Dr Shuab Manja vs Cape Times

Complainant: Dr Shuab Manja

Lodged by: Dr Shuab Manja

Date: 17 June 2015

Respondent: Cape Times

Complaint

Manjra is complaining about a response by Mr Glen Heneck to his opinion piece (both were published in the Cape Times) and wants the newspaper to either give him a right of reply (he says the second article misrepresented him), or to correct that writer’s “disingenuousness in his response”.

The texts were about the troubled situation in the Middle East.

The complaint in more detail

Manjra says that, besides making disparaging comments against his piece, Heneck was dishonest and disingenuous in that he raised issues not included in his article and then criticized them.

He cites the following sentence in Heneck’s text as the main object of his criticism: “What he re­quires of the Is­raelis, in other words, is that they aban­don their ex­clu­sivist urges and sub­mit them­selves to the whims of a democ­racy; to a one per­son, one vote ar­range­ment in a uni­tary state.”

Manjra counters, “He (Heneck) spent a considerable amount of time refuting this argument notwithstanding that I did not even make that argument in my article… It was a classic case of attacking the proverbial strawman. In fact he cut and pasted much from a previous correspondence of his where he criticized another article of mine…”

He says it is the duty of the Cape Times to ensure that any article and any response is an accurate and fair reflection of the debate so as to do justice to the protagonists and to present a fair and balanced view to the public. “Failure to do so is dereliction of duty by the editor, which I believe occurred in this case.”

He complains that the Cape Times refused to publish his response to Heneck’s article and also refused to engage with him on the matter. “This leaves this matter unresolved in the public eye and does not provide the necessary balance required in the media, and remedy the editor’s glaring error.”

Analysis

To date the editor has not published Manjra’s response or any “correction”.

Manjra’s response not published

This office has no mandate to interfere with editorial decisions and therefore will not direct the newspaper to publish another article by Manjra.

No ‘correction’ published

While it is true that opinions expressed in opinion pieces should be fairly and honestly formed, it is also true that freedom of speech in a real sense gives one the right to be wrong. I therefore need to consider the possibility that Manjra may have been misrepresented and weigh that against the right to freedom of speech.

As freedom of speech has its limitations, and Heneck’s article may have been fundamentally unfair, I read the articles by both Manjra and Heneck with interest.

The crux of Manjra’s dissatisfaction is the sentence reading, “What he (Manjra)  re­quires of the Is­raelis, in other words, is that they aban­don their ex­clu­sivist urges and sub­mit them­selves to the whims of a democ­racy; to a one per­son, one vote ar­range­ment in a uni­tary state.”

Heneck then builds most of his argument on this statement.

It is true, as Manjra says, that he did not make such a statement in his piece. But Heneck used the expression “in other words” – which points to his interpretation of Manjra’s article. Surely, he had the freedom to take the argument further on the basis of his interpretation of the original article.

It would be a sad day for the South African press in particular and our democracy in general if this office should decide a writer is not allowed to interpret what others have written.

I refer to the ruling of the Constitutional Court (McBride vs. The Citizen) where Judge Edwin Cameron stated: “Criticism is protected even if extreme, unjust, unbalanced, exaggerated and prejudiced, as long as it expresses an honestly held opinion, without malice, on a matter of public interest on facts that are true.” (April 2011)

This is in line with the provisions of the Press Code.

I also take into account the sensitivity of the matter – people differ vehemently on this issue. The one person’s freedom fighter is another’s terrorist. Who is right and who is wrong? Is there a right or a wrong?

Lastly, my office cannot expect a newspaper to research all the statements in articles submitted for publication by outside contributors under their own names. That would create an untenable situation.

I therefore conclude that, even if Heneck’s article has misrepresented Manjra, such an assumedly mistaken opinion was not serious enough for me to even contemplate that it should outweigh the right to freedom of expression.

Heneck is entitled to his views, and Cape Times is justified in printing them. It is also the editor’s responsibility to decide what should be published and what not.

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 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