In his address at the Presidential Summit on Gender-Based Violence and Femicide last year President Cyril Ramaphosa said that gender-based violence is ‘a crisis that is tearing our society apart and is an affront to our shared humanity’.
This violence extends into the digital sphere too. As Takalani Netshitenzhe, Chief Corporate Affairs Officer for Vodacom Group, says: 'Gender-based violence is a societal challenge that requires collaboration from all South Africans, and Africans. Whether young or old, men and women, whatever race, rank, age, gender or social class, and more especially in the digital age, gender-based violence knows no borders.’
We spoke to Johannesburg-based social media lawyer and child rights activist Diana Schwarz about the role social media can play in encouraging gender-based violence and discrimination and the laws around that.
Social media and the law
‘In South Africa, most people seem to think that the right to freedom of expression allows them to post whatever they like. This is incorrect as our Constitution has a limitation clause that weighs up one constitutional right against another. One person’s right to freedom of expression cannot be used to trump upon another’s right to privacy or dignity,’ Diana explains.
‘Men need to be aware that sexually inappropriate social media posts or other derogatory posts about women, whether in jest or not, contribute to gender-based violence and discrimination,’ she continues.
In addition, if your employer finds the content that you have posted on social media to be offensive, racist, vulgar or anything of the sort, you can be tried in a court of law. ‘Despite personal social media handles having disclaimers such as “My views are my personal opinion and my own”, your social media activity is directly linked to your employer or organisations you are affiliated with,’ says Diana. ‘There have been numerous cases in South Africa where employees have been lawfully dismissed for bringing their employers into disrepute.’
Even if you’re re-posting something offensive or sexist from another user, you’re just as responsible as the owner of that post. ‘If you repost content that is defamatory, you can be sued together with the original poster for defamation,’ Diana adds. ‘Furthermore, posts that impair the dignity of a person, such as a sexist or otherwise inappropriate sexual post, can be held liable for crimen injuria (the unlawful and intentional impairment of a person’s dignity), which is a criminal offence. The victim of the post can criminally charge the poster and re-poster for the impairment of their dignity.’
Although there are no ready South African statistics, a study conducted by Internet Without Borders in 18 countries in West and Central Africa showed that 45.5% of Facebook and Twitter female users have already experienced a form of gender-based violence while using social media. More disturbing, only 15% of them reported this negative experience.
What to do if you are a victim of gender-based violence on social media
If you are a victim of gender-based violence on social media, Diana says it’s extremely important to report it to the relevant social media platform. ‘Take screenshots of the posts to use as evidence before blocking the harasser. Block the harasser and get an interim protection order in terms of the Protection of Harassment Act 2011 against them. In the case of anonymous harassers or fake profiles, the court can compel a social media platform or internet service provider to provide the technical details such as the IP address of the harasser in order to track that harasser.’
Diana adds that users also need to be aware that when it comes to gender-based violence, ‘outing of alleged sexual perpetrators of sexual offences’ can land you in legal trouble if the guilt of the perpetrator has not yet been decided on in a court of law. ‘Alleged victims who “name and shame” alleged perpetrators can be sued for defamation of character, charged with crimen injuria and charged with obstructing justice in terms of the Criminal Procedure Act 1977, if that alleged perpetrator has not been pronounced guilty by a court of law,’ she explains.
How Vodacom is raising awareness and offering support to victims of Gender-Based Violence
The Vodacom Foundation hosts a walk in November each year to raise awareness amongst employees about Gender-Based Violence (GBV) and what Vodacom is doing to help. This includes GBV command centres and women empowerment initiatives.
The GBV Command Centre is available 24/7. You can phone them toll-free on 0800 428 428 or send a Please Call Me to *120*7867#. Members of the deaf community can Skype the contact ‘Helpme GBV’, and people with a hearing impediment can SMS ‘Help’ to 31531.