Failed by the police and the courts, and desperate for justice, rape victims are turning to social media to “out” their attackers.
A foreign rape activist, allegedly raped in Cape Town at the weekend, is the latest to name her assailant on Facebook.
The woman, who cannot be named, used social media to describe the alleged assault and reveal her alleged attacker’s identity before going to the police.
Her complaint is under investigation.
On Twitter last week, a University of Cape Town student named a man she alleged had raped her. She has since changed the charge to sexual assault.
Gender rights activists say “outing assailants” is about victims reclaiming their voice and dignity, but lawyers and prosecutors, and social media experts, warn that it is “reputation murder” and has dire consequences for those innocent of the crime.
The latest alleged rape victim, recalling her attack, said: “Just because someone says ‘No’ doesn’t mean they need more convincing. It’s crazy that this happened.”
She said the support she had received on social media afterwards had convinced her that she should report the assault to the police.
Mbuyiselo Botha, spokesman for the Sonke Gender Justice organisation, said: “Outing is increasing in frequency. Social media are spaces that victims can control, use to express their pain, speak out about who put them through the pain, break the stigma of rape and regain their dignity and voice.”
But Botha cautioned against outing assailants on social media before their guilt had been proved in court. “The law is supreme. You cannot infringe on people’s rights,” he said.
Lisa Vetten, of the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research, said victims of sexual assault who posted on social media were angry and did not mind being identified as a rape survivor.
“They often have a strong sense of injustice, turning to social media as they feel let down by the justice system.
“But such a move is never good, especially if you have not reported the attack to the police before taking to social media. It carries a huge risk of being sued.”
Vetten said the justice system needed to be improved to ensure that the voices of sexual assault victims were heard and they were encouraged to report their attacks to police.
“Victims should not be in a situation in which they are driven to use social media to seek justice. We need to ensure that we listen to crime victims, take them seriously and make sure that they are not forgotten.”
Defence lawyer Jan van Rooyen said that in the constitution and criminal justice system a person was presumed innocent until proven guilty in an “acknowledged court of law”.
“Social media are not courts of law. Naming an alleged perpetrator on social media will affect the assumption of innocence. Imagine what will happen if the person is found not guilty, or the state declines to prosecute because of a lack of evidence.”
Alleged perpetrators were denied the right to a fair trial if they were outed on social media, Van Rooyen said.
“Such postings can murder a reputation.
“Imagine if the alleged rapist has children. Imagine that this person’s wife commits suicide — and it turns out that he is innocent. This is a very real scenario.”
Social-media expert Arthur Goldstuck cautioned against “crowd-sourced justice”.
But he said outing alleged rapists was a response of last resort after a victim found that going to the police for help failed. “As legally problematic as this is, it does get results for victims who feel the criminal justice system has failed them.”
Emma Sadleir, a specialist in social-media law, warned: “I would be very cautious of this digital vigilantism.”