JOHANNESBURG — South Africans hoping for some closure this week in the saga of Oscar Pistorius’s tragic fall were doomed to be disappointed, as a judge set the athlete’s sentencing date for July and people woke up to a gruesome image of Reeva Steenkamp’s body on the front page of some morning newspapers.
More than three years after Pistorius shot Steenkamp in the early hours of Valentine’s Day, the crime continues to grip and divide South Africa, where the O.J. Simpson-style broadcast of the trial has become a national obsession.
The judge’s decision on Wednesday to grant a request by the victim’s family to make public photos from the crime scene has struck some as a hard but important way to communicate the gravity of Pistorius’s crime, and others as a move that risks voyeurism and desensitizing viewers in a country suffering from high levels of violence.
During harrowing testimony Tuesday at Pistorius’s murder sentencing, a trembling Barry Steenkamp, Reeva’s father, told the court he hoped making the photographs public might help deter violent crime.
“A lot of people will disagree with me, and think that I’m callous or whatever it is, but what I would like the world to see are the wounds inflicted onto Reeva, and the pain that she must have gone through,” he said. “So that the world can see this and most probably distract people who are thinking of that type of deed to stop them in future. And this is why I ask if something like that could be shown to everybody.”
Media organizations and observers were split on the merits of publishing photographs of a murder that South Africans have been hearing and reading about since 2013. The photos were quickly circulated, and by Thursday, a handful of mostly foreign outlets had published them on-line. Several used liberal blurring, but at least one South African daily, the New Age, ran a large close-up of Steenkamp’s bloodied head across the front page of its print edition under the headline, “Pic Reeva’s dad wants you to see.” But a number of news outlets downplayed or did not publish the pictures.
South African news channel eNCA said on its Facebook page that it would not be publishing the photos due to their graphic nature, while others took to social media to ask readers what they thought:
Quick poll to @News24 readers: would you like us to publish the Reeva Steenkamp crime scene photos?
— Adriaan Basson (@AdriaanBasson) June 15, 2016
The Press Council of South Africa’s code of ethics and conduct says violent content should be avoided “unless the public interest dictates otherwise,” in which case warnings should be displayed. Given how long this case has been in the public sphere, the group’s director says the argument for public interest can be made.
“It is important for people to see the type of crime that Pistorius is accused of,” said Joe Thloloe, the Press Council’s director. “Seeing the pictures will bring it to the foreground.”
But others argued that in South Africa, where violence is all too common, showing such graphic images might do more harm than good.
“This is a complicated one,” said Lisa Vetten, a research associate at Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research. She said while Steenkamp clearly wanted to communicate how his daughter died, “for a lot of people it will be just voyeuristic. … It’s debatable whether or not gruesome and violent pictures make people less violent.”
Watching Steenkamp’s difficult testimony this week was probably more powerful than publishing the photographs, said William Bird, director of Media Monitoring Africa. He doubted whether showing images of the body would stop anybody about to commit a violent crime.
“We are one of the most violent societies anywhere in the world,” Bird said. “We are a nation that is still living with post-traumatic stress, by and large … You can understand why [Steenkamp] would say that, for a man at that level of anguish and pain. But what purpose does it serve for people to see them?”