Dr O.I. Adejayan vs Mafikeng Mail

Complainant: Dr O.I Adejayan

Article: Deafening Silence

Date: 8 August 2012

Respondent: Mafikeng Mail

Complaint

Dr O.I. Adejayan complains about editorial comment in the Mafikeng Mail on 27 October 2011 headlined “Deafening Silence”.

He complains that the editorial wrongly accused medical practitioners working at the hospital as being “fakes”.

Analysis

The editorial highlighted “the ever-mounting criticism and complaints about poor service, neglect, unprofessional behaviour and general poor attitude by health workers” at the hospital. It said that the criticism had reached “unbearable proportions” and called for an investigation into these complaints. The editorial also questioned why the authorities remained silent and inactive in the face of public concern.

Fakes

The crux of the complaint is against this sentence: “We agree with the popular public opinion that the department…must have not appointed ‘fong Kong’ medical practitioners, nurses and others. The lives of our people could be at risk here.”

The term “fong Kong” is slang for “fake”.

The complainants say that the editorial portrayed them as masquerading as genuine medical practitioners to deceive people, and argue that they are all registered with the Health Professional Council of South Africa.

The Mafikeng Mail says the complaints about poor service are common knowledge and have been published before. The newspaper adds that it attempted to obtain comment from the department’s media and communications directorate which had promised to investigate the allegations. When the newspaper received no further response, it proceeded to publish its editorial comment.

Adejayan responds that the newspaper should have clarified whether the patients’ claims of negligence were reasonable. He says that the department should be the target, not the medical practitioners.

Firstly, a publication is not required to ask for comment when writing an editorial.

Now: Based on complaints about alleged poor service at the hospital, the newspaper was entitled to question, to criticise and to hold people to reasonable standards.

However, Art. 8.3 of the Press Code requires of publications to “take fair account of all available facts” when commenting on an issue. The newspaper did not do that, as it ignored the fact that the practitioners were registered with the Health Professional Council – and by definition cannot be described as fakes.

(It may be that public complaints about poor service are justified and it also may be that some medical practitioners are guilty of poor service – but that is not the point here.)

It would have been a different matter if the editorial said that even though the practitioners were registered, they still – to the editor’s mind – were faked. The editorial would then have taken fair account of all available facts.

The statement of fact that the practitioners were faked, without taking their professional qualifications into account, did not meet the Code’s requirements.

This is supported by the following ruling of the Constitutional Court in April 2011 (Robert McBride vs. National Media): “Criticism is protected, even if it is extreme, unjust, unbalanced, exaggerated and prejudiced, as long as it is an honest opinion, without malice, in the public interest and founded on true facts.” (emphasis added)

Please note that the media have a wide ambit to comment on issues of public interest. This office will do nothing to curtail the robustness of the debate and this finding should not be seen in that light. Freedom of expression, however, is limited by Art. 8.3 of the Code, by Section 16 of the Bill of Rights (that prohibits hate speech), and by defamation laws – and it is this office’s task to take action if these limitations were breached.

As a result of the editorial’s above-mentioned neglect, the statement in dispute unfairly took aim at the professional integrity of medical practitioners and unnecessarily undermined their integrity and credibility.

Finding

The Mafikeng Mail is in breach of Art. 8.3 of the Press Code that states: “Comment by the press shall be an honest expression of opinion, without malice or dishonest motives, and shall take fair account of all available facts which are material to the matter commented upon.” (emphasis added)

 
Sanction

The Mafikeng Mail is directed to:

·         apologise to Dr Adejayan and the other 37 complainants for stating it as fact that “fong Kong” medical practitioners were appointed at the hospital and for not taking into account that they were registered with the Health Professional Council of South Africa;

·         retract the statement in dispute;

·         publish the text below prominently: and

·         use the word “apology” or “apologise” in the headline.

Beginning of text

The Mafikeng Mail apologises to Dr. O.I. Adejayan and 37 other medical practitioners at the Mafikeng Provincial Hospital for stating in an editorial that “kong Fong” (fake) staff were appointed at that hospital and for not taking into account the fact that they were registered with the Health Professional Council of South Africa.

We retract that statement unconditionally.

This comes after Adejayan lodged a complaint with the Press Ombudsman about an editorial published on 27 October 2011 and headlined Deafening silence.

The editorial highlighted “the ever-mounting criticism and complaints about poor service, neglect, unprofessional behaviour and general poor attitude by health workers” at the hospital. It said that the criticism had reached “unbearable proportions” and called for an investigation into the public’s complaints.

Deputy Press Ombudsman Johan Retief said that we did not take fair account of all available facts in expressing our opinion – thereby breaching Art. 8.3 of the Press Code. He said that these practitioners were registered with the Health Professional Council, and argued that we should have considered that fact.

He said: “As a result of this neglect, the statement in dispute unfairly took aim at the professional integrity of medical practitioners and unnecessarily undermined their integrity and credibility.”

Retief explained that the media have a wide ambit to comment on issues of public interest and that his office will do nothing to curtail the robustness of the debate. “Freedom of expression, however, is limited by Art. 8.3 of the Code, by Section 16 of the Bill of Rights (that prohibits hate speech), and by defamation laws – and it is this office’s task to take action if these limitations were breached.”

Visit www.presscouncil.org.za (rulings, 2012) for the full finding.

End of text
 
Appeal

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

Johan Retief
Deputy Press Ombudsman
 
 

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