What thoughts and considerations went through editors’ minds when they chose to put the horrific images of the beating and subsequent death of Andries Tatane on television and on front pages? With violence a national staple in South Africa, how do editors weigh up what best serves the public interest? By MANDY DE WAAL.
The day started as it had every day since the beginning of March when Jimi Matthews returned to the SABC as head of television news. As usual there was another entry in the diary from one of the regional newsrooms, a planned service-delivery protest. “There have been so many of these in poverty stricken areas across the country, and as per normal a radio and television crew was dispatched to what was planned to be a peaceful demonstration.”
The crew went out, and at 16h00 that day Matthews got a call from the regional editor in Bloemfontein who described what was contained in the footage. This day was going to be different for SABC TV News, because it was the day Andries Tatane died. “The footage was sent to us, and on watching the images I was completely stunned, as was everyone else in the newsroom. I think once we got over the horror of it, we realised we had no option but to show it.”
Matthews says since he’s been back at the SABC, television news has reported on many similar incidents. “In one incident a cameraman was hit by rubber bullets. All of those stories were reported along the lines that a demonstration had turned ugly. That police had beaten up or shot at demonstrators. The report would typically end stating that one or two people had died as a result of the infraction.” Nothing like what the SABC was about to air had ever been caught on film before.
Typically when the SABC requests comment from the police following a bloody end to these service-delivery protests, police say they had no choice but to respond in the way they did. “Here for the first time we had evidence of what our reporters were seeing on the ground,” Matthews says of the footage that shows Andries Tatane being beaten, brutalised and shot. Tatane died shortly after the attack on him.
“We were very careful about the way we edited the images and applied our minds to the SABC’s editorial code. There were many close ups which we decided not to use, but we had to present a coherent sequence of images that captured the horror we all felt,” says Matthews. “The way the public has responded validates my view that it was in the public interest to show this footage and we made the right decision.”
Matthews says there has been a fair amount of disingenuous rumour and speculation about how the decision was made. “There has been talk that we were under pressure not to use the material or that people in official positions were upset. The minute I saw the footage I called Phil Molefe as my line manager to inform him about the nature of the material, because I knew there would be some fallout. At no point did he (Molefe) say we couldn’t run the material. This decision was left completely to me and Mike Siluma of SABC radio. Phil totally supported our decision and at no stage has that wavered, nor has the support of the CEO of the SABC.”
The SABC broke the TV news of Tatane’s death with shocking images, which showed Tatane facing off against water cannons, and then being beaten and shot at allegedly by police officers. We now know Tatane was a civic-minded activist, a family man, a man who loved reading and who dedicated his life to helping pupils in his community better their lives. Tatane’s death will have a big effect on the Meqheleng township in Ficksburg, just as it did on those who watched his death. “There has been an overwhelmingly positive response to our decision to broadcast, and the swiftness with which the police have acted to bring those responsible to book has been gratifying… and I don’t want to use the word ‘gratifying’ in the wrong sense, but there is a sense the decision to broadcast was worthwhile.”
William Bird of Media Monitoring Africa says if the SABC had not aired the story, it is likely nobody would have known about Tatane’s death and the incident may have not gone any further. “The fact the SABC reported on the incident and contextualised it as a matter of police brutality is significant. This was not a service-delivery protest that went wrong. Unless you start to name these issues and say what they are, it looks like yet another protest gone awry. The issue of the police overstepping their mark must be dealt with clearly and unambiguously.”
Bird says he doesn’t have statistical analyses for an increase in incidents of police brutality, but says he has noticed an increase in assaults against journalists while levels of police brutality appear to be on the rise from the work the MMA does. Data from the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation supports Bird’s view. Police brutality seems to be rising to a new high in South Africa.
“It was brave of the SABC to air that footage. The Times astutely picked up on the story the next day, and toward the end of last week everyone had woken up to the story with Sowetan, Daily Sun and Business Day all featuring a picture of Tatane’s friend holding him and apparently screaming up in anguish. Tatane died moments afterwards,” says Bird. “It is an incredibly powerful photograph and if the media used it, particularly on the front page of their papers, it was important to justify the use precisely because the photograph is an invasion of the person’s privacy at a very intimate moment, that of death.”
Bird says The Star and The Times both correctly contextualized the issue as a matter of police brutality. “In Sowetan, Daily Sun and Business Day, the image and story was more focused on the anguish of the friend and the horror that this man was about to die. I am not sure you need to get people to understand that this is an issue of anguish when that is so patently obvious. The issue here is more one of police brutality, and how the police had overstepped their limits.”
Bird says South Africa has a very violent past and present, and the media cannot contribute to the restoration of dignity if they deprive people of this in their most intimate moments of grief, violence and trauma. “If there is no editorial justification it doesn’t restore the person’s dignity and the continual use of violent images only serves to inure people to the pain and violence in this country.”
“Some years back the CSVR did research on election posters and messages that had violent images and messages. The research indicated the more people are exposed to harm, the less likely they are to respond. Yes, there is a sense of being shocked and appalled, but largely the research showed people felt disempowered and were numbed by repeated exposure to violence in the media,” says Bird.
“The media need to be careful not to trade in emotional pornography and wallow in voyeuristic grief. In the Tatane story the issue was not the loss, but the police brutality, and how under-resourced the Independent Complaints Directorate is in dealing with complaints against the police. To shift the emphasis away from this to the emotional pain being suffered by the family verges on emotional pornography,” says Bird, who adds that what is central to this story is to understand why the police have become increasingly violent.
Mail & Guardian editor Nic Dawes says he is not a fan of the use of excessively gruesome images in the media, but that the SABC needs to be celebrated for breaking such an important story. “There are two sets of concerns when weighing up whether or not to use images like those of Andries Tatane dying. The first is for readers – and that includes children – who might see the images, as well as people who are likely to be upset by it. The other concern is for the people depicted in the image. One has to take both into account and ask whether it is in the greater public interest to show the photograph. In this incident it was very clear from a journalistic perspective that it was critical to use the images to illustrate the scale of the brutality used by the police, and to jolt people’s awareness on this,” says Dawes.
“Yes, there is the possibility of desensitising people or taking a ‘gore porn’ approach to news when gruesome violence is not justified, but this diminishes the importance of doing this when it really matters. It is not appropriate, and it is definitely not necessary to do this all the time.” Dawes says that as a journalist it is possible to justify just about any decision, but what is crucial in making these kinds of judgement calls is to step over to the other side of the lens. “You need to put yourself in the role of the victim, in the shoes of the family and in this way you can come up with a decision that reflects the right priorities.” Dawes says making these decisions is extremely difficult, but no less crucial to campaigning journalism.
He says the Tatane photograph and footage lends the matter journalistic purpose in highlighting police brutality. “People are in anguish the whole time and are having terrible experiences every day, but it isn’t justified to splash that on the front page every day. What is justified is that there is a growing national concern about police brutality, but even if this was a once-off event people needed to see what happened.”
Dario Milo, a partner at Webber Wentzel who specialises in media law, says Tatane’s family would have no legal recourse in terms of the use of the footage or photographs. “Once someone has passed away our law takes the view that their personality dies with them, and the estate will have no claim at all in terms of dignity, privacy or defamation. The family has no right to sue vicariously.” Milo adds there is recourse through the Press Ombudsman and the Broadcasting Complaints Commission because of the codes that govern reportage on people who have died.
“It is crucial to balance the right to dignity and privacy with the important public interest that can be served. In Tatane’s case, the public outcry may not have been as potent if the footage or photographs were not shown,” says Milo. “Editors must be sensitive to the family of the deceased and the dignity of the people involved. But it is difficult to balance this with the very raw, visceral effects the photographs may have, and what it could do to mobilise public outrage that causes action to be taken, as we have seen with Andries Tatane.” DM
Photo: South African police chief BheKi Cele listens to a question about World Cup soccer security, during a news conference in Magaliesburg June 10, 2010. REUTERS/Jose Manuel Ribeiro
"A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason." ~ Thomas Paine