THE BLOG

We Should Name And Shame Sexual Predators -- As Long As It's Legal

The silence must stop.

07/02/2017 13:26 SAST | Updated 08/02/2017 09:26 SAST
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In the workplace.

"If the law protects them [sexual harassers] and says we should not name them, the law is wrong."

This was my statement as a friend of mine and I went back on forth on a WhatsApp conversation questioning the legality of naming someone found guilty of sexual harassment in an internal investigation.

His name is Professor Mtendeweka Mhango and he was the deputy head of the law department at the university until the institution fired him last week. The women who accused him were his colleagues, and his wife worked in the same department.

The scenario:

On Friday afternoon, student publication Wits Vuvuzela, names the guilty professor after a complainant comes forward and tells journalist Aarti Bhana her story.

What preceded the Wits Vuvuzela report:

Eye Witness News (EWN) broke the story two weeks before that, but in that time it did not name the professor even though it knew who he was.

The questions:

EWN did not publish the name, but Wits Vuvuzela did, why? Is it illegal to name him?

The answers:

The simple answer to the latter question is no. According to media lawyer and partner at Webber Wentzel, Dario Milo, what Wits Vuvuzela did is perfectly legal as long as the story is in the public interest and "provided the accused has not been arrested [in which case the criminal procedure act would ban publication until the accused pleads]."

Milo says if the accused in this case wanted to come after Wits Vuvuzela, they would need to prove the story was untrue, unreasonable, or not in the public interest.

To the reporters at the Wits Vuvuzela, this didn't seem like a tough call to make at all. This man was found guilty of harassing three of his colleagues in an environment where he was their senior. This was a matter of public interest because it was happening on their campus and what they were claiming about him was true based on the findings of the internal investigation conducted by the university. If he came after them for defamation, they were ready to take him on that.

Bhana, the reporter who spoke to the complainant who came forward on Friday afternoon says as soon as they heard about the story, they were determined to follow up give the women a voice.

"Once we realised the university wasn't going to name him [for legal reasons], we needed to give her a right to speak." Bhana says.

Bhana says as a woman she understands the silence, stigma and shame that often comes with cases of sexual harassment and other sexual offences. To her it was important for the woman to speak, to overcome that shame and perhaps encourage other women to come forward when they faced such situations.

"It's something that's prevalent in universities, at work and in society at large," she says.

For EWN, however, the issue was a little more difficult. It broke the story two weeks ago and at the time, although the professor's name was known to the team, it was withheld in reports. Thando Khubeka told her colleague Sheldon Morais on Facebook Live, that this decision was made to honour the internal process and also to protect the victims.

Editor-in-chief of EWN Katy Katopodis said the decision to withhold the professor's name was made after consulting legal counsel. Katopodis and her team waited until the legal process was completed before naming Mhango.

"Once the process was concluded, we could argue truth and public interest," she said.

Even though EWN published a story with the guilty verdict last week, it wasn't until Tuesday that a story was published with Mhango's name.

"After the decision was made to name him we made every effort to tell the professor and his lawyer," Katopodis said. They did not respond but it was important to give them this chance.

Should we name and shame or not?

This is not the first time Wits Vuvuzela has made the call on naming staff of accused sexual harassment and perhaps this is what contributed to the easy decision-making. This story was not the first time a Wits professor had been accused of sexual harassment. There were four stories that named the harassers in 2013 alone. The first major story in early 2013 was on a drama lecturer Tsepo wa Mamatu, who was exposed by The Sunday Times.

The first story by "Team Vuvu", as we refer to the team, was published in 2012 and did not reveal the name of the perpetrator. Perhaps that was why there was no action by the university at the time. We redid the story again in 2013, with new complainants and with a name –- Taylor. This time there was action. This time he was fired.

All four accused that year were fired. The university had an inquiry into sexual harassment across the board and policy changes were implemented. The team won the vice chancellor's award for transformation for all the coverage.

Yes, these matters are sensitive and we should consider each matter based on the merits of the particular case. Where a publication is acting within the confines of the law, we should not protect those who do wrong. We should say the names of these men, those with power over the women they work with or teach, because it is our duty to hold power to account.