Free Prof Karabus campaign: A master class in PR

Johannesburg - What started as a drop in the media ocean, with few local publications covering the story, soon rippled into a media mega-wave with top local and international news agencies covering the story of Professor Cyril Karabus extensively.

It was a story told globally by radio, television and newspaper agencies: 78-year-old Karabus, a paediatric haematologist and oncologist, wrongfully arrested in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for the death of a young patient a decade ago.

And despite being found not guilty by appeal courts and medical committees the gentle, kind and elderly Karabus spent two months in an Abu Dhabi prison and a further seven months waiting to have his passport returned to him by local authorities.

While in this foreign land Karabus went to court 19 times, spent around R1.5-million in legal costs, became ever sicklier, missed the birth of his grandson and spent his 78th birthday without his friends and family.

The story ended well however when it all culminated in a hero’s welcome for Karabus at Cape Town International Airport this past Friday, attended by hundreds of supporters, film crews, journalists and government delegations.

So how did the tale of one unfortunate South African doctor become global media gold?

“It has had all the makings of a great PR piece, it's certainly not a hard sell,” chairperson of the PR Consultancy Chapter (PRCC) Gillian Findlay told

“There has obviously been a lot of active involvement in getting the story out there and into the media, I am very impressed by it,” Findlay said. "The campaign had legs of its own - it had the human interest element, it got people interested and outraged - it really drew people in."

"It had all the ingredients of a good news drama" says Caxton Professor of Journalism Anton Harber.

“Journalists are busy people, if you give them an easy story like this with all the trimmings, they will cover it ... it had all the ingredients: an ill-fated, likeable man who has fallen victim to a cruel judicial system in a foreign land.”

Harber said the fact that the story was “politically neutral” helped its media exposure as well: “There was no political risk in covering it or showing opinion on the story. Unlike other stories, radio presenters could for example talk about it with no fear of political recourse.”

The making of a media darling

Harber commended the public and media relations effort of the ‘Free Prof Karabus’ team, saying: “They clearly had the correct resources and skills to communicate their message well to the media.”

Findlay, who has been in PR in South Africa for several decades, says the ‘Free Prof Karabus’ campaign has been an award-worthy effort: “They should consider entering awards for their PR work, it would certainly be worthy.”

Findlay says to run a campaign like this, would need “someone to be available all hours of the day and has to be dedicated and passionate and available to answer questions all the time.”

That person, for the most part, has been Karabus’ lawyer and close friend Michael Bagraim, who took on no new cases in his busy law practice to dedicate nine months to spearhead the 'Free Prof Karabus' campaign.

Bagraim says he has spoken to over 50 media houses, including radio, television, newspapers and blogs. “Internationally I have spoken to about 50 to 60 different media companies. The biggest ones were the New York Times and The Guardian in the UK … they have called from China, Pakistan, America … all over the world.”

The Free Karabus campaign dissected

With such commitment, resources, passion and push to get Karabus' cause into the public and with such open access to a willing and hungry media, it’s hard to compare it to a similar recent cause that has garnered such extensive coverage.

Harber says perhaps the plight of the rhinos locally could be comparable, with Findlay saying the kidnapping of baby Micaela Hunter may be a good example – but that story barely reached beyond the Gauteng media sphere.

19-year-old Arno Immelman got scant coverage in local media after he spent weeks in a Laos prison for sleeping on a bench in a Cambodian ambassador’s house and held captive despite the Cambodian authorities not pressing charges in 2011.

The cause of Bruno Pelizzari and Debbie Calitz, held captive by Somali pirates for 20 months, received decent media coverage, but more so on, and post, their release in June last year, especially after Debbie released a book and was later caught with a cache of drugs.

Internationally, it appears Karabus’ story peeked higher on media radars than stories involving their own citizens.

UK-nationals Safi Qurashi, Mustafa Nagri and Yusuf Nagr  who were sentenced to seven, three, four years imprisonment respectively for a non-payment of debt stemming from a bounced cheque –- very little coverage of their case can be found.

Graham Mitchell, who spent a year in pre-trial imprisonment in a Portuguese prison, only to be acquitted of all charges saw some media interest in his story.

So how extensive was the campaign?

From YOU magazine to Zapiro cartoons, community papers to Carte Blanche, the local media had the story well covered: SABC had his face on television and voice on radio, eNCA produced extensive packages on him and even The New Age, unlike Guptagate, found it a newsworthy piece.

Rather unconventional at times, the ‘Free Dr Karabus’ campaign produced some lighthearted and often comical images:

- eNCA

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