Opinionista Herman Wasserman & Sean Jacobs 5 May 2011

It is time to be offended

Andries Tatane’s horrifying death at the hands of South African police in Ficksburg elicited the reactions it did mostly because of the in-your-face power of television footage. Yet the scores of other incidents of state brutality evoke little more than a few breakfast tut-tuts. The media’s threadbare excuse for it euphemistic reporting under the guise of not causing offence is irresponsibility verging on hypocrisy. By HERMAN WASSERMAN and SEAN JACOBS.

If the murder of Andries Tatane was a watershed moment in public perceptions of state violence after apartheid, it is also teaching us a thing or two about our media.

Had this police murder happened in Tunisia, Egypt or Libya, we would probably all be glued to our TV screens, praising the BBC or Al Jazeera for their coverage in bringing images that brought home the extent of the oppression in those countries and the bravery of protesters.

What do we do in South Africa?

Mostly elites complain about the SABC showing violence on television, insert “allegedly” before “killed” in news reports, denounce the protesters as “mobs” (as the Sowetan did) and conduct nonsense polls on newspaper websites to find out if the police brutality really was brutality. TimesLIVE (that’s the website of The Times and Sunday Times) ran an online poll on its site: “Were the police justified in killing the Ficksburg protester?” This was one of the lowest points in the reporting on Tatane’s death over the last few days. Who thought this was a good idea to publish a poll asking whether the police were “justified in killing Tatane”? Was there no editor on duty that could point out that there could be no possible situation in which the beating and shooting of an unarmed citizen by his own police force could be seen as “justified”?

It’s noteworthy that Tatane’s killing was brought to us by traditional media – the much-criticised and chaotic SABC at that. Just as Al Jazeera proved one of the most insightful platforms for reporting on the pro-democracy protests in the Middle East and North Africa.

That Tatane’s death elicited the reactions it did – unlike other injuries and deaths sustained in the almost 8,000 protests over the last six years – was probably partly because the SABC was bold enough to broadcast the shocking video of Tatane’s murder.

It would be interesting to research the extent to which the protests themselves were organised via new media technologies. Twitter and Facebook were unlikely to play a big role and access to smartphones, while growing, is not yet widespread enough among the majority of South Africans. However, chances are mobile phones were probably instrumental in organising the protesters (the Sunday Times on 17 March published Tatane’s last SMS to his wife, asking her if she would join the protest). Twitter and Facebook did, however, play a role in amplifying the news of Tatane’s killing to the middle-classes, who can now no longer claim they didn’t know of the war being waged against the poor in post-apartheid South Africa. Those of us who don’t watch SABC heard of the footage via Facebook and Twitter and watched it on YouTube.

But what Tatane’s death also brought to light, was how the mainstream media’s narrow understanding of journalistic conventions such as objectivity and of social responsibility as not giving offence can hamper its ability to portray the realities of this country in the stark colours needed to bring about social change.

Media Monitoring Africa criticised the media for violating Tatane’s privacy and dignity by publishing an image of him “as he lay in the arms of a man, who was clearly stricken with grief”. The MMA’s ongoing concern for the dignity of news subjects is legitimate, but its application of standards of privacy in this case is questionable in the light of the importance of the image in terms of reframing dominant narratives of protest in the mainstream commercial news media. Where their criticism is especially misguided is what they seem to regard as an unnecessarily graphic portrayal of violence which might shock and traumatise viewers. MMA criticises Business Day, Daily Sun and Sowetan for making “no effort to protect the public, including children and sensitive readers, from exposure to violent and traumatic imagery”. Here the MMA displays a narrow understanding of ethics as being primarily about not giving offence, instead of upholding a larger value system with regards to the media’s role in a democratic, transitional society. The argument in favour of publishing a shocking image such as this one is not merely a “consequentialist” one (to argue that the pain caused to individuals may be justified in terms of the good consequences it might hold for the majority of the public), but can be seen in terms of meaning-making. The shocking image might be crucial in bringing the media-consuming public to a deeper understanding of the nature of our democracy, the right to freedom of expression and how power operates in post-apartheid South Africa.

An acquaintance, a close observer of South African politics, has suggested this is one of those times when the pictures and video footage of Tatane’s violent death could galvanise reform or dissatisfaction with the direction the ANC is taking. Tatane’s death may become an iconic image like those of a Saigon police chief, who collaborated with American occupiers, arbitrarily executing a Vietnamese nationalist during the Tet offensive, a desperate Tunisian fruit seller setting himself on fire, a necklaced Askari or the Mozambiquan immigrant Ernesto Alfabeto Nhamuave who was set alight during the xenophobic violence in South Africa in 2008.  “All these images go to the core of stories that are tough to explain in 500 words,” he said in an email.  “I would think that someone in Waterkloof Ridge eating their Weetbix and reading a Pretoria News story about bad local councillors in Ficksburg won’t bat an eyelid, but an image of Tatane’s death may convey the sort of anger brewing across the country.”

It appears Tatane had attended media studies classes at the University of Cape Town and Wits, but never graduated. Such was his faith in the media that he reportedly started his own newspaper, “The Voice”. The greatest dignity the media could afford Tatane after his death is to let this voice be heard. It is time for the people of South Africa to be offended. DM

Herman Wasserman is professor of journalism and media studies at Rhodes University in Grahamstown. 

Sean Jacobs is assistant professor of international affairs at The New School in New York City. They both contribute to the blog, Africa is a Country.

CORRECTION: Please note, a mention of Rodney King crept into the blurb during production. This has now been removed, as it was not part of the original column, or the authors’ argument. The Daily Maverick would like to apologise for the error, and emphasise that it was in no way attributable to the writers of this column.


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