Reporter’s Notebook

How reporting on sexual harassment can become an ethical quagmire

By Rebecca Davis 1 June 2018

Photo by Cactusbeetroot via Flickr

While the West has been gripped and horrified by #MeToo revelations since the movement went viral in October 2017, it seemed to take a while for South Africa to catch up. With the exception of singer Jennifer Ferguson’s rape charge against football administrator Danny Jordaan, there was a period when the campaign’s direct influence locally seemed to be restricted to anecdotal experiences shared on social media. Now that’s changing – and with it comes a whole raft of challenges for journalists and the public.

There’s an argument to be made that South Africa has never not been in a #MeToo moment. A country where a former president was tried for rape cannot be said to have not been reckoning with sexual violence and toxic gender relations for quite some time.

Indeed, it’s possible that a reason why the #MeToo movement seemed to fail to gain traction in South Africa in the same way as it had in the USA initially is because accusations of sexual misconduct against powerful men are nothing new here, and never required a hashtag to be brought to public consciousness.

Yet in recent months, something has shifted. City Press has published a series of #MeToo exposés dealing with men in the creative industries, including film director Khalo Matabane and art curator Mark Coetzee. The Mail & Guardian has attracted a mixture of plaudits and concern for its reporting on sexual harassment allegations involving top male leaders at civil society organisation Equal Education.

At Daily Maverick, meanwhile, at least three #MeToo tip-offs have landed in our inboxes within a single week. There is a sense that South Africa’s #MeToo moment has arrived, and that it is the responsibility of local journalists to follow the example of our American peers and expose the sexual harassment all too often hidden behind the doors of corporates, NGOs, and creative studios – rather than just political offices.

But as we are rapidly learning, this is not straightforward stuff.

For one thing, none of the tip-offs Daily Maverick has received thus far has been brought to us by the victims of sexual harassment themselves. Instead, they have been reported by concerned outsiders: people within the same industry, for instance, who have caught wind of what they perceive as an injustice and wish to see it exposed.

There is technically nothing wrong with this – much news gets broken in this way. In the case of sexual violence or sexual harassment, however, it is generally held that the privacy and needs of victims be respected as much as possible. When it comes to a perceived sexual harassment cover-up in the workplace, for instance, it is sometimes the case that the desire to keep things quiet stems not from the perpetrator or his employer, but the complainant.

Should a journalist proceed with such a story in the wider public interest, but potentially at the expense of the anonymity of the victim? Even when names are not explicitly printed, it doesn’t take long in a society like ours for details to spread unofficially.

And the reasons why women (or men) might seek to keep their sexual harassment complaints under the radar are not hard to fathom: we know that they face the possibility of personal intimidation, the questioning of their motives and history, and the threat of attracting a reputation as a “difficult” employee.

Then there is the question of the motives of those who seek to bring allegations of injustice to light. In all journalism, these motives have to be scrutinised – even when dealing with as outrageous an abuse of power as sexual harassment. One of the factors which has made the Mail & Guardian reporting on Equal Education controversial has been the suggestion that one of the journalists involved had a personal axe to grind.

But the flipside of this is that an atmosphere of intimidation can be created in which journalists or whistle-blowers become fearful of exposing genuine wrongdoing due to the potential personal backlash. On Wednesday, a local group called the NGO Feminist Caucus released a statement expressing “grave concern” at the victimising of the Mail & Guardian journalist who broke the Equal Education story, warning that it played into the hands of those attempting to maintain a “culture of silence” in the NGO sector. This is a real concern.

When reporting on abuses of power in the NGO sector in particular, journalists also have to be prepared to withstand the sometimes weighty consequences of their reporting in the current climate. In the case of Equal Education – an NGO which inarguably does valuable work in the education sector – two donors have reportedly already suspended funding.

This is not a surprising response, when it comes to international funders worried about reputational risk. More questionable, however, was the Western Cape Education Department’s immediate suspension of Equal Education’s work in Western Cape schools (a decision since walked back, pending an investigation). In that instance, it is impossible to ignore the Western Cape government’s historically fraught relationship with the NGO for reasons completely unconnected to the sexual harassment scandal.

A question that also needs to be asked by both journalists and the wider society is as follows: What is the appropriate punishment for someone in a position of power who has abused their trust? What should happen to such a person – and this bit is crucial – beyond being held accountable by the relevant laws or internal disciplinary proceedings?

This is a question Daily Maverick has been grappling with this week. We were brought a story about a senior attorney in a prominent human rights law NGO who had been found guilty of sexual harassment via an internal process, and subsequently allowed to resign. It was suggested to us that (a) he should not have been permitted to resign, and rather should have been dismissed in a highly public fashion; and (b) that he had subsequently been covertly rehired by the same NGO in a “consultant” capacity.

The second allegation was arguably the most concerning aspect of this case. The NGO in question acknowledged to us that there were rumours to this effect doing the rounds, but denied them.

The confusion, they said, arose from the fact that the attorney in question was continuing to act for clients in a high-profile social justice matter. But it was the clients who had insisted that the attorney be retained, due to his experience and skill, and the fact that he had taken on their case at a time when it seemed a lost cause. It was they, rather than the NGO, who were paying his legal fees.

As for the suggestion that he should have been dismissed rather than permitted to resign: the NGO says it dealt with the sexual harassment complaints swiftly, instituted disciplinary proceedings and found him guilty. The perpetrator indicated that if he was dismissed rather than being permitted to resign, he would launch a legal challenge. To take this route, said the NGO, would consume more of the “significant amounts of human and financial resources” the matter had already demanded.

This man could not be said to have escaped accountability. Disciplinary proceedings had been instituted against him by his employers, he had been found guilty, and lost his job.

Yet in some quarters, this will not be considered enough. A more public shaming will be felt appropriate: to “send a message” that such abuse in a particular sector will not be tolerated. A feminist activist suggested to me that what some people want in these cases at the moment is effectively a “social death” for the perpetrator in question – and a professional death as well.

In an op-ed published by Daily Maverick earlier this week, it was evident that NGO Sonke Gender Justice was also grappling with this issue.

Do we have a legal and ethical obligation to issue an announcement and name the person found guilty in a disciplinary hearing so they don’t move on to another job in the social justice sector and harass people there too?” Sonke Gender Justice leaders wrote.

Should we track where someone convicted of harassment works and alert any new employer to their prior misconduct?”

Implicit in these questions is the possibility that a harasser can never reform his ways, and will continue to repeat his abuse in each new position. The potential for rehabilitation – once a central tenet of social justice thinking – appears to be increasingly dismissed.

What role should the media play in a climate like this? For too long powerful men have escaped both scrutiny and accountability for wrongdoing, and few of us would want to be complicit in helping to shield and protect perpetrators of abuse.

Yet in situations where workplace processes have already harshly punished someone for sexual harassment, are there compelling reasons for journalists to pile on social opprobrium by bringing that story into the public glare?

These are difficult questions. As journalist Pearlie Joubert wrote in a powerful op-ed on Daily Maverick recently, reporting about sexual abuse in some ways makes reporting on corruption look like a piece of cake. But they are questions which have to be considered and debated – in the interests of ethical journalism, but also in the interests of social justice. DM

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