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Gender Sensitive Reporting On Sexual Violence: Some Get It Right While Others Get It Woefully Wrong


The media is a trusted link between society and what happens within and around it, therefore, as a medium of information distribution it is bound to have an impact on  the society. It therefore has a responsibility to report truthfully and appropriately at all times. Rape and sexual abuse are heinous crimes that impact the core of one’s dignity.This paper provides a brief summary of how rape and sexual abuse crimes are portrayed in three Zimbabwean papers - Bmetro, The Herald, and Southern Eye as reportedbetween January and March 2015.

 Zimbabwean media tends to trivialize, dramatize and misrepresent cases of sexual violence. Although some papers exercise their social responsibility and do indeed condemn this social ill, the language that is used tends to be playful and dramatic such that the issue ends up being lost in the theatrics.This paper argues that although significant strides have been made in fighting against sexual crimes; there still remains inequality between men and women in society as the media tends to give a ‘voice’ to perpetrators of crimes as opposed to the survivours. This paper thus,focuses on both traditional media and the tabloid press.

The role of newspapers in light of unequal power dynamics must be to sensitively present the plight of victims not to revictimise them through ridicule and victim blaming. Zimbabwean newspapers tend to marginalize victims by not affording them a chance to give their testimonies in the same way that the rapist or abusers often are. Presenting the testimonies of the perpetrators or suspects humanizes them and invokes empathy in the reader hence the need to prioritise the victim’s testimony over that of the perpetrator.

For example, in Bmetro of 16 March, the article title ‘I only inserted my finger on her privates’ validates the claim by the accused that the crime was not an act of sexual violence as there was no penetration. In its chosen title, the newspaper does not condemn the act of inserting the fingers; it treats it as an acceptable defense, as though inserting fingers in a child’s genitals is not a crime. The same portrayal is used in a number of stories from the same paper as rapists either claim that the victims consented or that they were in love with them. Similarly, in the Southern Eye of January 12 “Man rapes niece 11, promises her mangoes” the rapist claims to have “only fondled” the victim to make her smile.The act of fondling is not rebuked,but is reported as a normal conduct which is not problematic.

This paper argues that, giving testimonial room for criminals does not only maintain male dominance but also silences the victims by not giving them space to provide their own testimonies, and also reduces the gravity of the crime as the testimonies, often cavalier, given by the rapists decentre those of the victims. For instance in Bmetro on the 23rd of March, the article “Man intoxicates, rapes neighbour’s wife”, the rapist claims that the act of rape was consensual sexual intercourse as he had earlier taken the victim out for a beer binge and she had consented to payment for sex. Such testimonies are unfair to the victims of rape and sexual abuse as they drive the reader to accept the act of rape as a simple act of sexual intercourse between consenting parties. These testimonies also appeal to the public’s sympathy in favour of the criminal because they justify their actions and question the victim’s claims and morality.

Language is manipulative as it can be used to create and uphold certain beliefs about the act of rape, the victim or the rapist. Some papers refer to rape or sexual harassment either as sex adventure, sleeping together or a game. In Bmetro’s article (11 January), ‘Kids raped while others watch’ the paper states that the rapist was discovered after the girls told the teacher of their ‘game’, while in the same publicationon 23 January, it is stated that the rapist hatched a plan where he could play ‘the adult game’. The use of such words does not only trivialise the crime but also raises questions in terms of social responsibility of news reporting in Zimbabwe. Portraying rape as a game or adventure, especially when it involves the harassment and abuse of a minor, is reckless and unjust. It’s the same as claiming or maintaining the fact that the minor consented.

Tabloids tend to shift the blame from the abuser to the abused by providing information that the victim exposed herself to danger by either walking at night, drinking with the rapist, or being left alone with strangers. The Bmetro of 11 January has an article titled ‘Man rapes dancing mate as patrons watch’ that justifies the rapist as it claims that the victim danced in a suggestive way and she is said to have caressed the rapist’s manhood.

Harare based paper, The Herald, however, is an example of gender sensitive reporting as in most instances it uses terms such as ‘rape’, or ‘alleged rape’ in its reporting. Examples of this are the January 5 article titled ‘Nine year old raped, infected with HIV’ where the paper rightly refers to the incident as ‘rape’ and ‘alleged rape’, as well as a January 12 article titled ‘Motorist rapes 11 year old girl’.  The explicit use of the terms ‘rape’ or ‘alleged rape’ highlight the non-negotiable seriousness of the crime.

In conclusion, one can surmise that there is a small difference between the way the traditional media reports on sexual harassment and the way the tabloids do. It also questions the way in which Bmetro dramatizes the stories of rape and questions if newspaper portrayals of sexual harassment crimes are ethical and in line with the Zimbabwean norms and values.  In the course of coming up with catchy headlines that sell papers, newspapers negate their social responsibility and also perpetuate social inequalities.