The man whose guilt goes unquestioned

Here’s a startling thought: maybe, after all is said and done, Shrien Dewani will turn out to be innocent of murdering his bride.

Ever since that terrible night in November when Anni Dewani was shot in Gugulethu the case has captured the imagination of South Africa and the world like few others.

Every available detail has been picked apart, helped by the liberal use of glamorous pictures of the victim. Twists and turns in the British and South African court cases provide a steady stream of copy. Recently, the media were full of pictures and reports about the visit of Anni’s parents, who traced her last hours and prayed at the spot where her body was found.

The key question remains: did he do it? In South Africa you will struggle to find anybody who does not believe him to be as guilty as sin. And that conviction is threaded through much of the media coverage.

Shrien Dewani is said to be so traumatised he can’t attend his extradition hearing and a psychologist was found who says he’s sure to be faking it, even though he hasn’t had the benefit of ever having seen the young British millionaire.

Every inconsistency in Dewani’s account is treated as evidence of his obvious guilt, while unanswered questions in the prosecution’s case are simply brushed aside. For instance, there’s still no sign of a plausible motive. Police Commissioner Bheki Cele promised at one point that the motive had been found and would be revealed at the UK extradition hearing. But nothing was, in fact, suggested there or here, leaving Cele with the weak explanation that only a court could determine a motive.

Cele and prosecutions chief Menzi Simelane have both declared Dewani guilty, the former describing him as a monkey. Reports of these statements took the angle that the statements would damage the bid for extradition.

One headline illustrated the national mood neatly: “Cele our Achilles heel,” said one paper in early February. Clearly, the entire nation is at one in the attempt to get Dewani to face justice in this country.

Facing the music
“We all know he’s guilty,” is the subtext here, but people such as Cele shouldn’t be saying so. Max Clifford, Dewani’s spin doctor, of course used these statements to build the argument that his client would not receive a fair trial in South Africa. It’s fortunate for him that the target of his spinning is the great British public. The remarks achieved exactly the opposite of their intended effect in this country.

They cemented the belief that Dewani is guilty and should face the music. We may grumble among ourselves, but foreigners have no right to cast aspersions on our country in this way. It’s worth noting that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is using very similar arguments in his bid to fight extradition to Sweden on sexual assault charges. His lawyers are working to paint that legal system as unfair. It’s how people fight extradition.

I’m not arguing that Dewani is innocent. I’m quite happy to leave that to the courts to decide and I do hope that a proper hearing, in a South African court, can be held to unearth the truth.

All I’m saying is we should be a little more cautious about spin. When Clifford speaks, headlines identify him as a spin doctor, drawing ample attention to the fact that his statements need to be read in that light. It’s very close to branding him a liar.

But when the South African police leak information that builds the case against Dewani these claims are not subjected to the same sceptical treatment. Surely journalists should also treat that kind of information with at least some caution?

They should be asking the tough questions, checking for internal consistency, looking for corroboration and insisting, in general, on naming sources or at least indicating the direction from where the claims come.

It is abundantly clear that the police also have a motive for spin. The case has drawn unwelcome attention to the country’s crime levels. It is much better for the reputation of the country and its police if it does turn out that the case was a kind of “murder tourism”; that the crime was really a British crime which simply happened to be brought to Cape Town.

The Dewani case is almost like the Fifa World Cup in the sense that it is something South Africans can all agree on. But it’s precisely when the consensus is so strong that journalists should be extra vigilant. Readers need the tough questions asked of those they are most likely to agree with.

This column was originally published in the Mail & Guardian on March 14, 2011.

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