This week, the South African Broadcasting Authority (SABC) showed news reports across its channels about police brutality which occurred during a “service delivery” protest in Ficksburg in the Free State. The manner in which it was covered by SABC’s different television services raises number of key issues.
Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) welcomes the decision by SABC to give such prominence and attention to the death of a citizen following an incident of police brutality. Nevertheless MMA is concerned about discrepancies in how the story was reported.
Each of SABC’s main evening news bulletins led with a report which showed violent footage of a man being beaten by police officers. It is understood that he was also shot during this incident and died as a result of his injuries. MMA believes that footage of extreme violence and brutality should only be shown where there is a clearly identifiable public interest and only then in limited circumstances. This view is supported by the Broadcasters Code of Conduct, as well as SABC’s own editorial policies.
In MMA’s view, both primetime news bulletins on SABC 2 and 3 complied with their editorial commitments “to use some form of audience advisory to give advance notice when violence is to be shown.” For this they are to be commended. However SABC 1’s news bulletin, which was broadcast half an hour later, contained no advisory warning. MMA strongly condemns SABC 1’s failure to warn viewers in advance.
SABC’s editorial policies make very clear it will only broadcast images of violence “if they are needed in order to portray legitimate information or context” and that it must ensure that it “is justifiable in the context of the SABC’s functions and purpose.”
In introducing the news report SABC 3’s anchor gave context to what had happened, and made clear that it was an incident of police brutality. MMA believes that there are legitimate and strong public interest reasons for reporting on this case and using the extremely violent footage.
It is arguable that SABC 2 and 3 showed only enough of the violent images as was necessary to tell the story. However, MMA is concerned that SABC 1 went too far in broadcasting the moment when the victim finally fell to the ground after being beaten and shot. Neither of the other bulletins chose to show this particular footage. MMA believes it was gratuitous and unnecessary for SABC 1 to do so.
MMA is also concerned about the way in which a grieving woman was portrayed in all of the news bulletins. SABC’s editorial policies maintain that ‘broadcasting [a person’s] displays of grief should be kept to a minimum.” The policies explicitly give guidance on this issue saying that “a wide shot of someone being comforted is less intrusive than a lingering close-up shot of someone who is obviously distressed.” MMA believes SABC 2 and 3 especially ignored their own advice, when they showed footage of a woman who was clearly in distress for almost six seconds.
Finally, MMA is concerned that SABC may have left itself open to an accusation of bias. All of the journalists reported that these were ‘service delivery protests’. Two officials were accessed, the Mayor and the Premier. However, no where in any of the bulletins, was anyone interviewed to put forward or explain the reasons for the protests or to give their reaction to the police brutality experienced. By this omission each of the reports, “distorted or gave wrong or improper emphasis” to one side, in this case that of the public officials. In this way SABC again violated its own editorial policies.
MMA is concerned that the valid public interest reasons for publicising such an overt human rights violation may have been undermined by the broadcaster’s clear inconsistencies in reporting the incident. We call on SABC to apologise to the viewers of SABC 1 for failing to warn them about the extremely violent and disturbing footage. We further call on the broadcaster to explain why there was such a significant ethical discrepancy in how this story was reported on SABC 1. Finally, we would also welcome assurances that they will not fail in this manner in the future in respecting their editorial policies.