The camera’s eye can be a force for good
Philosopher George Santayana famously suggested that "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." The spectre of the censorship of violent protests therefore begs an interrogation of our recent history.
The SABC recently decided that it "will not show footage of people burning public institutions like schools in any of its news bulletins with immediate effect. We are not going to provide publicity to such actions that are destructive and regressive."
In 1985 law and order minister Louis le Grange stated that the apartheid government was "concerned with the presence of television and other camera crews in unrest situations which proved to be a catalyst to further violence".
The state broadcaster in democratic SA appears to have reached the same conclusion as the apartheid government — keep violent protests off screens and they will disappear.
Service delivery protests have always had a violent bent and this is increasingly the case. Since 2004 — when major service delivery protests broke out — most resulted in damage to property. In 2016 86% of protests qualify as violent compared with 84% in 2015 and 75% since 2004.
While there are many catalysts for protests most recently controversial councillor candidates typically the tinder is provided by very real grievances. In Hammanskraal last week alleged councillor corruption appears to have fuelled the violent opposition to evictions. Until there is universal service delivery the protests will not disappear.
Protests have become a fixed feature a recognised social phenomenon of the political landscape. The associated violence has profoundly negative implications for communities through the destruction of property the disruption to people’s lives and livelihoods and the criminal and xenophobic actions that sometimes result.
There is some evidence of copy-cat behaviour — burning tyres are routinely used as barricades and passing cars are stoned — but these actions date back to before democracy. So-called "poo protest" tactics from the Western Cape surfaced briefly in some Buffalo City protests but have fortunately not become entrenched.
The torching of schools is a new and horrifying phenomenon not yet common in service delivery protests although university buildings have been torched. Schoolgoing children are often prevented from attending schools but this intimidation is usually not broadcast.
An SABC blackout is likely to have a limited effect. Gone are the days in SA when the state broadcaster almost exclusively controlled news images and information on social unrest.
The SABC is powerless to control one of the most significant forms of media used in protests across the world: social media. But it is nonetheless supremely arrogant of the SABC to presume without debate and consensus from Parliament and the public how news coverage is interpreted.
There is no definitive link between protests and news coverage. Our Hotspots Monitor relies on media sources for most of our database entries and has blind spots in under-reported areas especially in rural areas such as those in the Eastern Cape.
Their anecdotal reports suggest that protests will take place regardless of whether they are covered by the media. Experience from the most repressive censorship during apartheid confirms that aggrieved communities will protest whether or not they make the news.
There is evidence that media attention can alter the course of a protest. Cameras may well spur protesters to more drastic action to draw attention to their plight. But reportage of violent protests may also erode public sympathy and act as a deterrent as it may provide evidence for prosecutions. The destruction of Vuwani’s schools was not caught on camera suggesting that those responsible wanted to avoid association or prosecution.
The prosecution of people involved in riots and looting in the UK in 2011 shows how important media footage can be in clamping down on criminal behaviour and in deterring future occurrences.
The absence of the media’s gaze allows for the abuse of power by the police while managing protests.
A good journalist observing a protest brings important observations and analysis to the public’s understanding. The use of visuals can be even more powerful in this role. Censoring journalists makes us all the poorer in our grasp of the tribulations of our fellow citizens.
The SABC’s concern about violent protests misguided as it may be is correct in asserting that action is required successfully to manage protests and the risk of violence.
There are clear actions that should be taken before during and after protests.
It is imperative that there is a national response to protests that does not include censorship. Attending to grievances proactively as sought by Gauteng’s Ntirhisano War Room is a useful way to "stop the tyres from burning" as argued by an official. However this requires a co-ordinated approach to tackling grievances as they arise.
Regulating protests as provided for by the Regulation of Gatherings Act would also help mitigate violence by channelling protest action in a co-ordinated and constructive way. Pre-arranged outlets for protest would assist overstretched public order police to target their resources where they are most needed.
Policing during protests needs to focus on protecting all — especially foreign nationals and their property which have become easy targets for looters and may attract criminals to support and escalate protests. Media attention is again a useful check and balance to monitor poor behaviour by protesters.
The effective prosecution of transgressing protesters is a crucially important measure to deter destructive protest activity. Footage of protests is useful in securing prosecutions and in providing the public with images of what happened. It is likely that this will not glamorise or promote further protests.
If history has taught us one thing it is that out of sight is not out of mind.