AfriForum Youth vs Beeld

Complainant: AfriForum Youth

Lodged by: Henk Maree

Article: Saluut: Hoës het geweet

Author of article: 

Date: 4 September 2014

Respondent: Beeld

Complaint

AY is complaining about an article published in Beeld of 21 June 2014, headlined Saluut: Hoës het geweet.

The Forum complains that the publication of a picture allegedly depicting a Nazi salute was misleading as an official report concluded that no underlying Nazi practices or culture existed on the Potchefstroom campus of Northwest University (NWU).

It also complains about four other stories published in Beeld about the same issue (all in February 2014). I cannot entertain these complaints as they were received out of time (much too late, in fact). If I do, I would create an untenable precedent.

AY’s motivation in this regard (that it merely took up the university’s complaint, lodged in March) is irrelevant.

At best, these stories may serve as background (context) to the story of June 21.

The text

The story was published after an investigation into alleged Nazi practices on campus by an independent investigating task team (with Dr Leon Wessels as its chairman) had resulted in an official report. It highlighted certain sections of this report, including that the students allegedly participating in the Nazi-like salute were in all probability uninformed – but that university officials knew about this practice all too well.

The article was accompanied by a picture of students allegedly performing the “salute”.

The arguments

AY complains: “The report has concluded that there is no underlying Nazi practice or culture at NWU’s Potchefstroom campus and yet Beeld saw it fit to perpetuate the association between Nazism and that campus through the publication of the…article…”

Beeld firstly sketches the background to its reportage over a few months (covering initiation practices in general and the offending “salute” in particular), and notes that it is “common cause” that its investigation led to some telling actions at the NWU (such as apologies for the offending salute by campus rector Herman Van Schalkwyk, the NWU Council, the student dean and the SRC chairman, the resignation of the former rector before the end of his term, the appointment of an investigative task team, the immediate suspension of all initiation practices at residences, and statements by incoming vice-chancellor Dan Kgwadi that a “zero tolerance” approach would be adopted against initiation practices – including the salute).

Basson adds that:

  • one of his reporters got hold of the report by the Wessels task team (which had not been disclosed at the time), and he decided to break the story on June 21;
  • AY only provided this office with a copy of the front page – while page 4 was fully devoted to the issue (carrying six reports in total);
  • he also published the full set of reports on Beeld’s website;
  • it is an unfair and an inaccurate summary of the report to say it found that there was “no underlying Nazi culture or practice in existence at the Potchefstroom campus” – the crux of the finding was that Nazism did not drive what has been exposed on that campus, but “the Nazi salute has been going on for years at the campus in full view of campus management and staff members of the university in positions of influence” (page 19 of the report);
  • it was never Beeld’s intention to portray students on that campus as Nazi supporters “and no reasonable reader would have understood our stories as such”;
  • anyone who understood the significance of the salute would also understand that it was unacceptable; and
  • the issue was the salute (practice), not a Nazi culture.

The editor concludes that the story accurately and fairly captured the essence of the Wessels report. “The finding that students probably did not know they were showing a Nazi salute can never mean the media should cease publishing pictures of this offending salute.”

Analysis

It is not my task to “establish” whether or not the gesture made by the students had Nazi undertones – I am solely concerned in this finding with the complaint at hand, namely: Was it “misleading” for Beeld to use the picture of students with raised arms again (after the Wessels report)?

An important part of the task team’s findings was that while Nazism was not a culture on campus, there were isolated incidents of such practices. (For example, see Point 4 of the task team’s recommendations.) The Wessels task team identified the gesture by students (the alleged Nazi salute) as one such practice.

Given this decision by the task team, I submit that the newspaper was justified in publishing the picture again. Why should Beeld refrain from re-publishing the picture if the Wessels team identified it as a Nazi practice? Moreover, the publication of this picture merely provided necessary context to the stories that were published some four months prior to the report in dispute.

I also note with appreciation that the newspaper devoted a full page to this matter, including a report on the NWU’s reaction to the report.

Finding

The complaint is dismissed.

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 Adjudication Panel, Judge Bernard Ngoepe, fully setting out the grounds of appeal. He can be contacted at Khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.

Johan Retief

Press Ombudsman

 

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