Mayor: Midvaal vs Loxion News

Complainant: Mayor: Midvaal

Lodged by: Aaliyah Dangor

Date: 5 September 2013

Respondent: Loxion News

This ruling is based on the written submissions of Aaliyah Dangor, for the mayor of Midvaal.

Mr Nast complains about three texts that appeared on pages 2 and 3 in the Loxion News on 9 November 2012.

The complaints boil down to negative statements against the municipality, hate speech, not having been asked for comment, and a wrong headline.

I shall discuss these texts one by one.

March to force DA to improve lives of residents (page 2)

This is a news story.

The article was about a Cosatu march in Meyerton. Some negative things about the DA and its administration were reported, including that they used black votes to enhance their “greedy activities”, that they had a “baasskap” mentality, that black farm workers were given “sub-human treatment”, and that there was poor service delivery in general.

These sources had the right to say what they did, even if they were critical or “negative”, and the newspaper was justified to report it. Therefore, there is nothing wrong with the story as such.

However, Section 2.5 of the Press Code says: “A publication shall seek the views of the subject of critical reportage in advance of publication…”

This has not been done, and therefore the newspaper is in breach of this specific clause (as the DA/Midvaal Municipality was/were the subject of critical reportage).

Sicelo squalor conditions expose DA demagogues (page 2)

This is an opinion piece (I’ll return to this statement shortly), although it is contested by the mayor.

Some negative things were said in this article about (amongst others) “DA whites”.

The Constitutional Court has ruled in April 2011 (Robert McBride vs. National Media) as follows: “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.”

These sentiments are very much reiterated in Sections 7.1 and 7.3 of the Press Code.

Together with the above, I am also looking at possible hate speech and defamation.

After having scrutinized the piece closely, I am satisfied that the journalist’s article is indeed protected by the Code.

Regarding the complaint about hate speech: This concept is defined in Section 16 of the Bill of Rights, and it is quoted in the Press Code. Please note that hate speech is not hurtful, but rather harmful speech – it is about propaganda for war, the incitement of imminent violence and the advocacy of hatred that constitutes incitement to cause harm.

These elements are absent in the text that is in dispute.

Also, the journalist was not compelled to ask anybody for comment – this is hardly ever done in an opinion piece.

One more thing, though: Section 7.2 of the Code stipulates: “Comment by the press shall be presented in such manner that it appears clearly that it is comment…”

In this case, it is not as clear as it should be – there is no indication (in words) that it is an opinion piece. In mitigation, I need to say that the whole article was surrounded by a thick, black line, which (of course) is unusual for hard news stories. Also, as soon as one starts to read the text, already as early as the second sentence, it becomes clear that it is indeed an opinion piece

Based on the two arguments above, I am giving the newspaper the benefit of the doubt on this issue – but with a suggestion that in future it should make it clearer which texts are news and which are opinion pieces.

Sedibeng Summit Continues Despite Midvaal’s Boycott (page 3)

This is a news story.

The article was about a summit that continued despite the absence of the Midvaal Municipality.

The complaint is about the:

·         word “boycott” in the heading; and

·         allegation that Midvaal was never asked why it was absent at the meeting.

After having looked up several definitions of the word “boycott”, it is clear to me that it boils down to a deliberate act of abstaining in protest of something.

The question now if this notion was present in the story itself, as Section 10.1 of the Press Code requires exactly that. It did not – the only reference in the story to Midvaal Municipality’s absence is a question posed by a source to this effect (“why is the Midvaal Municipality absent?”) – there is no indication in the story that it did not attend as a result of a deliberate act of protest.

The use of the word “boycott” was therefore without any foundation and in breach of Section 10.1 that says: “Headlines…shall give a reasonable reflection of the contents of the report…in question.”

Again, the newspaper was justified to have published what it did. However, it did not ask the municipality for comment, as it should have done (because it was the subject of critical reportage). This is in breach of Section 2.5 of the Code.

Summary of findings

Both stories are in breach of Section 2.5 of the Press Code; the last story also breaches Section 10.1.

The complaint about the content of the stories is dismissed.

The complaint about the opinion piece is dismissed.

General comment

I have little doubt that each and every breach of the Press Code as outlined above has caused the Midvaal Municipality unnecessary harm – which is not only against the letter, but also against the spirit of the Code.

Sanction

Loxion News is directed to:

·         apologise to Midvaal Municipality for not asking it for comment on critical issues in both stories, and for a misleading headline – all of which has caused the municipality unnecessary harm;

·         get comment from the municipality on the specific issues at hand (a reasonable length, approximately 5 – 7 sentences), which is to be included in the text below (if indeed the municipality wants to comment – if so, this text should be presented to my office for approval prior to publication); and

·         publish the text below on either page 2 or 3.

Beginning of text

Loxion News apologises to Midvaal Municipality for not having asked it for comment on critical issues in two stories, and for a misleading headline – all of which has caused the municipality unnecessary harm.

The stories were published on 9 November 2012 and headlined March to force DA to improve lives of residents, and Sedibeng Summit Continues Despite Midvaal’s Boycott. The articles were about a Cosatu march in Meyerton and a summit that continued despite the absence of the Midvaal Municipality.

Press Ombudsman Johan Retief said that, while we were justified in our reportage in both stories, the fact that we did not ask the municipality for comment “has caused the Midvaal Municipality unnecessary harm – which is not only against the letter, but also against the spirit of the Code”.

He also criticized us for misleadingly using the word “boycott” in a headline. He noted that this word boils down to a deliberate act of abstaining in protest of something – a notion that was absent in the story and therefore without any foundation in the headline.

MUNICIPALITY’S COMMENT (IF WANTED)

Retief dismissed the complaint about an opinion piece that had been published on the same day.

Visit www.presscouncil.org.za for the full finding.

End of text

Appeal

Please note that 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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