'Words don't kill, but can inspire evil'
Avusa Public Editor: Depending on where you stand or are willing to stand, this is the most disastrous week in South Africa. The dream of a Rainbow Nation lies in tatters after the killing of Eugene Terre Blanche.
I choose to see it as a test for our young democracy to prove its mettle. So far it has shown it is not built on shifting sands. We would all help a great deal by avoiding public speculation and letting justice run its course.
This brings me to the touchy subject of the responsibility of the media in reporting such potentially explosive matters.
Now, the word responsibility has been so abused by politicians in relation to the media that it has become a swear word. Its vulgarisation gained momentum during former president Thabo Mbeki's administration.
The government and politicians love to argue that the media are irresponsible and unpatriotic because they report on stories that show them and the country in a bad light.
But is it asking too much of the press that they exercise restraint and be careful not to fuel passions when covering such potentially explosive stories as Terre Blanche's killing and the reaction to it? Is it self-censorship when they do so? I don't think so.
Journalist and author Gavin Evans, responding to The Times editor's blog on Terre Blanche's death, correctly cautioned against describing the killing as a murder, as many did.
"Can we really be certain, before any evidence is led, that this was not a case of self-defence? After all, to put it mildly, Terre Blanche had a history of violence. The claim that he was sleeping came from a family friend - a claim that will no doubt be tested in court.
"In any event, surely talking about murder after two people have been arrested is contempt of court?" Evans asked.
Ray Hartley, outgoing editor of The Times, agreed: "We do not have any idea of what actually happened in Eugene Terre Blanche's house. And there are some big unanswered questions. We need to wait for the facts about what took place to be aired by all parties and then subjected to a proper legal test."
Andrew Trench, editor of the Daily Dispatch, warned against at-tempts to blame Julius Malema by linking the killing to his insistence on singing Shoot the Boer.
Trench remembers how, prior to Chris Hani's murder in 1993, there was "a concerted effort by the state intelligence community to plant stories in newspapers demonising him. "That experience has made me nervous when people attempt to demonise others."
His message "to choose our words and headlines carefully in the coming weeks, because, while words don't kill, they can inspire evil", hit a chord with me. I hope they resonate with the rest of the media.
Trench sent a memo to staff urging special caution when dealing with stories linking Malema to Terre Blanche's death, given inflamed passions. The memo says:
- "Please ensure that our language in reporting on this is neutral and not in any way inflammatory;
- Please watch wire copy and copy from other sources very carefully for language that may be inflammatory;
- Our headlines and picture selection must be considered very carefully;
- We must be cautious of any commentary, leaders, cartoons or readers' letters that could be seen to further inflame these feelings and views;
- We need to have rigorous monitoring of comments on blogs discussing this matter and need to actively moderate these comments so we are not seen to be contributing to a rolling wave of hate speech in our community. "
Is he not worried that his careful approach, which has the support of his staff, might well cost the newspaper sales? "I'd rather sell fewer papers than be doing things that get this country tearing its own throat out," he responded.
I agree with Trench's noble approach and found Zapiro's specu-lative cartoon in The Times on Tuesday especially problematic.
It showed two men fleeing the bloodied Terre Blanche house with the radio saying: "The ANC insists Kill the Boer is a metaphor." The one man asks the other: "What is a metaphor?"