Joshua Generation Church vs BY (weekly supplement to Media 24 dailies)

Complainant: Joshua Generation Church

Lodged by: Philip van der Westhuizen

Article: Buk Boetie, ‘want die Bybel sê so’

Author of article: Willemien Brümmer

Date: 10 December 2013

Respondent: BY (weekly supplement to Media 24 dailies)

Even though BY is a national Afrikaans supplement, the complaint was lodged in English – hence the language of this finding.

COMPLAINT

Van der Westhuizen complains about an article in BY, published on 12 October 2013 in Die Burger, headlined Buk Boetie, ‘want die Bybel sê so’.

He complains that the:

  • journalist did not obtain her information legally, honestly and fairly;
  • article was factually incorrect, biased and out of context, conflating facts and opinion and misrepresenting the position of the JGC (details of the complaint below);
  • journalist omitted material information from his email to her (details below):
  • headline did not accurately reflect the JGC’s interpretation of the Bible; and
  • pictures unnecessarily presented the church in an unfavourable light.

TEXT

The article, written by Willemien Brümmer, was about a married activist couple (Mr Adriaan and Ms Hannah Mostert) who lodged a complaint with the SA Human Rights Commission against the JGC regarding corporal punishment.

ANALYSIS

Information obtained illegally, dishonestly, unfairly

JGC complains that the journalist did not obtain her information legally, honestly and fairly, as she did not identify herself as a reporter during her visit to the church at one of its meetings.

BY responds that a journalist may, in the public interest, attend public meetings in cognito in order to obtain a truthful and an accurate picture. It adds: “The journalist did not lie to obtain access to the church service and it was not illegal for her to attend it. It was also not unfair. To the contrary – attending the church service shows how thorough she was in obtaining a complete picture.”

Factually incorrect, biased, out of context

Van der Westhuizen says that the reporter interviewed him on October 2, and complains that she represented his views unfairly and in a biased way.

He singles out the following statements, to which BY replies:

 

                       JGC                        BY
JGC punished one-year olds with rods – which he says misrepresented the church’s views on this matter The manual stated that for a one-year-old toddler, the rod should be 25 – 28 cm long and 3 mm thick; a longer stick of wood or plastic should be used for older children. “The journalist quoted directly from the church’s manual…”
Most of the children of the congregants were home-schooled – “when in fact, only a small proportion attends home-school” The article stated that most of the parents who spoke with the journalist indicated that their children attended home-schooling – it did not implicate the congregation as a whole
“Many pages” of the Manual relate to corporal punishment, whereas only four did (which was less that 10% of the document) In this context, the use of the words “many pages” merely meant “more than one”
A Cape Town advocate and a member of the JGC reportedly said that the Constitution was “merely a document”: The advocate was misquoted and the statement was made in a completely different context – “independent from and unrelated to” the complaint lodged with the SAHRC against the church. “Taken out of context, this statement…creates the wrongful impression that the JGC rejects the Constitution.” The advocate in fact stated as part of her personal testimony that “the Constitution was a document, but…God’s Word is life. The Constitution can give us rights, but God’s Word gives us life, gives us blessing”. The advocate was in any case speaking for herself, rather than for the JGC The advocate did use the words “merely a document”. The story used the word “testified” (Afrikaans: “getuig”), which the reasonable reader would have interpreted as a personal testimony (the advocate clearly did not speak on behalf of the church)

Omitting information

Van der Westhuizen says that he sent the reporter an email on that same day, responding to questions relating to the SAHRC’s process, in particular the portion of the JGC’s Parental Manual relating to corporal punishment. He says that the journalist omitted the following information from this email. Again, BY replies.

 

 

                       JGC                        BY
The Mosterts pursued a political agenda “as secular humanists who seek to abolish traditional religion” This fell outside the scope of the article and was a matter of opinion; the abolishment of religion from public schools was in line with the SA Constitution; and the article made it clear that the Mosterts considered themselves being activists and (perhaps as) non-Christians
The Mosterts uttered hate speech against the JGC on public internet forums This was not relevant to the article and would not pass muster for hate speech in a court
The view of the Constitutional Court to the effect that equality does not mean uniformity, thus allowing for differing views A Constitutional law expert told the journalist that corporal punishment cannot be defended as part of religious freedom. “However, this is for the court to decide, not [for]the church nor [for]BY”
The distinction between harming a child (abuse) and inflicting moderate pain (with no lasting harm or damage caused to the child), specifically with the intention of avoiding further harm to that child This distinction is the crux of the matter. The article indicated that the church set limits to corporal punishment, and the caption stated that it should merely cause pain and not harm
Reasonable physical chastisement is considered by the JGC as one of the tools of discipline, and a last resort at that. And: An “articulation of JGC’s teachings within the overall context of its educational ministry, all of which place a much greater emphasis on the importance of security, care and love for children than on the discipline issue” The article stated JGC’s position in this regard – it said that the manual was never meant to be read on its own, but always in conjunction with the Bible, and that the manual was going to be replaced with another document which would not include the length and thickness of the rod and in which parents would be cautioned to use it with caution

Headline

JGC complains that headline did not accurately reflect the JGC’s interpretation of the Bible. He argues that it was “grossly misleading” to suggest that members of the church administer harsh corporal punishment to their children arbitrarily and mechanically, on the simple basis that the Bible “says so”.

BY replies that it was not clear how one should not deduce that the Bible says that one should chastise a child with a rod (according to the JGC). Besides, the article stated that the church quoted several texts from Scripture to justify corporal punishment (both in the article and in its presentation to the HRC).

Pictures

JGC complains that the illustration that prominently appeared at the top of the article consisted of a sinister-looking, out of focus picture depicting an individual, who was suggested to be a leader of the JGC, “standing mechanically in the background”. By contrast, the photograph of the Mosterts presented them as a stereotypically happy family.

BY says that it focuses on analysis of the news, not on news itself. “Therefore we commission and use pictures that support the article in a more indirect and metaphorical way. It is a deliberate process. For example, the pictures were used…in the shape of a cross. This subtly conveys that the matter involves the Christian religion, as well as that the South African society is at a cross roads regarding the issue of corporal punishment.”

Van Wyk argues that “in order to convey the issue at hand in an abstract manner” the pictures portrayed a cross, that of a child and an authoritative figure (“therefore the pastor is not clearly identifiable”), as well as the reflections. The photographer says that s/he showed these pictures to van der Westhuizen at the time and that he then did not find fault with it.

And: “The pictures of the church’s opponents were also composed to convey a metaphorical message. The harsh light and deep shadows show that they are in the spotlight and that the matter cast deep shadows on their family life.”

My considerations

A short and sweet comment is appropriate in this case: I whole-heartedly agree with BY’s arguments on each and every point, and I really do not think that anyone of them warrants any further reasoning.

However, I need to add that:

  • hate speech is defined in SA’s Bill of Rights as “propaganda for war, incitement of imminent violence, or advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion, and that constitutes incitement to cause harm”. Therefore, it is about speech that is more than merely hurtful – it needs to intend to cause harm in order to qualify for hate speech; and
  • the article was not a hard news story, but rather interpretation, comment, analysis. Section 7 of the Press Code states that the press shall be entitled to comment upon events of public interest, provided that such criticisms or comment are fairly and honestly made, and that fair account should be taken of all available facts which are material to the story. I submit that the article in question, as well as the pictures, conformed to these requirements.

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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