Sex workers in South Africa, and around the world, are doubly vulnerable, firstly because of their job which exposes them to a myriad of risks, including rape, HIV/AIDS and even slavery. They are vulnerable, too, because they engage in illegal activities, which opens them up to exploitation by police and other parties. It is therefore not surprising that the police are alleged to have ‘attacked’ a sex worker. The Sowetan (18 Jaunuary 2007, p1) and The Star (18 Jaunuary 2007, pg 3) are to be commended for covering stories of this particularly vulnerable group of people. Sowetan went a step further and even followed up the story (Sowetan 22 January 2007, p5). However, the Sowetan’s coverage story, further abused the human rights of this already vulnerable woman, by showing her face when her life is apparently already in danger.

The article alleges that police persons made death threats against this woman. This woman was then attacked, allegedly by police force members. A police spokesperson denied police involvement in the attack. In spite of the risk of another attack, the Sowetan (22 January 2007, p5) did little to protect her publishing her identity, which was clearly not in her best interest. It is not clear if she consented to be identified, but considering the state she in which she was photographed (seemingly unconsious) it is not likely.

The media has a duel role in their reporting on abuse stories, firstly, they have the role to inform the public that abuse has or may have occurred and then they have the obligation to protect the identity of the victim. This obligation is a legal one, but is also backed up by ethical codes, both of the individual media and the codes adopted by the Southern African Newspaper Editors Forum (SANEF). Instead, the Sowetan carried a gruesome bloody colour picture of the woman still laying on the pavement where the alleged attack took place. No attempt was made to preserve her dignity or identity despite the risk posed by identification of her. This risk is general, in that she may be abused in future as it is clear that she is vulnerable, but in this case, it is more specific as she has allegedly received death threats and may be subject to harrasment by the police by virtue of the allegations she has laid against them.

On the positive side, both The Star and Sowetan covered the story, which is of interest to the public, as police brutality is doubly dangerous and unacceptable, because of their position of responsibility. In addition, the language in the Sowetan story is mostly praiseworthy, maintaining the use of correct terminology, mentioning that police persons had ‘allegedly’ assaulted her. However, the article refers to the alleged sex worker by the less preferred term ‘prostitute’. It seems from the story that it is not clear that the victim is in fact, a sex worker. It also bears mentioning, that the Sowetan (23 January 2007, p4) followed up this story and approached Police Commissioner Jackie Selebi, for comment on the progress of the case, however, the manner in which it was reported has made a already vulnerable person more vulnerable.

The Sowetan erred in two ways, in their manner of reporting and the way in which she was photographed. It was not necessary to publish colour close up pictures of the victim and it did not add to the story. It is not the powerful in society that require protection, but the vulnerable, the media failed to protect the human rights of this vulnerable woman in a compromising situation. Coverage which compromises the rights of anyone, regardless of trade, social status, gender, race or creed is can never be condoned in a human rights-based society.

By Sehlaphi Sibanda and Sandra Roberts