Inkatha Freedom Party vs Sowetan

Complainant: Inkatha Freedom Party

Lodged by: Ms Liezl van der Merwe

Date: 23 November 2010

Respondent: Sowetan

Complaint
The IFP complains about a story in the Sowetan, published on July 22, 2010, and headlined IFP slams ANC for political ploy at power switch-on.
It complains that the story falsely states that Buthelezi “snubbed” an electricity switch-on event.
Analysis
The story, written by Canaan Mdletshe, starts off by saying that the IFP and the ANC were at each other’s throats again. It says that the mayor (who was also the IFP’s Zululand district secretary) lambasted the Minister of Energy (ANC) for not inviting him when the latter visited the area. The story says that the Minister was at Ngolotsha to switch on electricity – and ends off the story by saying that Buthelezi “snubbed” this event (adding that he was seen at a different meeting).
We shall now consider the merits of the complaint:
‘Snubbed”
The story says that Buthelezi snubbed the event described above and that instead, he was seen at the Nazareth Baptist Church (Shembe) on the iNhlangakazi Mountain.
The IFP complains that it is not true that Buthelezi “snubbed” the event. It says that Buthelezi was aware of the event, but that he had a prior engagement with his church (the Shembe Church). It adds that this claim was unsubstantiated, implying that Buthelezi (or his spokesperson) had never been asked for comment.
The Sowetan argues that Buthelezi was invited to attend and that the organizers of the event insisted that as far as they were concerned he was still going to attend. The newspaper says it was reasonable to report that Buthelezi snubbed the event because:
  • the organizers had no formal word from him that he would not attend the event; and
  • he was seen by another journalist at a different occasion.
In its response to the above, the IPF says that Buthelezi “was not even sure” that he had received an official invitation to the event, adding that he never indicated to the organizers that he will attend. The IFP says that the newspaper therefore did not check the facts before assuming that he snubbed the event.
Let’s take this step by step.
The first question is not whether or not Buthelezi was in fact invited (or if he was sure about this issue), but rather if it was reasonable for the newspaper to believe/suspect that he had been invited.
If there is any doubt here, the benefit of it should go to the newspaper – it says that the organizers insisted that Buthelezi was invited and that, as far as they were concerned, he was still to attend. I have no reason to doubt this.
Therefore, my first conclusion: It was reasonable for the newspaper to believe/suspect that Buthelezi was invited.
The next question is if it was reasonable to suspect that Buthelezi therefore “snubbed” the event.
For this, we have to consider two issues: the meaning of the word “snub”, as well as the context within which this word was used.
The most common meanings of “snub” that I could find are:
  • to ignore (mostly making sure that people know that they are being ignored);
  • to treat with disdain or contempt;
  • to give a cold shoulder;
  • to refuse to acknowledge; and
  • to reject outright and bluntly.
Clearly, there is a negative slant to this word.
The context is also negative – there was said to be new tension between the IFP and the ANC. The story brings Buthelezi into this fray.
Putting both text and context together, it can be concluded that the journalist chose to interpret Buthelezi’s absence as turning a deliberate cold shoulder towards the ANC. Based on the belief that Buthelezi was invited, the journalist may well have had reason to think/believe/suspect that he had snubbed the event.
(This does not mean that Buthelezi indeed snubbed the event; all it means is that, with the information at the newspaper’s disposal, it was reasonable to believe/suspect this.)
Now for the question how responsible it was for the journalist to report it.
The answer to this is simple: It was reasonable – on condition that the journalist checked if there was any truth to his suspicions. The best person to check this with is Buthelezi himself, or his spokesperson.
Let me put it this way: I am not in a position to decide whether Buthelezi did snub the event or not because I never spoke to him about the matter. For this very same reason the journalist should not have used this word without having verified it first with Buthelezi.
Surely, not doing so was unfair to Buthelezi. The journalist should have asked himself the question: What it he was wrong?
A general remark
This complaint may seem frivolous, as it centers around the use of one word only. Yet it isn’t. I am not saying that the journalist unnecessarily fuelled tension between the IFP and the ANC; it may, however, happen so easily – which should serve as a reminder to journalists to tread on eggs in an instance like this.
Finding
While it was reasonable to suspect that Buthelezi “snubbed” the event (this is not to say that he did do so), this was never verified with him. This is in breach of:
  • Art. 1.1 of the Press Code that states: “The press is obliged to report news…fairly”; and
  • Art. 1. 3: “A publication should usually seek the views of the subject of serious critical reportage in advance of publication…”
Sanction
The Sowetan is directed to ask comment from Buthelezi on this issue and to publish this comment (if Buthelezi indeed wishes to give comment), together with a summary of this finding. If he does not want to comment, the newspaper is directed to publish a retraction of the statement in dispute. Our office should be furnished with the text prior to publication. The newspaper is directed to publish this text on the same page as the article in dispute and to add this text to its website.

Please add the following sentence at the end of the text: “Visit www.presscouncil.org.za (rulings, 2010) for the full finding.”

 

 
Appeal
Please note that our Complaints Procedures lay down that within seven days of receipt of this decision, anyone of the parties 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 reached at khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.
Johan Retief
Deputy Press Ombudsman

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