Democratic Alliance vs Sunday Independent

Complainant: Democratic Alliance

Lodged by: Gavin Davis

Article: DA digs in amid Twitter race war

Author of article: Shanti Aboobaker

Date: 19 May 2014

Respondent: Sunday Independent

COMPLAINT

The DA complains about a story in Sunday Independent, headlined DA digs in amid Twitter race war, published on 20 April 2014.

Davis says the following statements were inaccurate and misleading:

·         DA supporters took to twitter (to liken ANC politicians to the Nazis).

·         A tweet breached the Electoral Code and bordered on hate speech, implicating the DA.

·         Party leader Helen Zille responded insufficiently to this tweet.

He adds that the twitter user was not contacted for comment, that the headline was misleading, and that the reporter did not question the claim that Zille was sometimes depicted as Hitler.

Davis concludes that these matters, when taken together, create the false impression that Zille, he and the DA condone Nazism.

THE TEXT

The story, written by Shanti Aboobaker, said that, as political parties ratchet up their election rhetoric, supporters of Zille have taken to twitter to liken ANC politicians to the Nazis.

The journalist mentioned a particular tweeter called @Blow_Back_Time, who addressed his/her message to Zille and Davis, saying: “This [Adolf Hitler] is the real face of Gwede Mantashe.” The tweet contained a picture of Hitler, complete with a swastika band, next to ANC secretary-general Mantashe. A swastika had been photo-shopped onto the lapel of his jacket.

She added: “Although the comments violate the Electoral Code of Conduct and skirt the boundaries of hate speech, the DA refuses to condemn them or distance the party’s leader from them.”

Aboobaker also wrote that Zille and Davis “seemed to see nothing wrong with likening a black South African politician to a genocidal white supremacist, and refused to condemn the…tweet despite a storm of protests from many of their own followers.” She continued that, instead, Zille only seemed to encourage the tweeter by calling the message “ironic” – because that is what the ANC calls her. “She produced no evidence of the ANC calling her Hitler or a Nazi.”

ANALYSIS

The DA complains about the following “inaccuracies”:

DA supporters

The story said that a certain twitter user (@Blow_Back_Time) was apparently a DA supporter and that Zille’s followers “have taken to Twitter to liken ANC politicians to the Nazis.”Aboobaker also wrote, “…an apparently DA-supporting Twitter user using the handle…” The caption stated: “…The screen grab of a recent Twitter post by a DA supporter.”

Davis: “Despite claiming that this Twitter user is a DA supporter three times in the article, Ms. Aboobaker provides no evidence to back up the assertion. On what basis does she make this claim?”

He points out that the twitter user did not state in his/her biography that he/she was a DA supporter. The twitter bio read: “You can Stop Corruption with the Power of your Vote.” He argues that, while the DA was undoubtedly associated with the fight against corruption, it does not follow that such a statement could be read as unambiguous support for the DA to the exclusion of other parties.

Davis says that this twitter user on several occasions tweeted favourably about other parties besides the DA.

“It appears therefore that there is insufficient evidence to claim that @Blow_Back_Time is a DA supporter.”

Smith argues that it is not unusual to characterise people as supporters of a political party based on anecdote. “For example, if someone wears an ANC T-shirt, we might call them an ANC supporter. @Blow_Back_Time repeatedly tweets about the DA using the hashtag #DA, so we might not be wrong to suggest this person is a supporter.”

                        My considerations

I have no concrete evidence to believe that this twitter user was indeed a DA supporter. On the other hand, neither do I have some proof to the contrary. (Even if the twitter user supported the DA, it does not follow that he/she may not have said favourable things about other parties as well.)

Therefore, I have no basis on which to find that Aboobaker was wrong in her assumption. If I did, I would be assuming as well. A DA hashtag may point to support for that party, as the newspaper suggests, but in the end such a conclusion remains an assumption.

Likewise, the newspaper also had no such evidence. I therefore find it odd that the journalist jumped to this conclusion, seemingly without solid grounds. So, I have reason to advise her to be cautious in future, and not to base her conclusions on assumptions, but rather on facts.

However, the real question here is if her assumption caused the DA some unnecessary harm.

Here are some considerations:

·         If a supporter (not even a member) of an institution makes statements in public, it is not reasonable to equate that sentiment with the official position of that body. When, say, a member of the Anglican Church goes public with a statement, it does not follow that that view represents the church’s opinion, or that the leaders of that institution are impugned by it. I therefore do not think that the DA would have been harmed in any way by this part of the reportage – even if the twitter user was a DA supporter; and

·         Because of the above, I do not believe that the DA has the standing to complain about this particular matter. If anybody, it was up to the twitter user to complain.

Having said that, I am also cognisant of the fact that I also need to look at the story holistically. I shall return to this issue towards the end of my analysis.

Electoral Code breached; hate speech

The story said:

·         “Although the comments [by alleged Zille supporters]violate the Electoral Code of Conduct and skirt the boundaries of hate speech, the DA refuses to condemn them or distance the party’s leader from them”; (emphasis added) and

·         “The tweet in question is in clear violation of the country’s Electoral Code of Conduct of 1998 which states: ‘Registered parties and candidates are not permitted to speak or act in a way that incites violence or intimidation or publish false or defamatory allegations.’. Arguably the tweet would also easily meet the criteria to be labelled as hate speech or incitement (to imminent violence), were it to be taken before the SA Human Rights Commission.”

Davis complains that this claim was false because the twitter user in question was not (to his knowledge) a registered party or candidate in the election – which means that the Electoral Code did not apply to him/her. “On what basis, therefore, can Ms. Aboobaker claim that the tweet is in ‘clear violation’ of the Code? On the contrary, there is no evidence that the Code has been transgressed at all.”

He argues that, by not denouncing the tweet, it implied that the DA was guilty of hate speech by association. He also questions the justification for such a conclusion, and asks: “If the tweet really did carry the threat of ‘incitement to imminent violence’, what steps did your newspaper take before deciding to publish the tweet? If the newspaper was genuinely concerned that the tweet constituted hate speech, presumably it would have sought a legal opinion before re-publishing it. It is unlikely that such advice was sought, however, because the tweet is patently not hate speech or incitement to imminent violence.”

Davis concludes that, while the DA may not agree with the tone of the tweet in question, it does not believe that it constituted hate speech. “On the contrary, it is an attempt at satire by a member of the public exercising their right to freedom of speech. Neither Helen Zille nor myself therefore saw fit to criticise the tweet on that basis. That this can be construed as ‘tacit approval of [a]Hitler slur’ by Ms. Aboobaker is, frankly, laughable.”

Smith replies that the newspaper does not believe the Electoral Code was breached by Zille as she herself did not tweet or retweet the picture of Mr Gwede Mantashe with a swastika photoshopped onto his jacket.

“We do not believe we are suggesting that Ms Zille or the DA engage in or condone hate speech, and we do not believe she and its supporters, or South Africans in general, are of this mind around the party. As hate speech remains largely undescribed in law, it is, however, open to interpretation, and we venture that Mr Davis’s interpretation is, simply, different to ours in this instance.”

Davis responds that it is impossible for a person to breach the Electoral Code unless that person is a candidate in the election – the basis of the writer’s claim that there was a breach of the code is therefore unclear, since the twitter user was not a candidate in the election. He adds: “The inference in the article is that Helen Zille and myself tacitly condoned a breach of the Electoral Code. This is wrong since the twitter user is not bound by that Code.”

He reiterates that the story “absolutely” implied that Zille and he condoned hate speech. He cites the following excerpts from the story:

·         “Although the comments violate the Electoral Code of Conduct and skirt the boundaries of hate speech, the DA refuses to condemn them or distance the party’s leader from them”;

·         “The two [Zille and Davis] seemed to see nothing wrong with likening a black South African politician to a genocidal white supremacist”;

·         “Despite this, Davis defended the Nazi slur on free speech grounds”; and

·         “Zille’s tacit approval of the Hitler slur may be explained by the fact that she herself is not above using Nazism to smear and silence people whose views she disagrees with.”

Davis also disagrees with Smith that hate speech is undefined in law. “If Independent Newspapers have a different definition of what constitutes hate speech, then they should furnish the ombudsman with such a definition and explain precisely how the tweet in question could be defined as hate speech in terms of that definition.”

                        My considerations

Two issues are at stake here: a breach of the Electoral Code, and hate speech.

Firstly, DA supporters can indeed not breach this Code, as Davis correctly indicated – only political parties and their officials can. It is therefore puzzling that Aboobaker seems to think otherwise (see the quotations above where she stated it as fact).

This time her reporting is not based on an assumption that may or may not be true – it is a mistake.

Again, my question is whether the DA may have been caused unnecessary harm by this reporting.

Unlike the case above (about DA “supporters”), this time the reporter explicitly linked these “breaches” of the Code directly to the DA itself (again: according to her, that party refused to condemn or distance itself from these statements).

Was it not for this rather direct link, the mistake may have been “innocent”. However, this connection inferred that the DA had scant respect for the Electoral Code – while it had nothing to do with the tweets and could not take responsibility for “breaches” committed by outsiders. Smith is correct is saying that the story did not portray the message that Zille had breached the Code – but it certainly carried the message that her party had condoned such actions.

This reporting is both inaccurate and unfair, causing unnecessary harm to everybody’s reputation concerned.

Secondly, the question whether or not these tweets (possibly) constituted hate speech is not at the heart of the matter. (Just as a matter of interest, the Bill of Rights defines hate speech slightly differently from the Equality Court – the former is about “harmful” speech, while the latter boils down to “hurtful” speech).

What is at stake, is that Aboobaker hinted at possible hate speech (whatever its definition) – and again directly linked the DA to it (“the DA refuses to condemn them or distance the party’s leader from them”).

The result is again inaccuracy, unfairness and unnecessary harm to reputations.

But that is not all. Section 2.3 of the Press Code reads: “Only what may reasonably be true…may be presented as fact…” Aboobaker did indeed present the DA’s “condoning” of these two issues as fact, and did not attribute it to a (credible) source.

So, was it “reasonably true”? When I contend that it was not, I do not single that party out or put any special faith in it. I merely submit that it is most probably not reasonably true that any political party in South Africa (including the DA) would condone such conduct.

And lastly: Why would the DA in the first place refuse to distance itself from the tweets is question if it was not forthcoming from its official structures? Davis also made it clear – it is not necessarily true that the twitter user was (even) a DA supporter.

Inappropriate response by Zille

The story said: “Several Twitter users responded to Zille saying they expected a more appropriate response from the official leader of the opposition, but she did not respond despite being prolific on the site.”

Davis complains that there was only one twitter user (Ruth Lewin) who responded to Zille’s tweet (“as shown in the attached screen grab”).

He concludes that the reporter exaggerated the response to the tweet in order to give the story more substance.

The Sunday Independent concedes that, in this particular instance, the use of the word
“several” (users) was not correct. “However, we wish to point to a trend of concern around the DA having previously used Hitler/Nazi allusions in its campaign against the ANC.
We have sent you (this office) a few screen grabs by separate mail which, we believe, support this trend. It establishes context and, in the world of social media, context is very important as you can easily trace a particular opinion or thread of thought over time. To this end, ‘several’ reflects on that context.”

                        My considerations

The newspaper’s response is noteworthy, but it does not address this specific matter. The issue here is not accusations about Nazism in general, but more specifically Zille’s perceived lack of an appropriate response to a tweet. The use of the plural is therefore not accurate and, to an extent, also not fair to her.

Not contacted for comment

Davis complains that there was no evidence to suggest that @Blow_Back_Time was contacted for comment, despite being the primary subject of the story. He argues that this was problematic not least because such contact could have confirmed whether or not this twitter user was a supporter of the DA or not – a claim that is integral to the validity of the story.

Smith argues that the DA has no locus standi to suggest that the newspaper should have contacted @Blow_Back_Time for comment. The latter has not complained about this, and neither did the story reveal the identity of this twitter user.

“Further, we believe a user as prolific as @Blow_Back_Time, with at least 500 followers, understands that their views are already very much in the public domain, and therefore should not have an issue with these views being repeated elsewhere.”

She adds that the reporter did her job in attempting to get the DA’s point of view on these matters in the detailed questions sent to both Davis and Zille on the Friday before publication, 18 April. “Indeed, Mr Davis acknowledges the questions were detailed and had been received… We are satisfied that our reporter did significant enough research on this matter, and that the DA had an opportunity to respond to her queries in enough time.”

In later correspondence, Davis explains: “Good journalistic practice (as set out in the Press Code) dictates that the subject of a story be contacted to hear their side of the story. My concern here is not the rights of this twitter user to reply. It is the right of myself and Helen Zille not to be impugned on the basis of a false interpretation of this person’s tweets. If the journalist had contacted the twitter user they may have discovered, for example, that he/she was not exclusively a DA supporter.

                        My considerations

The complaint itself has no leg to stand on, as the newspaper correctly points out. The DA has no standing to complain on this matter; neither was it incumbent upon the publication to ask for comment when the twitter user was anonymous, and the message in the public domain.

I have already addressed Davis’s concern of having been impugned.

Headline misleading

The headline stated, DA Digs in amid Twitter Race War.

Davis complains that this suggested that the tweet in question had precipitated an outcry that split the public or the party along racial lines.

“Given that only one Twitter user (Ruth Lewin…) responded to the tweet, how could the newspaper reach the conclusion that the tweet had sparked anything approaching a ‘race war’? Even if this response could be characterised as a ‘war’, it would be illuminating to understand what race has to do with it.”

Smith says that the newspaper is be willing to apologise for the headline “which does not accurately reflect the story.”

                        My considerations

I accept and appreciate the newspaper’s admission and willingness to apologise for the headline – it did not reasonably reflect the content of the story (as required by Section 10.1 of the Press Code) and greatly exaggerated the matter.

Not questioning the claim about Zille being depicted as Hitler

The story reported that Zille “produced no evidence of the ANC calling her Hitler or a Nazi”. Aboobaker also wrote that Davis “cited no specific incident in which the ruling party directed the slur at his party’s leader.”

Davis says that a google search would reveal at least two stories in which Zille has been referred to as “Hitler” (http://www.timeslive.co.za/local/2010/10/18/zille-depicted-as-hitler-at-hangberg-court-protest and http://www.iol.co.za/news/politics/mein-fuehrer-rant-at-zille-1.1275261#.U1OCy_mSxps). A twitter search would also have yielded the same result “for example, from an ANC member”.

“There is likely to be more such attacks to be found on other social networks and elsewhere in the public domain. Why were these not referred to in the story?” (Davis’s emphasis)

He adds that the DA would have provided this evidence if Aboobaker had asked for it, and says that the reporter (who covered a particular subject) should have done some research on her own – particularly as one of the depictions of Zille as Hitler was published recently by the very newspaper group she works for.

The newspaper adds that Aboobaker’s research did not find instances of the ANC describing Zille as Hitler or likening her to Hitler, although she did find that a government employee, Patrick Tariq Mellet, had done so. However, he was unconnected to the ANC in terms of his tweets in this regard.

Davis replies that Zille has been depicted as Hitler previously by ANC members. It was therefore inaccurate for the journalist to write that she had not been depicted as Hitler previously. He adds that it may not have been the intention of the story to paint himself and Zille as being linked with Nazism. “But the story that resulted painted a picture that Helen Zille and myself condoned hate speech. That is what is at issue here.”

                        My considerations

This matter is rather simple. The story did not say that there was no evidence that Zille had been likened to Hitler – it merely stated that she produced no such evidence (not that she was not able to do so). Therefore, I have no reason to believe that the reporting was false on this issue.

The net effect of the story

Davis concludes that the entire story has been concocted by resorting to exaggeration, omission and misrepresentation. “Overall, the net effect of these inaccuracies is that the reader is left with the impression that the DA condones racism and Nazism. Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said.

Davis also says that Aboobaker took to defending the ANC. (The story read: “Although Davis and Zille seemed keen to accuse the ANC of using personal slurs against their opponents, recent examples actually show the ruling party coming out against members who use abusive language against opponents in public…”) He argues that the reporter provided no evidence to back up the assertion that the ANC has come out against members who used abusive language.

“It is very hard not to conclude that, by casting doubt on the DA’s claims and defending the ANC, Ms. Aboobaker exhibited a bias that has no place in a news article.”

Smith replies: “We understand the DA has a view that we effectively accused it of Nazism, and would like that retracted. We disagree that we did this. Our story grew out of a debate which our reporter…followed which played out on public twitter feed. Miss Aboobaker is our designated reporter to follow the DA throughout its campaign.”

She adds that the intention of the story was not to paint Davis or Zille as being linked to Nazism as such – the story only showed that Zille and the DA had themselves attempted to liken the ANC to the Nazis (but not in terms of anti-Semitism). “This contention is supported in repeated comments which Ms Zille and the DA had previously made about, for example, ‘Gestapo-like crackdowns’ by the ‘Zuma SABC’ on freedom of speech.”

Smith concludes: “However, we understand that rhetoric is a major part of electioneering, and that this so-called negative campaigning was part of the DA’s strategy, as it also was for some other parties.”

                        My considerations

I have indicated above that I need to look at the story holistically.

Firstly, Aboobaker assumed that the tweet user was a DA supporter. In itself, this was quite innocent. However, from there the reporter not only erroneously stated that tweet users broke the Electoral Code, but she also explicitly stated that the DA refused to condemn this or to distance itself from such transgressions.

How can one distance oneself from a transgression that did not take place in the first place?

Then, she mentioned hate speech – and again the DA reportedly “refused to condemn or to distance itself”.

Holistically speaking, only now does it become clear why Aboobaker found it necessary to label the tweet users as DA supporters – that was an easy way of accusing the DA of condoning hate speech…

I also take into account that this story appeared a few weeks before the general election.

Although the headline was not of Aboobaker’s making, it served to fuel the non-existent fire the reporter had, evidently, attempted to light. There was enough imbalance and misrepresentation in the story (these occurred right at the beginning of the report) to characterise the whole story as such.

FINDING

DA supporters

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

Electoral Code breached; hate speech

As far as both aspects are concerned, the story is in breach of the following sections of the Press Code:

·         2.1: “The press shall take care to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly; and

·         2.3: “Only what may reasonably be true…may be presented as fact”; and

·         4.2: “The press shall exercise care and consideration in matters involving…reputation…”

Inappropriate response by Zille

This is in breach of Section 2.1 of the Code.

Not contacted for comment

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

Headline misleading

This is in breach of Section 10.1 of the Code: “Headlines…shall give a reasonable reflection of the contents of the report…in question.”

Not questioning the claim about Zille being depicted as Hitler

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

The net effect of the story

The story as a whole is in breach of Section 2.2 of the Press Code: “News shall be presented in context and in a balanced manner, without any intentional or negligent departure from the facts whether by distortion, exaggeration or misrepresentation, material omissions, or summarization.”

SANCTION

Sunday Independent is directed to apologise to the DA in general, and to Zille and Davis in particular, for:

·         inaccurately and unfairly stating as fact that the party refused to condemn violations of the Electoral Code of Conduct and expressions that bordered on hate speech, thereby tainting their reputation without the necessary justification within a story that was basically unbalanced; and

·         a headline that fuelled and exaggerated the above.

The newspaper is also reprimanded for erroneously stating that several twitter users (using the plural) said that they had expected a more appropriate response from Zille.

Sunday Independent is directed to publish the sanction and the finding, and to provide this office with the text prior to publication. The text should end with the words: “Visit www.presscouncil.org.za for the full finding.”

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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