIV-Aids, Gender and the Media programme manager at Gender Links.