On Sunday the Sunday Times - under the heading "Wanted: Facebook racist" - led with a story about a picture of a white man posing "over the apparently lifeless body of a black child - like a hunter celebrating his kill." It said that the "undated picture", which it published prominently on its front page, "is on the social networking site in the profile of a user called ‘Eugene Terrorblanche'" and that "While it is not known if the photograph is genuine or has been manipulated, a child protection charity has expressed concern for the well being of the youngster."
The newspaper had sent a link of the picture to the Hawks unit of the South African Police Service and they had immediately launched an investigation. "The search is now on for the person or persons responsible for the picture, for whoever created the user profile and for those who have seen the photograph but failed to report it."
Although the Sunday Times' did not date the picture or establish whether it was posed, digitally created or real, its report was picked up by AFP which sent the story around the world.
The picture, seemingly documenting, at the very least, the degradation of a black child by a white man, provoked a Tsunami of fury and outrage. DA leader, Helen Zille, released a statement calling for "all South Africans to assist in finding the originators of this picture so that the law can take its course."
At about the point where this tidal wave was peaking Mandy Wiener, the Eye Witness News reporter and author of Killing Kebble, commented on Twitter that she was " surprised by Sunday Times lead story re Facebook racism. I did the story for EWN several years ago & it was well known then."
In a follow up message she said that in May 2008 "EWN exposed the picture which is on the front page of the SunTimes on a FB group called 'Ek laaik nie 'n houtkop nie so what'." In answer to a query as to whether the man with the rifle was ever tracked down she added: "I tried at the time and seem to recall it was a hoax."
The story on the racist Facebook group - established by a few students at the University of the North West - was extensively reported on in the press in early October 2008. A Sapa report on October 6 2008 stated:
"The North West University (NWU) on Monday expressed shock over the existence of a racist group on Facebook and the involvement of some of its students as officers of the group...It was reported that the group called "ek laaik nie 'n houtkop nie, sou what" (I do not like a 'houtkop', so what?) contains inflammatory comments posted by members. The group apparently also showed a photograph of a young white man holding a gun while posing over the trophy of a young black boy lying on the ground."
The Facebook group and the photograph were subsequently mentioned in reports and analyses in Beeld, Die Burger, Volksblad, the Independent Group newspapers and the Mail & Guardian. (In November 2008 a student linked to the page was expelled from the university, an action which again received extensive coverage in the press.)
The Times, then edited by Ray Hartley, also reported on the incident. In an article (October 7 2008) it stated that the university's management and the Human Rights Commission had been alerted to the existence of the Facebook page. Adding: "the ‘k-word' is used frequently page, and a picture of a white man holding a gun while standing over a young black boy on the ground is displayed. The picture has been removed."
On Twitter on Sunday Hartley - now editor of the Sunday Times - defended the decision to publish this extremely racist image on the front page of his newspaper despite its being at least three years old, saying: "Our story is about an extremely racist image being published on Facebook now, in 2011. We must find the person who published this image."
Update: Beeld reports that the Hawks are now saying that the police had already investigated the photo in 2007. The man concerned told the police back then that he had paid the child to lie like that.
The Times report October 7 2008:
For more read Chris Vick's analysis, in the Daily Maverick, of the whole debacle.
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