The flood of comments on Twitter and other social media platforms around Oscar Pistorius highlight the extreme dangers of unmediated social media.
One of the most basic precepts of law is that a person is innocent until proven guilty. Allied with this is the concept of audi altarem partem - you have to listen to both sides of the story.
And those who are tweeting with such delight and thoughtless impunity should remember that they are probably guilty of publishing defamatory statements for which they can be sued.
None of us knows, yet, what sparked the tragedy at the Pistorius home early this morning. All we know is that it cost the life of Reeva Steenkamp. Her family and loved ones must be devastated and all of our hearts go out to them in this moment of tragedy.
Pistorius has been arrested and will be charged with murder. That is the normal process of the law. He has to face charges, he has to be charged with the most severe offence as, unless they charge him with murder now, they cannot add that charge later.
None of this means that he is guilty.
The facts still have to be proved
He may be - but it is not proven yet. The two poles are that it was a dreadful accident and he shot his friend by mistake thinking she was an intruder; or that he shot her deliberately. Only a police investigation followed by a court case will determine what actually happened.
All of us who use and consume social media need to be careful. South Africa's Constitution contains a Bill of Rights, which protects all of our dignity. It is based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations.
So to tweet; "Let's face it he is a murderer" and "he is going to jail" certainly undermines his dignity in a way that is actionable if he is not guilty.
Our civil law, as in the rest of the world, makes it an offence to defame somebody. Defamation has to be "published". You can think it - but the moment you say it to someone else you have "published".
There is no doubt that tweeting, or commenting on Facebook or anything else is publication - and you can be sued for what you say.
It is for this very reason that a newspaper editor, for example, is legally responsible for every single word published in her/his newspaper - including the advertisements and the letters to the editor. Publications can be sued - and are - for publishing defamation.
So, for example, the Press Council of South Africa has extended to its remit everything that is published on newspaper-owned websites - including the comments added by their readers. They are now treated exactly the same as readers' letters.
It is noteworthy that today News24 closed its comment section on the Oscar Pistorius issue. They are acting to protect themselves from the comments made by their readers.
Gossip could get you gaol
Sooner (I hope) or later someone is going to be sued for what they say on social media. That will be a good thing. Some of what is said (not only about Pistorius) is deeply objectionable, racist, sexist, ill-informed and untrue crap.
Freedom of speech is literally something for which people have died - and it has been worth the sacrifice. But it comes with responsibility. It is reprehensible to gossip and convict without knowledge and facts.
One of the brands which featured Pistorius in their advertising was tearing down their billboards today - that is shameful. They said they were doing so out of respect for the Steenkamp family - but they are convicting him along the way. Their actions are precipitate.
I really hope that if he is innocent in this tragedy, the gleeful gossipers and character assassins will hang their heads in shame.
Social media is a wonderfully enabling tool.
The internet has made all of the world's knowledge available to all of us instantly. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, LinkedIn; etc have given us new ways to connect and share instantly - let's use it positively.
(By the way before I get accused or defamed on Twitter: I have never met Oscar Pistorius. I am not a friend of his; nor am I an apologist for him.)
Peter Mann is a founder of Meropa Communications (www.meropa.co.za) and has been CEO since 1989. He worked for most of South Africa's major newspapers as journalist for 15 years before that. He is a member of the South African Press Council appeals panel; and a trustee of literacy NGO READ. Tel +27 (0)11 506 7300, email , follow @petermann, and connect on LinkedIn.
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Peter, please explain what you mean by "unmediated social media"? That sounds suspiciously like an oxymoron. Unrelated, your presumption that News24 closed its comments section to protect themselves is trite and betrays poor journalistic form (you did verify this Media24, did you not?) Your accusation of the Pistorius sponsor's motives for removing its billboard advertisements ("they are convicting him along the way") is spurious and falls into the very same category you accuse Twitter commentators of. The double-speak is astonishing.
Your otherwise sensible piece is senselessly punctured by these appalling gaffes.
I couldn't agree with Peter more! It's amazing to me how people in general persecute public figures before a court of law has ruled on their guilt or innocence. Let's wait and see what evidence is brought to the court and let the law take its course.
There is one instance of your argument that I can't agree with. M-Net is a brand and so is Oscar Pistorius. They have every right to recall their campaign featuring Mr Pistorius and indeed they have an obligation to their brand to do so. Whether Mr Pistorius is guilty or not, in the mind of the viewing public, he will forever be linked to this horrible tragedy and by association, everything linked to him will be tainted in some way. Do you honestly believe, we at home could now see a tv, radio or magazine ad featuring Oscar Pistorius and not automatically think about Reeva Steenkamp being shot four times in the head and body? Is that the kind of branding any self-respecting business on earth would stand behind? The answer is obviously no.
If it were your intention to include the jokes that are doing the rounds (you were very circumspect in offering any specifics), I say to you forget it, plain and simple...NOTHING will or can stop the greatest gift to all of mankind...a sense of humour.
His rights? Really? We can't hear both sides of the story because one side has been silenced forever. It is 'politically correct' bs arguments like these that enables abusers to do what they want and betray women like Reeva Steenkamp. Speak out and don't condemn those of us who have been through similar experiences when we do. Last time I checked facebook status updates and tweets didn't kill anyone, bullets on the other hand............ Let's not forget who the real victim is here. Stand up for what you believe in and to Hell with the rights of mysoginistic cowards.
Its shocking...how people are so quick to judge as if they are God, until the court has proven he is guilty no one knows what was the motive behind the tradegy. I feel for the girls family...may her soul RIP, for Pistorius even if he can be found guilty at the end we have no right to judge him...only God has a right to judge....
I couldn't agree with you more. I could not believe, for example, Dianne Kohler Barnard's Facebook status early yesterday, which was: "Awful news: Oscar Pistorius has shot and killed his girlfriend..." As a politician, ex journalist, and shadow minister of police for the DA, she should surely know better and set a good example. I left a comment but it was ignored. I am not saying Pistorius is not guilty, but at this stage and according to South African law, he ALLEGEDLY shot and killed his girlfriend. If someone with Dianne Kohler Barnard's background and position so clearly does not know that, I guess it's hardly surprising so many other people don't.
There is no "alleged" about him shooting and killing. He has made a statement already that he shot and killed her. The circumstances around how that came to be will be revealed through the judicial process. However information released by the police spokes person and the prosecution's decision to charge him with premeditated murder point to strong evidence. It is natural for people to speculate.
There has recently been a case where a defamation charge for a social media post was upheld and care should be taken not to risk being charged but discussion of the case in social media is to be expected.
Peter I agree. You've simply highlighted on this tragically sad day, how easy it is these days, through irresponsible social media actions & comments, where presumptions, assumptions and opinions are aired by all and sundry - based on NO FACTS at all & where we don't have the full story - someone can virtually be tried and convicted through public "opinion". We can all fly the flag of "freedom of speech", "own opinion", "our rights" etc,...but who gives us the right to judge without facts? Who gives us the right to publicly determine another's guilt or innocence before a court of law has ruled? Because some "assume" he's guilty, does that give them the right to destroy a life with words and unfactual, public opinion,...OR make them any less guilty of a crime? Let's wait and see what evidence is brought to the court and let the law take its course as Shadi Chauke said earlier. This is a tragically sad & devastating day for both the Steenkamp & Pistorius families. Let's show them some compassion. We are hearing from family living internationally of the damage this incident has done to SA's reputation on crime, violence and accessibility of weapons, ..and it is sad, so very sad.
Uumm seriously? Did you read what you just wrote?! Why is it that everybody is entitled to voice their opinions in this matter, but Peter Mann must keep his opinions to himself? Talk about double standards
1 . - unless they charge him with murder now, they cannot add that charge later - rubbish !
2 - Defamation has to be "published". Indeed, but it must also be untrue and have the effect of lowering you in the eyes of your peers and be quantifiable.
3 - he is going to jail" certainly undermines his dignity in a way that is actionable if he is not guilty - Rubbish, his defense is Culpable Homicide, and in fact fits Murder, in that the required dolus in this case may be eventualis, but if not found guilty of murder, and found guilty of culp, he is going to jail, and his facts are culpable.
4. our Bill of rights was never based on the international declaration of human rights.
Perhaps you should ask yourself, if you think our courts should send a message to South Africans, that it's ok to shoot through closed doors in your home, when you are not alone, without calling out to make sure first, because that would be the net effect of a not guilty verdict.
Now, the trial may not have happened but he has laid out his facts, which cannot change.