By Agnes Odhiambo

In the aftermath of the acquittal of Jacob Zuma on rape charges, Kwezi, the woman who had accused him of rape, "disappeared" from the public arena.

She was spirited out of the country and there were no more screaming headlines.

The media had put her on the public stage. She performed, more or less, a pre-prepared skit and, like all actors, she then vanished backstage.

In an interview on May 14, she said, "I haven't spoken out before because I did not want to be part of the games that I saw being played in the media. I see myself being described and defined by others - the media, the defence, the judge. I have seen the things said by members of the various structures and parties. I see analysis and judgment from all sides."

These words hint at the anger of a woman who, if we believe her (considering that whether to believe her or not was the basis on which the case was built), was a victim of the most serious violation a woman can suffer.

Because it was so high-profile in both local and global media, Kwezi's case raised the question of media ethics, particularly the role of the media as a catalyst for social change, and how it deals with victims of and reports on gender violence, particularly violence against women.

There were, and continue to be, debates on the rightness or wrongness of particular modes of reporting on the case.

We heard little about the manner in which Kwezi - and any other victim of rape whose case may attract such media attention - becomes a serial victim because of "trial" by the media, the public and the justice system.

This is the point Kwezi seeks to make in the quotation above.

To begin with, the story was "broken" to the public via a newspaper report. A series of reports and counter reports followed, projecting the victim as undecided (on whether she was raped, or if she wished to lay formal charges against Zuma).

Consequently, an experience that was very private became a public subject, and the victim's feelings and emotions became less important.

Yet there were few critical debates in the editorials of the various media on how to report the case without causing the victim more pain, anguish and prejudice.

Sensationalism took over rational and responsible reporting and seemed to infect even the court process.

When Kwezi's sexual history was bared in court through cross-examination by the defence lawyers, or by way of opinions from "experts", it was not just another instance of the victim being forced to re-live violent and dehumanising past experiences - it was a deliberate and orchestrated public unclothing of a woman, without any consideration for her dignity.

The symbolism was taken a step further when members of the public tore underpants for the entire world to see, expressing their disgust with a woman who wanted to bring their "man of the people" down.

Of course, there were cameras to take pictures of all of this for the front pages.

The media could never have been more complicit in this perpetuation of victimisation.

The Zuma rape trial was a serious reminder of the good and the bad media can do even when it presupposes to be serving public interest. Kwezi became carrion for the media as scavenging reporters indulged in all manner of speculation, with a number of newspapers repeating speculative material that had been published elsewhere before. These newspapers did this with little reflection on the implications of those reports - and this is what was fed to the public.

In a society where women are victims of sexual violence every day - rape being one of the most widespread crimes - this case should have provided an opportunity for the media to constitute an ongoing debate about how to rectify the social ill.

The media should have broadened its coverage of gender violence beyond the court proceedings or police reports, and defined what this case was all about: the serious violation of human rights and a woman's dignity.

As we celebrate 16 years of the 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence campaign, the media should consider these important issues and develop and implement policies that will guide reporting gender violence and violence against women.

Such violence is against universal human rights, which the media everywhere is expected to protect. It is not a "games-playing", to use Kwezi's words - it is a matter of life and death.

  • Agnes Odhiambo is the HIV and Aids, Gender and Media Programme Manager at Gender Links. This is part of a series of articles produced by the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service for the 16 Days of Activism.