Many people have been angry on social media about the fact that newspapers immediately publish the names of people who have been murdered, once they have been identified, but do not immediately publish the names of the men (mostly) accused of the crime.
Why do these men get such protection, is the understandable response.
In some ways it is to protect the accused, in case they are wrongly accused. Rape and murder accusations can destroy people’s lives, and we need to be careful that the right person is the one who gets ‘outed’ by the media.
Imagine if you were wrongfully accused of a crime, and your picture and name were all over the newspaper and social media – that could mean the end of your life as you know it. We are innocent until proved guilty – this is enshrined in the constitution.
So the law has to be fair, and protect people’s rights until they are absolutely sure that the right person is in court. Only once the state is sure that they have the right person, and the person has been charged in court, can their name appear.
However, this rule does not only protect the perpetrator. It can also be an important factor to ensure that the case does not get thrown out – and that justice is indeed served.
Often trials rely on witnesses who see what happened and then come and tell the court. If there was someone who saw a man – let’s call him Baddie – commit a crime, then this witness needs to identify Baddie in an identity parade (where people are lined up and the witness points out the person who they recognise.).
If Baddie’s name and photograph has been viewed on social media or printed in newspapers or aired on TV, then Baddie and his lawyer can say that the justice process was not fair: the witness saw the Baddie’s picture in the newspaper or on social media, and so that is how they know Baddie’s face.
If this happens, then it is possible that the law cannot use that witness’ evidence – and that could mean that Baddie the criminal goes free.
It is also not only the accused who get the protection. Rape victims are not named at all in trials, unless they choose to release their identity.
And, if the name of the accuser will show who the victim is – for example, if it is a family member, then the name of the accused will be withheld (held back, not released) as well to protect the victim.
So these rules are to ensure that the trial is fair to all. And if the accused is guilty, then we need to make sure that the trial is fair and effective so that he can receive the sentence that he deserves and that justice can be served.
The anger we feel against the perpetrators of these crimes is justified. The incidence of gender-based violence in South Africa is one of the highest in the world. Too many South African men are raping and killing women and girls.
However, to stop this we need to focus on holding our government and police accountable, challenging society attitudes that enable the abuse of women – and not to demand a change in this particular aspect of court procedure.
This law is there to protect the victim as well and to ensure that there can be justice for everyone.