James Evans vs Sowetan

Complainant: James Evans

Lodged by: James Evans

Article: Trust likens ASA’s Evans to Idi Amin

Author of article: David Isaacson

Date: 15 December 2013

Respondent: Sowetan

Complaint

Evans complains about a story headlined Trust likens ASA’s Evans to Idi Amin, published in Sowetan of 5 November 2013.

Evans complains that the:

  • journalist repeated without reason or substantiation a defamatory statement that he was similar to Ugandan dictator Idi Amin;
  • people who made this statement had been making death threats against him, committing hate speech, inciting violence and promoting hatred;
  • he was not asked for his response to the statement in dispute; and
  • headline was unreasonable and unsubstantiated, and that it perpetuated the potential of violence against him.

The text

The story, written by David Isaacson, said that the Soweto Marathon Trust had launched a scathing attack on Evans, “likening him to Uganda’s former dictator, Idi Amin”. The trust reportedly said in a press statement: “The only difference…is that Evans has not killed anyone, but he is busy killing the sport of athletics.” The statement was made after the organization expressed its unhappiness at being excluded from a “secret” TV rights deal struck between Evans and the SABC which included coverage of the Soweto Marathon.

Analysis

Defamatory statement

Evans complains that Isaacson repeated without reason or substantiation a defamatory statement that he was similar to Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. While Amin was renowned for committing genocide and for his irrational behaviour, he argues that the story did not explore how the source came to that conclusion.

Sowetan replies that the story quoted the Soweto Marathon Trust who was responsible for the analogy, and that Isaacson immediately after followed it up with the Trust’s explanation that he was “busy killing the sport of athletics”. Van den Berg argues: “This serves to explain the Trust’s reasoning behind this analogy and we therefore disagree with Mr Evans’ statement that the analogy is not explained.”

She adds that:

  • no reasonable person would have understood that Evans was in fact guilty of genocide or killing people in any way; and
  • the story also explained the reason for the dispute (the Trust’s allegation that it was cut out of the TV deal), and that this was the Trust’s motivation for its statement that Evans acted like a dictator.

It was the Trust’s right to voice its opinion on Evans’s style of management, and likewise the newspaper’s prerogative to publish that view. I agree with Sowetan that the ordinary reader would have understood that the analogy was about an alleged dictatorial style, and not one about genocide or murder.

Potential violence

Evans complains that the people who reportedly made this statement had been making death threats against him, which meant that the story further incited violence and promoted hatred. He says Isaacson previously reported on those threats, which meant that he could not plead ignorance thereof. “Within that context the article has the potential to incite violence and further promotes hatred, since Amin was seen as a symbol of oppression.” He argues that a story such as this one had the potential “to encourage some madman to carry out with the death threats which have already been reported in the media”, and calls it hate speech.

He adds that the analogy between himself and Amin was gratuitous and damaging to his reputation, and concludes that the story “has potentially placed my life at risk”.

Van den Berg does not specifically respond to this part of the complaint.

I have already decided that Sowetan was justified in publishing the views of the Trust. In this case, it was merely the messenger. Therefore: If, in the unlikely event of some “madman” disregarding the context of the allegation in the story does commit some crime, the blame for that should surely not be laid at the door of the newspaper.

Not asked to respond

Evans complains that Isaacson failed to get his response to the statement in dispute. In later correspondence he says that the reporter may have asked his comment on other matters, but that he has not done so on the analogy between him and Amin.

Sowetan denies that Evans did not get the opportunity to comment on allegations that he had cut the Trust out of the deal, and argues that the story was therefore balanced. Van den Berg adds that Isaacson reported both on the Trust’s death threats and “with equal zeal” on Evans’ claims of these threats against him. “Both sides of the dispute between these two parties is thus covered equally well…”

I note that the story indeed quoted Evans on this matter, which was part of the motivation for the analogy. That, to my mind, was sufficient.

Unreasonable, unsubstantiated headline

Evans complains that the headline was unreasonable and unsubstantiated, and that it perpetuated the potential of violence against him.

Sowetan does not specifically respond to this part of the complaint.

The newspaper was justified in reporting the Trust’s views regarding an analogy between Evans and Amin. The heading merely reflected this opinion. It follows that the headline was also reasonable.

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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