When the Media becomes a Weapon of War against Gender Progress
By Pinkie Mekgwe
The Media is two-pronged. As a mediator of information, it has real potential for generating crucial knowledge for the advancement of societies. As such, it can prove an arsenal for the gender-equality and gender justice causes and effectively contribute to a meaningful transformation of myriad lives. In the wrong hands, however, and put to careless, thoughtless, shallow and/or outright vicious use, the media becomes an insidious eroder of the significant victories scored by human rights activists, gender activists, and such like-minded humanists over the years. The latter trend seems alarmingly on the increase with the recent flowering of tabloid media across the globe, and fuelled by the bold, ubiquitous nature of a seemingly ethics-averse new media in the form particularly of U-tube, multifarious and multi-natured blogs, and such like-sites.
Some incidents merit discussion: the case of a photographer who snapped the unassisted, public birthing of a breech baby in Zambia recently, which received interesting comment from Rashweat Mukundu as published on the Genderlinks website (genderlinks.org.za) gives cause for pause. The pictures were disseminated by the Post Newspaper of Zambia, in a bid, as the editor was to later explain, to draw attention to the dismal state of Health Care in Zambia, at a time when Health workers had chosen to go on strike. While Mukundu is convinced that this was a good cause – and I have no quarrel with that – I join those who question the ‘nature’ of the cause. It is crucial that our mode of work be sanctioned by ethical concerns. The Codes of Ethics for Journalists in blanket reference requires particular sensitivity to women and minors, and points to the need always to seek permission of the subject of a photo shoot. Did the woman who painfully gave birth to dying baby consent to her pictures taken? Isn’t she already victim enough already to warrant the parading of her pain, her body, and what ought to have been her sacred, private moment? What about her child, had it survived? Would the grown child have pointed out his birth picture in glee to his friends? What about the other children of this woman, born and unborn? Hands up anybody who wants graphic pictures of their mother, sister, daughter, loved one making the rounds in the hands of the Media? Sensitisation about the grim nature of the Zambia Health Care situation could have been done very effectively without turning a wider public into voyeurs of one woman’s ‘private’ moment of misery. This incident, beyond animating debate, set
While the case above has been subjected to the rigours of ‘regulation’ (the Post News Editor was, on July 13th, 2009 arrested and charged with circulating obscene material – which some have pointed out is but a political ploy) there are too many cases for comfort that do not receive the requisite sanctioning. A number of these have tended to emanate from or go the route of ‘citizen media’ where the regulatory framework is fuzzy at best. Two cases warrant the attention of anybody interested in the media/ gender justice nexus, for the otherwise terrible precedent they set, but also for the lessons that can be drawn from them with respect to the use of the Media as a new form of Gender violence. These are the cases of Elizabeth Wong and Evelyn Ankumah, two accomplished women and indefatigable workers for human rights, based in Malaysia and Ghana respectively. While these are separate cases, I found the similarities across Asia and Africa in this instance uncanny and unsettling.
Wong, 39, was, until her ‘Naked Pictures Scandal’, a respected politician, an Assemblywoman and Executive Councillor in charge of Tourism, Consumer Affairs, and the Environment in Malaysia’s Selangor State, a state marked for being the most prosperous and developed in the country. She was the first politician to win the State Assembly seat for her party, the People’s Justice Party (Parti KeADILan Rakyat – PKR), and with a huge margin of 5000, reportedly the second largest majority won by a PKR candidate. Wong brought a convincingly solid pedigree to the position: involved with human rights issues since her student days, she was one-time Secretary General of the National Human Rights Society and Fellow of the Carnegie Council for Ethics and International Affairs (2002-03), and founding member of the Solidarity Campaign for Human Rights in Aceh, amongst other achievements. An unmarried woman, Wong is reported to have had naked pictures of her taken by her boyfriend, using a mobile phone, who then circulated them on U-tube. The pictures were to make a continuous loop across various websites, and the story was splashed across especially the tabloids in Malaysia. In spite of making clear the pictures were taken without her consent, and were being circulated by a malicious ex-boyfriend; in spite of reporting the matter to the police, the court of Public Opinion was to eventually force Wong to resign her position. Two months after tendering her resignation, however, Wong was recalled by the Selangor government. In May, 2009, shortly after being recalled, a new spate of photographs was posted online, some showing Wong asleep (suggesting, therefore, that she was unaware the pictures were being taken). The price of this invasion of privacy has been rather tall, with Wong expressing that it’s like ‘getting raped everyday’. Still the pictures make the rounds unabated. Where is the ethics and justice in all this?
Ghanaian-born Dutch citizen, Evelyn Ankumah is also currently living the nightmare of ‘media rape’. The Executive Director of Africa Legal Aid (AFLA), a Pan-African Organisation with a big justice footprint that is dedicated to the promotion and protection of individual and collective human rights across Africa ‘and to challenging the impunity of gross human rights violators’ is faced with the reality that the Media can be an indiscriminating vehicle for such human rights violations. In various articles and statements authored and said by Anas Amareyaw Anas, a journalist who has published with The New Crusading Guide of Ghana, Ankumah has been implicated in what has been dubbed a ‘Diplomatic Sex Scandal’. This Human Rights Lawyer who is widely published, has worked on human rights issues extensively in America, Europe, and Africa – and continuous to do meticulous work with the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, scoring very highly in matter of Gender Justice and in particular working against the violation of women’s bodies is being accused in the Media of running a brothel that specializes in servicing Ghana’s diplomatic corps. The evidence? A video-tape that is said to have been disqualified as a fabrication by an imminent media production house. Ankumah has since filed for libel. She also submitted a complaint to MultiChoice Africa against Anas’s nomination for the CNN African Journalists Awards for 2009.
These actions have not stopped the government of Ghana from repealing the agreement that gave AFLA the right to practice in Ghana (thus extending crucial services to Africa, and Ghanaian citizens in particular, even as it was substantially funded by the Dutch government) nor CNN’s ‘recognition’ of Anas amongst the journalists of Africa that are telling ‘good’ stories on the continent. Ankumah’s struggle to reclaim the right of AFLA to work in Ghana, and against her ‘tarnished’ image, has been telling on her seven year old daughters – who have had to be moved from their school – and is likely to prove costly to the valuable Human Rights and Gender Justice work that Africa requires acutely.
The sophisticated new means of violating women, passing for media work, are just that: tools of violence. The perpetrators need to be dealt with as fit, and networks need to rise to the support of the victims. The challenge posed to Ethics, Human rights, and Gender work is clear: our strategies need to metamorphose with the increasingly morphing nature of gender violence, lest all victories scored to date be wiped off as easily as pressing the delete button on any erstwhile computer.