A lecture and the University of Cape Town vs Cape Times

Complainant: A lecture and the University of Cape Town

Lodged by: Gerda Kruger

Article: UCT poo-flinger blow, and another headlined ‘At UCT black men especially are at all times criminalized’

Author of article: Lisa Isaacs

Date: 20 July 2015

Respondent: Aneez Salie, editor of the Cape Times

Note: As the complaint deals in part with the newspaper’s publication of the lecturer’s identity, I have decided not to use her name. I do mention Mr Chumani Maxwele’s name as, unlike the lecturer, he chose to identify himself publicly.

Complaint

The lecturer and UCT are complaining about two stories in the Cape Times of 12 May 2015, the lead on page one, headlined UCT poo-flinger blow, and another headlined ‘At UCT black men especially are at all times criminalized’.

They complain that:

·         the story contained negative allegations against a lecturer while these were untested, unverified and false;

·         “extremely serious” allegations (of being an extremely racist, aggressive and unprincipled individual) were presented against the lecturer, without challenge as if factual (rendering them one-sided and therefore unfair);

·         the article identified  the lecturer when she had a right to privacy, and in so doing caused her enormous harm; and

·         the journalist failed to seek her views (and if these could not be obtained, failed to report the attempt).

UCT concludes that the story has caused the lecturer unnecessary harm in that it has unnecessarily tarnished her dignity and reputation.

The texts

The front-page lead, written by Lisa Isaacs, reported that Mr Chumani Maxwele (30, a UCT political science student known for having flung faeces at the statue of Cecil John Rhodes) who had been suspended pending a disciplinary hearing for allegedly racially abusing and threatening a member of staff,  had laid a counter-complaint against the same lecturer.

Maxwele reportedly complained that he had been victimized and racially profiled because of his participation in some political protest. This came after the lecturer alleged that Maxwele had raised his voice at her after being told that a lecture venue had been locked (on Workers’ Day). “Maxwele allegedly banged on the door, pushed the staff member and said white people should be removed from UCT and killed.”

Isaacs wrote that Maxwele said he had gone to the lecture room to study, but the lecturer told him that it was locked, adding that she had been “attacked by a savage black student who turned out not to be a student”, and that “a head of department was murdered by a savage and barbaric black student”.

He also reportedly said that the university tried to delegitimize and criminalize black students. “They frame us as criminals and dangerous people who go around shouting and swearing at people.”

The story recorded Kruger as denying that Maxwele’s suspension was related to any protest action on campus.

The other text reflected the student’s complaint to UCT, published opposite the editorial page. In this piece the name of the lecturer was revealed.

The arguments

Kruger argues that Cape Times should have considered the possibility that Maxwele’s allegations could be false, and that it had a duty to tell its readers that they were untested.

“Furthermore, it seems fair that the newspaper should have considered not revealing [the lecturer’s]name. The newspaper knew that the student making the allegations were suspended by the institution for very serious offences in a case that involved [her](as the complainant) and should have at least been cautious of his allegations.”

Kruger adds that the newspaper knew UCT had refrained from identifying both Maxwele and the lecturer and that UCT had specifically asked that parties involved in the disciplinary process should not be identified, in order to ensure fairness. “The student opted to identify himself to the Cape Times and they in turn decided to publish most of every comment he has to make related to UCT or the case he is facing.”

She notes that Maxwele released the statement eleven days after his suspension. “[T]he Cape Times immediately published his entire statement without any concern for whether the statement should be under ‘suspicion’ for coming so late after a suspension, without any verification of the facts, and without [the lecturer being]given an option to comment… The Cape Times had a duty to care for [the lecturer].”

She argues, “The Cape Times had on record UCT’s multiple statements that the case against the student was related to an isolated incident, unrelated to the protest action, and the Cape Times also knew that UCT had publicly stated that Mr Maxwele would not be charged for his protest activities.

“The Cape Times knowing this should have afforded [the lecturer]the respect she deserved by not publishing her name and at the very least to have asked her for comment.”

Kruger concludes, “[T]he paper should have at least had a suspicion that the student may be making false claims and should have protected [the lecturer’s]identity and if they disregarded that [they]should have at least afforded her an opportunity to respond.”

Salie replies that the front-page lead did not identify the lecturer. “So that one falls away.”

He says the second text consisted entirely (and only) of Maxwele’s charge against UCT and the lecturer “[i]n which he naturally has to name her”.

The editor argues that readers understand that such a piece is not the gospel. “They know that the following day we may carry diametrically opposed views – as we usually do – to acclaim from so many, even from Max Price, head of UCT. So, no one who would have read Maxwele’s charge would have thought it was the end of the story, or indeed the only side to the story. The public knows fully well too, that while many, many charges are laid every single day, few get to court and fewer still result in conviction.”

He also mentions UCT demanded that Cape Times publishes its response to the Maxwele piece, which the newspaper did the next day.

Salie says this text started off by naming Maxwele – but they did not identify the lecturer.

“What racist hypocrisy… Later in the piece they stop referring to Maxwele by name, referring to him only as ‘the student’, as they should have done in the first place, if their argument is to have any logic or consistency in their complaint against us. Why is it okay to name a black student but it is not okay to name a white lecturer? So therefore, we ask the Press Ombud to ask UCT to withdraw their hypocritical complaint against us – with a full, unreserved apology.”

The editor concludes that the matter was in the public interest. “No issue or movement than Rhodes Must Fall, which Chumani brought to life, has garnered such huge, sustained public attention, spreading all over South Africa and also abroad. It is phenomenal. There isn’t a…bigger media issue – and the Cape Times is responsible for that.”

In her reply to the newspaper’s response, Kruger largely reiterates her complaint.

 

She adds that Maxwele’s charge occupied a full page, yet the UCT’s letter was “hidden away” at the bottom of page 8.

To Salie’s allegation of racism she says, “Our complaint relates to the articles on 12 May and what we chose or did not choose to reveal afterwards is not at issue here. We actually asked the Cape Times (and other media) to take care in the matter of revealing the identities of both the student and the lecturer.”

In conclusion, Kruger argues that newsworthiness does not relieve the publication from its duties as prescribed by the Press Code. “In fact the opposite is more true in that the bigger the story and the more prominence given by a publication the larger the duty of care because the impact is so much more intense.”

My considerations

Kruger is correct in saying that the front-page lead carried negative allegations against a lecturer while these were both untested and unverified; however, I disagree that the allegations were presented as if they were factual. The story made it consistently clear that the statements were Maxwele’s views.

The story was about Maxwele’s counter-complaint against the lecturer, and the public would have understood that his statements were untested and unverified. That, on its own, did not prohibit the Cape Times from publishing the student’s views.

Why Kruger says the allegations were false I do not know, as the UCT has not yet conducted its investigation.

I fully understand UCT’s concern about naming people who are involved in a disciplinary process, but – in all fairness, and with all due respect – that is not the newspaper’s problem. I also agree that it was unfortunate that the lecturer was identified – but “unfortunate” is not by default a breach of the Press Code. In this case, Maxwele was in the center of a matter that was in the public interest, and the lecturer herself was a public figure.

Considering that, and the public’s likely belief that Maxwele’s allegations were not necessarily true, and also that the disciplinary hearing would not be a court case, I believe that no sanction is required for the newspaper’s identification of the lecturer.

Given its reportage to date, the newspaper is now under an obligation to report the outcome of the disciplinary hearing. If the lecturer is exonerated, the possible harm caused by the newspaper would be nullified; if not, then the possible harm done to her would not have been unnecessary.

Regarding the complaint that Cape Times should have asked the lecturer for comment: I have several e-mails in my possession, recording correspondence between Isaacs and Ms Patricia Lucas (Manager: Communications & Media Liaison at UCT). Isaacs did ask Lucas for comment, giving UCT a fair chance to respond. Given that fact, I do not believe that the newspaper was obligated to ask the lecturer for her personal response.

I have no evidence that Lucas responded to Isaacs. If that happened, the story should have mentioned it.

I note that the Cape Times did publish Kruger’s letter, albeit not with the same prominence as the offending texts. The Press Code, however, does not require “same prominence” – it only mentions “appropriate prominence”. I would have preferred it if her letter received more prominence, though – but the headline was quite big, and I leave it at that.

I need to state that I am disappointed in Salie’s laissez-faire response to the complaint about the front-page lead. He merely said that the (particular) story did not identify the lecturer, and on that basis dismissed an important part of the complaint – there was more to the complaint regarding that story than the identification of the lecturer.

Also, I am not going to get engaged in an argument about UCT’s alleged racism, and certainly cannot ask the institution to apologise to the Cape Times. My task is to adjudicate texts published by newspapers and magazines, and not those of complainants.

Finding

The story should have mentioned the fact that the newspaper was unable to get comment from UCT. This is in breach of Section 2.5 of the Press Code that says, “[I]f the publication is unable to obtain such comment, this shall be stated in the report.”

The rest of the complaint is dismissed.

Sanction

The newspaper has already published comment by UCT. It would be meaningless to ask it to do so again.

There is no sanction.

Appeal

Our Complaints Procedures lay down that within seven working days of receipt of this decision, either party may apply for leave to appeal to the Chairperson of the SA Press Appeals Panel, Judge Bernard Ngoepe, fully setting out the grounds of appeal. He can be contacted at Khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.

Johan Retief

Press Ombudsman