Humiliating cheating partners online

Guest column: Miriam Tose Majome

WHEN a spouse catches their other half red handed cheating on them, are they justified to humiliate and degrade them? Anger and self-righteous indignation often leads aggrieved partners to feel entitled and justified to humiliate the cheating couple in any way they think best maximises their shame. This is not a new thing. Crimes of passion are fairly common and quite old but lately the practice has taken a more sinister dimension.

Humiliating cheating spouses has gone online enabled by smartphones, digital photography and easier internet accessibility. There is a growing and disturbing menace of shooting and circulating video footage and images of couples caught inflagrante delicto. Sex scandals by their nature are very exciting and attention grabbing. Nothing gets our aging little nation more excited than a sex tape.

Zimbabweans are never more united than when converging around a sex scandal. For a flitting period the nation experiences true unity and forgets its usual political bickering. Together as one Zimbabweans from all walks of life, political and religious affiliations immerse themselves fully and equally in other peoples’ sexual indiscretions and miseries as they gleefully and generously share and analyse each unearthed sex scandal.

This very dark dimension if unchecked threatens to completely rip apart the fragile remnants of the social fabric. Reckless use of smartphones and technology is destroying society’s moral compass, dignity and social propriety. Some people have simply forgotten how much personal and private information is too much to share with others. Every minute detail about one’s private life is destined for social media and public consumption. There are no scientific studies that show infidelity levels have increased more now than at any other time in history. Infidelity is as old as our primate ancestors institutionalised permanent mating and monogamy. The only difference is that there is now more access to reporting and publicity platforms.

Smartphones and digital technologies are symbols of modernity and social progress, yet ironically they are aiding and abetting social regression. Cheating couples are now publicly paraded and degraded instantly online in scenes reminiscent of medieval times when disgraced people were paraded naked at the village square. This practice is extremely primitive, unsavoury and above all illegal. There is a certain satisfaction people feel when other people are exposed and shamed for infidelity. The revelation and consequent public humiliation of unfaithful married women is enjoyed much more than that of married men. The court of social opinion tacitly approves more of the degradation and humiliation of married women at their husbands’ hands. Women are not as adept as men at shooting videos of their philandering men. They are more likely to shoot videos of themselves assaulting and humiliating their husbands’ sex partners when they catch or suspect them of canoodling with their men.

There is a Shona saying kupa benzi pito translated literally as giving a whistle to a mad person. One only needs to imagine the noise pollution that ensues to get the point that it is not a wise thing to do. This is what happened when smartphones landed in the hands of certain people. A fool and his smartphone are soon spotted. The tragedy of technological progress is that anyone with a phone and internet connection can record anything and post it online.
Smartphones and technology themselves are not the problem. Reckless and ignorant people are. People who commit crimes and post them online seem oblivious to the reality that they will be committing crimes. In this case it is double crimes- the crime itself usually of assault and degrading treatment to another person and the crime of posting the crime online. The way people freely incriminate themselves shows they don’t know they are committing a crime. Some even brag about it.

The police need to take this rising scourge seriously and clamp down on it before it gets out of control. It is now urgent for them to have a cyber crimes division dedicated to policing the internet. The proliferation of internet crimes shows that Zimbabwe’s internet space urgently needs to be policed. The existing telecommunications and criminal legislation are adequate for the online crimes being committed.

Issues of infidelity are undeniably complex and not so clear cut. Cheating parties who have been humiliated offline or online are unlikely to report crimes committed against them by their spouses and partners because of the inherent shame and guilt associated with being caught cheating. This does not, however, stop the police from investigating online crimes and arresting offenders. An injury to any one citizen no matter how wrong they are is an injury to the State. The police cannot just sit back and watch people descend into online vigilante hoodlums and just fold their hands and join in enjoying the drama. Even an official statement from them will go some way in sending the message that resorting to self-help in circumstances of infidelity is unlawful. Most of the crimes cannot be taken as spur of the moment crimes of passion. Filming footage of an unfaithful spouse requires advance preparation and premeditation and is different from catching a spouse by surprise and lashing out in shock.

There are so many legal issues raised and so many laws broken online that they cannot all be listed. In this particular context issues of consent, privacy, pornography, assault, degradation and humiliating treatment are raised. Cabinet finally approved the much-awaited Computer Crimes and Cybercrimes Bill in October 2019 and it awaits parliamentary processes to turn it into law. Most of the offences which relate to bullying and harassing people through IT devices are already covered by the Post and Telecommunications Act and the Criminal Code. However the Cyber Crimes Act will define cyber crimes and their penalties more specifically.

Apart from the pornographic materials in some of the shared videos, the Bill outlaws online harassment and humiliation calculated to cause emotional distress.

Whatever the configuration, husbands beating boyfriends, husbands beating wives, wives beating mistresses or husbands there is no legal justification to assault and humiliate anyone over infidelity no matter how aggrieved the cheated partner feels. Infidelity is not a crime but is a delict — a civil and personal injury. Nobody can be arrested for cheating on their spouse.

In Zimbabwe, cheating spouses cannot even be sued for committing adultery. The only lawful remedy open to an aggrieved spouse is claiming adultery damages from the cheating spouse’s lover.

The pornographic content in some of the videos posted online breaches sections of the Censorship and Entertainments Control Act which outlaw the publication and distribution of pornographic material and possession of indecent and obscene material.

While aggrieved spouses believe they will be fixing their cheating spouses by parading their nude images to the world, it is not wise. Good sense and self-restraint should always prevail particularly where there are children who are certain to see their humiliated naked parents in viral video clips.

Miriam Tose Majome is a lawyer and a teacher. She can be contacted on enquiries@legalpractioners.org

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