An incident in Grahamstown recently has severly challenged this view.
On 17 February 2009 local Grocott's Mail ran with a front page picture of a third year student. Above his head read the headline "O-week [Orientation week] aftermath" with the subhead of "o-week celebrations turned ugly as a third-year student is arrested for rape".
The story went on to tell the dramatic tale of a first year student who was raped last week at a local pub by this third-year (whose name was revealed). Nowhere was the word 'alleged' used. His picture was posted all over Grahamstown to sell the paper. And sell the paper Grocott's did. Nothing sells a paper like sex and controversy. And this story had both.
Although the controversy was glossed over... the first three stories in the paper were about the incident and not one of them told his side of the story. Even the story on his bail hearing went without us actually hearing from him.
Ok, fine, if he is a rapist then the bastard must suffer. But... what if he's not? What happened to innocent until proven guilty?
The real story?
The newspaper not offering much, I started asking around. People who had been there or knew people who had been there said that there had been blood in the bathroom, a broken toilet seat and a broken sink and that he had been caught red-handed.
Other accounts, however, say that he wasn't caught red-handed. The managers had stumbled in on the aftermath. And the blood wasn't necessarily her blood.
Someone who personally knows the guy vouches that he would never do such a thing, that he isn't that kind of a person. Someone who is in residence with his sister says she has been completely ostracized and victimized.
Maybe he is guilty, I'm not saying he's not. All I'm saying is that there are many alternative possibilities: rough bathroom making out that she didn't intend to go so far? Sex she was ashamed of afterwards perhaps? Possibly it really was rape - in the middle of a crowded pub on a Friday night. But there is a possibility it was not. A possibility that the media has a duty to allow (even if they don't investigate it).
What happened to innocent until proven guilty?
I have a moral problem with what the newspaper did. His face, plastered around town, will stick in everyone's minds. Even if he is innocent, he and his sister will have to leave university, his life will never be the same (especially if the newspaper's online edition picks up the story and the picture). Sure, a free press is great. And yes, the media does have a duty to hold people accountable where the law might fail. But this does not mean compromising on ethics... and it does not mean that the media now has a right to be anyone's judge and jury.
Today Rhodes sent out an email to all their students:
the student accused of rape, as there is insufficient evidence at this
stage. Both of the students who are involved are receiving support.
Something I wish the media had done.
UPDATE: RHODES UNIVERSITY PRESS RELEASE REFLECTING MY VIEWS (<3 RHODES)
20 February 2009
RHODES UNIVERSITY CALLS FOR SENSITIVE HANDLING OF RAPE ALLEGATIONS
Rhodes University has noted with displeasure the sensational manner in which some of the media have reported on the alleged rape that occurred last Friday involving two of its students.
The University is particularly concerned with those news reports that have not only featured the story as a front page lead article but have displayed photographs of the alleged perpetrator equally prominently.
The distress is not so much about reporting the matter, a right which we believe must be defended, but about the way in which the news is framed to suggest guilt before judgment is passed by the courts, with neither regard to due process of the law nor sensitivity to the rights of the accused.
As an institution that holds in high regard the freedom of speech and democratic principles as enshrined in our constitution, we believe in the freedom of the press as much as we believe in media responsibility and obligation to fairness and just reporting.
While rape is a gruesome violation of human rights and one of the most troublesome challenges our country is facing, we are duty bound to remain sensitive to both survivor and alleged perpetrator and to allow the investigation and legal processes to take their course before passing judgment.
This is particularly important given the difficulties inherent in the investigation of allegation of rape.
We need to note that the South African Police investigations, which must be respected, are still continuing.
On its part, the University has looked into the matter and has arrived at the conclusion that at this point in time it does not have sufficient evidence to proceed with internal disciplinary action.
We appeal to the broader community to be mindful of the fact that both students concerned are still on campus. They need our support and to be treated with compassion and respect while we allow justice to take its course.