Media Attention Needed for Cyber Abuse

rights violence Social Media GBV 16 Days
Monday, 28 November, 2011 - 09:20

The South African criminal justice system should deal with cases of gender violence in the same way it dealt with the case of the ‘Facebook rapist’. The country should acknowledge the seriousness of cyber crimes by including them in the national statistics

Facebook, the world’s most popular social network with over 750 million members, has become an everyday feature of modern society, allowing users to stay connected with people from all across the globe. However, the relative ease with which it is possible to become ‘friends’ with total strangers on the social networking platform has resulted in some women becoming victims of cyber crime.

The media attention given to the notorious case of South Africa’s ‘Facebook rapist’ may have finally woken people up to the possibility of social networks as dangerous places. The case also showed that the wheels of justice can move swiftly when they want to. Perhaps the notoriety of the case itself, and the resulting public eye, stimulated the quick actions of the justice system. This is not usually so. During 16 Days of Activism, many survivors of sexual and domestic violence will voice that most gender violence receives hardly a passing glance.

Thabo Bester, otherwise known as the Facebook rapist, was relatively unknown in the public domain until stories began to emerge in newspapers and on television about a man in his twenties, operating behind the guise of a modeling scout on Facebook, who had been conning young women of their possessions. The robberies escalated to sexual assault and even alleged murder. After a brief cat and mouse chase, police finally arrested him on 21 September 2011 in Alberton, Johannesburg.

The courts convicted Bester on two counts of rape and two counts of robbery with aggravating circumstances, sentencing him to 50 years in prison on 14 October 2011. Although he pleaded guilty and faces further trials on charges including rape and murder, it is remarkable how efficient the South African criminal justice system can be, don’t you think?

A 2010 study led by the Medical Research Council (MRC) found that in Gauteng Province, home to South Africa's most populous city of Johannesburg, more than 37 percent of men said they had raped a woman. Nearly seven percent of the 487 men surveyed said they had participated in a gang rape. Yet, a Human Rights Watch country report in the same year states that “arrest and conviction rates of rape perpetrators are extremely low.”  The denial of justice for victims likely contributes to the normalisation of violence against women in South Africa.

Another MRC study on sexual violence in 2005 found that only one out of every nine rape survivors report the attack to the police. Furthermore, a 2007 report by People Opposing Women Abuse (POWA) found only seven percent of those one in nine reported rape cases resulted in successful convictions in court. Moreover, of that seven percent, only five percent reach the high court for proper sentencing. These statistics certainly present a very bleak picture of the justice system.

While sexual assaults have been a worrying trend in South Africa long before online social networking took root in society, its apparent that there’s a need to have a close look at these new forms of potential abuse. By including cyber crimes in the national crime statistics report, society could be provided with a gauge to assess the prevalence of this particular form of crime, and whether it is increasing or not. In terms of addressing cyber crime, the “Take Back The Tech” campaign is an excellent example of civil society taking up the initiative to educate women about protecting themselves from cyber violence.

However, until all stakeholders do more to inform and educate users (especially women and children) about the dangers of social networks and the Internet, the World Wide Web will continue to be exploited by individuals aiming to attack, victimise and endanger others. Media remains essential to the public dissemination of accurate and well-researched information about cyber crime.

However, it is equally important for the media to report on all kinds of violence against women in a manner that challenges gender stereotypes, instead of promoting them, and includes more diverse voices. The Gender and Media Progress Study conducted by Gender Links in 2010 found that women feature less often than men as sources when reporting GBV, even though women are more intimately affected. Furthermore, survivors of GBV constitute a low proportion (15 percent) of all sources on the topic. Despite the high incidence of GBV in South Africa, stories mentioning GBV account for only three percent of the total number of stories.

Better reporting on GBV requires more than just greater quantity, it also requires a move away from sensationalism and simply reporting “hard news” to adding more depth to stories. For example, media and journalists could greatly enhance their stories by including the voices of those affected, information on response and support structures, and activists opinions.

Although it is not necessarily the duty of the media to influence matters of the court, it would certainly be naïve to underestimate its critical role in raising public awareness about GBV. Cyber crimes will almost certainly continue to feature in this fast evolving information and digital age, and while the coverage of the so-called Facebook rapist undoubtedly raised awareness of the problem, more in depth and thoughtful reporting on the wider issues is needed, as it is with all forms of GBV.

Ticha Tsedu is an Intern working with Gender Links. This article is part of the GL Opinion and Commentary Service series for the 16 Days of Activism.

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