Stuart Knott vs TimesLive

Complainant: Stuart Knott

Lodged by: Stuart Knott

Article: SA’s xenophobia shame: ‘burning man’ case shut

Date: 22 April 2015

Respondent: Susan Smuts, legal editor of the TimesLive

Complaint

Knott is complaining about graphic pictures on Times Live of 19 February 2015 of a man who had been burnt alive. The story was headlined SA’s xenophobia shame: ‘burning man’ case shut.

Knott complains that TimesLive should not have published pictures of gratuitous violence with no warning, block or provision for the public. “I did not wish to see this yet I was not given a choice… I feel terrible for the man who has died and wish to know more but pictures that are this gruesome should have a warning…”

The text

The report was about a xenophobic attack on Mr Ernesto Alfabeto Nhamuave in Johannesburg in 2008, who had been burned alive. The story said that the Police had closed the case due to lack of evidence – while the reporter claimed that he had such information.

It was accompanied by graphic pictures of the dying man.

The first picture was taken immediately after the police doused the flames on his body. He was still supporting his torso – but died soon afterwards. Then, in the second slot, a warning was published, followed by two pictures of the man in flames.

Analysis

Smuts says that TimesLive’s main responsibility is to bring news “[a]nd the news itself can be very brutal”. She adds that the publication amended the story slightly, using the photograph of Nhamuave after the flames were put out as the main picture, followed by a warning to readers that the pictures might be disturbing. “The ones of him burning come after this warning.”

The legal editor argues: “Although the first picture that readers will see now is also distressing, we believe it is the information associated with the picture that makes it so, namely that he was burned alive and died from his injuries, rather than the picture on its own.”

In a second reply, Smuts adds that the publication’s efforts to warn readers about the graphic nature of the images should in no way be seen as an admission that it had breached the Press Code. “We were merely attempting to respond sensitively to a complaint by a reader.”

She concludes: “If a photograph can galvanise a community or the relevant authorities into taking steps to bring killers to justice or to tackle the underlying problems that led to the attack, then the public interest in using them will outweigh the sensitivities of our readers. Furthermore, these particular photographs were widely published throughout South Africa and beyond in 2008, and it will be a rare reader indeed who has not encountered them before.”

Knott replies that the amended image was still extreme, clear, graphic, brutal and intended to shock. “It is not necessary for the story and still would not be something that I would like my children to see. As this is on a public website with no age restriction [the pictures]should be optional.”

He says he appreciates that the publication wanted to point out that the victim had died in an inhumane attack that should rock every South African to the core. “But I disagree that the manner in which they wish to do it is by brutalizing every South African with gratuitous images of his charred corpse… Have the pictures there. Make them available. Make more images available for more articles. Just have a warning and let the person[s]decide for themselves what they need to see to understand the brutality of humanity. The news is brutal [but]we don’t have to be brutalized just to stay informed. We need to try and keep our humanity and compassion even in the face of these very troubling times.”

My considerations

I have been given the edited version for adjudication. It seems that the first version was not accompanied by a warning. If that was the case, the publication has already corrected it.

I therefore take into account that the first picture was followed by a warning (when clicking on the second icon), before the other pictures appeared.

Smuts’s argument, that it was the information associated with the picture that made it distressing “rather than the picture on its own” is quite odd. Like everything else in journalism, context matters. The story is about the dying man, and the picture(s) accompanied it. Readers would most certainly not have interpreted the picture in isolation.

Also, the fact that news can be brutal does in itself not give a publication carte blanche when reporting on such matters. That is why Section 9 was included in the Press Code. It reads: “Due care and responsibility shall be exercised by the press with regard to the presentation of brutality, violence and suffering.”

The argument that the photographs in question were widely published throughout the country and beyond in 2008 is also not convincing. Two wrongs do not make a right (if indeed the publication of the pictures in 2008 was wrong).

However, Smuts’s conclusion is telling and persuasive: “If a photograph can galvanise a community or the relevant authorities into taking steps to bring killers to justice or to tackle the underlying problems that led to the attack, then the public interest in using them will outweigh the sensitivities of our readers.”

I also take into account the current wave of xenophobic attacks, which adds to the justification of such reportage.

Only one issue remains: Should the publication have blocked out the man’s face?

This is a tricky issue which has many facets. For example:

·         The press should not only take the public interest and the sensitivities of readers into account, but also those of the deceased’s family and loved-ones;

·         If a relatively unknown person is killed in a motor accident, it would not be the same as when (say) the President is murdered (the vivid pictures of Dr Hendrik Verwoerd in 1966 spring to mind).

In this case, I also have to note that the incident took place seven years ago, which does make a difference to the issue at hand as the lapse of time might in all likelihood have softened the family’s trauma. It still would have been preferable, though, if the man’s face had been blocked out.

Finding

Having weighed up all of the above, I am ruling that public interest outweighed the sensitivities of the readers, and that the family and loved-ones might have been less traumatized – given the seven years that have expired since the incident took place. The pictures were indeed extreme, clear, graphic, brutal and intended to shock – but this does not breach the Press Code by default.

The complaint is dismissed.

Appeal

Our Complaints Procedures lay down that within seven working days of receipt of this decision, either party may apply for leave to appeal to the Chairperson of the SA Press Appeals Panel, Judge Bernard Ngoepe, fully setting out the grounds of appeal. He can be contacted at Khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.

Johan Retief

Press Ombudsman