I wonder if any of you saw this article in yesterday’s Telegraph concerning a photograph that appeared on Facebook that depicted a white man holding a rifle, kneeling over the apparently lifeless body of a black child. As may be imagined, the story still has currency in the South African press as investigations continue. Leaving aside the unpleasant nature of the photograph the incident has some ramifications for social networking here and possibly elsewhere around the world.
The individual responsible goes by the nom de guerre, Eugene Terrorblanche, a play on the name of Eugene TerreBlanche, the murdered Afrikaner Nationalist leader. It would appear that the photograph was actually taken in 2007. ‘Eugene’ apparently paid the child to pose for him. The photograph came to the attention of the Knysna Police in 2007. The incident was investigated without further action being taken.
Now, the case having been reopened, there seems to be a difference in emphasis espoused by various interested parties. The police have said that the incident is not so much about race as about potential murder. Others prefer to concentrate on the racial, or rather I should say racist, aspect of the photograph.
The incitement of racial hatred is a crime in this country as indeed it is in most other countries. I imagine that given this country’s history and its current demographics, the laws are possibly more draconian here than they are elsewhere. According to this article, “The authorities have suggested that everyone party to the posting – including those who have seen the picture – could face prosecution and, if convicted, a jail sentence.” As a result of this threat, a number of Eugene’s friends have blocked him. (Of course there is a possibility that until all this publicity, they were unaware of the photograph’s existence and only unfriended/defriended/blocked(?) him as a sign of disgust. But, why spoil a good theory?)
The point is that given stringent hate-speech laws, individuals can, via social networks, be easily and unwittingly, tainted with the crimes of their associates. If one of the Charioteers were to write a post that advocated racial or religious hatred, homophobia, domestic violence, child abuse etc, under South African laws, anybody who read it without reporting it is guilty of a crime in this country.
Speaking of domestic violence, it is taken very seriously in South Africa, with justification. So seriously that the law itself is open to abuse as was made apparent in the most recent issue of Noseweek (South Africa’s Private Eye). A seemingly otherwise innocent man had a restraining order taken out against him by a scorned girlfriend on the basis that he had threatened to delete her from his Facebook account. I know it sounds ridiculous, but there is very little, if any burden of proof required on the part of the woman. If she claims to be afraid that she will be subjected to violence, police and magistrates are empowered to come to her immediate aid by issuing interim protection orders without prior notice to the accused person. In this case the man’s name and reputation have been severely damaged. He lost his job and it cost him a significant amount of time and money to have the order lifted. But the stigma (and record) is there. I cannot show you the actual article, but here is a letter from the Editor.