By Kotie Geldenhuys
The relatives of a Pietermaritzburg couple, who were shot dead in their bakkie on Old Greytown Road in March 2021, were angry when a young, close relative discovered a video making rounds on social media platforms showing the grisly scene. The video showed the couple’s bloody bodies, while the vehicle’s engine was still running (Kunene, 2021). A similar situation happened in Ohio when the family of a murder victim showed up at the crime scene after reading about it on a social media platform (Witmire, 2017). Situations like these make it clear that some people do not think about the consequences of when they post crime-related information on social media. Clearly, they do not realise the impact their actions can have on the families of victims or how it can possibly hamper the investigation.
With the ever-changing technological landscape, social media is influencing people’s perceptions of crime, actual criminality and the criminal justice system (Hayes, 2015). In a relatively short period of time, our world has been taken over by social media. With an estimated more than 22 million people in South Africa using social media platforms (Allen, 2021), everybody with a smartphone in hand and access to a social media platform, has the potential of becoming an instant “reporter”.
Be careful with sharing photos of possible perpetrators
Once we are active on social media, we often become part of community groups such as the local neighbourhood watch group or community forum. The majority of these groups are created to bring residents together and help to spread news and information about relevant matters or incidents in the neighbourhood. By sharing valuable and verified information to keep communities safe or vigilant is one thing, but to share photos of suspects or their vehicles’ licence plates on such a group should not be allowed. Revealing a licence plate or encroaching on the privacy of individuals while taking photos is against the law. Often snapshots of CCTV footage of suspected vehicle thieves or housebreakers are distributed via social media. Getting involved in such actions may have severe consequences as such a person may face a possible civil lawsuit or as much as one year’s incarceration as well as a hefty fine. Section 69(2) of the South African Police Service Act 68 of 1995 states that "no person may, without the written permission of the national or provincial commissioner, publish a photograph or sketch of a person who is suspected of having committed an offence ...” Section 69(3) stipulates that any person who publishes such a photograph or sketch "shall be guilty of an offence and liable on conviction to a fine or to imprisonment for a period not exceeding 12 months”.
Adv Melville Cloete, a senior legal adviser from the Western Cape SAPS stressed: “You are not allowed to publish a picture identifying an alleged suspect in a crime on WhatsApp or on Facebook before this person has appeared before a court of law. The South African Police Service Act strictly forbids this. Members of neighbourhood watches often take pictures of suspects at crime scenes, which you can do, but the moment you send the picture to someone else or post it to a social media platform, it is considered published.” The same applies for sharing pictures of witnesses in criminal cases as it might lead to vigilantism and endanger people’s livelihoods. There is only one exception to the rule and that is when a police official in charge of an investigation gives permission for a certain photo to be published (Cape Town Etc, 2020).
Adv Cloete added: “It can also lead to vigilante action in cases where the person arrested is innocent, but as a result of the published photo, which depicts him (or her) as a criminal, the community takes the law into its own hands. Everyone has the right to a good name and reputation and the person who taints this with defamatory statements, by posting such a photo, can be held liable for damages in civil court.” Numerous complainants have won such cases in recent years. These actions also lead to unlawful arrests and detention resulting in an investigation into the police officials who relied on the information from the community.