You can probably get away with posting graphic photos of Gavin Watson’s accident on social media, even fake ones – but it's a bad idea

Business Insider SA
  • Graphic photos of the body of Gavin Watson in a crashed car – and fakes that purport to be of Watson – are circulating on Twitter, Facebook, and WhatsApp.
  • Social media legal experts say those doing the sharing probably have little reason to fear any consequences.
  • But posting material relating to a criminal investigation is still a bad idea, especially when children may see it.
  • For more stories go to the Business Insider South Africa homepage.

South Africans sharing graphic photos featuring the body of Bosasa executive Gavin Watson almost certainly have no reason to fear prosecution – but they should still not do it, social media legal experts say.

Photos of the car in which Watson died this week, and fakes claiming to show the accident scene, are circulating on various social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter, and Whatsapp.

Some of the photos claim to debunk conspiracies surrounding Watson's death, while others seem intended on creating fresh doubt that Watson died. Some of the users sharing the images seem to be acting in good faith, others appear to trolling.

But all of them would be better off not sharing such photos, experts say – even before considering basic decency.

"It is never a good idea to share graphic images or fake news because there is a possibility, albeit remote, that there could be legal action against you," says Verlie Oosthuizen, the head of social media law at Shepstone & Wylie Attorneys.

There is also a more tangible risk, Oosthuizen says. "If a person has a social media feed full of these types of posts then it could have reputations effects for them if their social media is checked for references e.g. for jobs."

There are several ways in which users can get themselves into legal trouble by posting, or re-posting, images such as those of Watson's body, says social media lawyer Diana Schwarz. Fake images can hamper a criminal investigation, and can lead to charges of obstructing justice. A clearly visible image of the face of a person who has died could impair the dignity of the deceased or his family, and that could be actionable. 

"Another important aspect that users need to be aware of and seem to forget, is that children have access to public social media platforms like Twitter etc," says Schwarz. "Children have a right not to be exposed to harmful, inappropriate and violent content."

See also: A new plan will make it a crime to give a child a cellphone that can access pornography

Practically speaking, social media simply isn't policed, says Denzil Fryer, a lecturer in media law who is also in private practice, and there is no simple answer to what trouble you could face if the authorities do take an interest; many factors would come into play. 

Nonetheless, he says, "just be careful, be circumspect."

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