Putting a person at further risk

2008-02-28 00:00

On February 20, The Witness ran an article entitled: “‘Witch’ accused denies all” about a woman, accused of witchcraft and murder by a community, who fears for her life and who has gone on the run. My problem with the article is that it included a large photograph of the woman in question, as well as her house. Surely this is immoral as it seems to expose her and her family to further potential harm?

The short answer is that the newspaper is not morally justified in publishing the pictures. It is irresponsible of the media to place anyone at risk of harm, regardless of the circumstances. In this case, the woman and her family have already been violently threatened, necessitating her removal from her house and her going on the run. For the woman’s identity and place of residence to be publicised in the newspaper is without merit.

Any invasion of privacy by the media is generally justified only if it is in the public interest. In this case, no genuine public interest is served by publishing the photograph of the woman. The only “public interest” that could be served is either some trivial passing interest in what the woman or her house looks like or the interests of members of kangaroo courts in identifying the woman to further — perhaps fatally — punish her for a crime for which she has neither been found guilty, nor even been criminally charged. No reasonable person could argue that the trivial interest could possibly outweigh the risks to the woman and neither would such a reasonable person be able to justify fuelling the risks to which the woman was exposed.

It could be argued that the community already knows what the woman looks like and where she lived, and hence no further harm would have been brought to her by publishing the information. However, this is no justification. The woman is presumably trying to live anonymously to prevent further threats being made against her. Multiple future harms are conceivable. For instance, future employers may recognise her and be reluctant to employ a woman accused of witchcraft.

This is an interesting case in demonstrating the distinction between the law and morality. There may be no law against publishing those pictures, but it is undoubtedly immoral. Newspapers do not publish the names of criminal suspects before those people have had an opportunity to appear in a court of law. This is because of the prejudice such people could suffer. While the law might not cover people suspected by the community of committing a crime, but who have not been formally charged, the moral sentiment behind the law is the same: to protect such people from punitive and unsubstantiated claims causing them further harm. This reason must be even stronger in cases where the person’s life is already acknowledged to be at risk.

While most of us know that the media ought to be balanced, fair, non-defamatory and accurate, there are special ethical and legal provisions for protecting vulnerable members of our society that are often ignored by the media. They are tricky cases because covering stories of vulnerability and harms suffered is a stock feature of the media. As this example shows, what matters is less that the story is told, but how the story is told: for instance, whether pictures are used or whether language implies an endorsement or not of the causes of their suffering. In the search for a sensational story, journalists may forget the humanity of their subjects and, in casting them as figures of suffering, may fulfil the very story they write.

Complaints about the print media can be addressed to the Ombudsman within 10 days of publication to: www.ombudsman.org.za or www.ombudsman.org.za or 011 788 4829.

Complaints about broadcast media can be addressed to the BCCA at www.bccsa.co.za or www.bccsa.co.za or 011 325 5755.

• Everyday Ethics is a column dedicated to responding to readers’ questions regarding ethical dilemmas and queries. Responses are written by members of the school of philosophy and ethics at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Opinions are offered to stimulate thought and discussion. E-mail your query to EverydayEthics @ukzn.ac.za or fax it to 033 260 5092, marking it “Everyday Ethics”.

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