Rajan Zed and others vs Sunday Times

Complainant: Rajan Zed and others

Lodged by: Rajan Zed, Veruksha Bhana, Margaret Naidoo, the SA Hindu Dharma Sabha, Jolly, Sathia Moodley, G. Nair, Ron Moodley and Narendra Gangaram

Article: They collectively complain about a cartoon in Sunday Times on 27 October 2013

Author of article: The cartoon, by Zapiro

Date: 5 November 2013

Respondent: Sunday Times

COMPLAINT

They collectively complain about a cartoon in Sunday Times on 27 October 2013, saying that they were outraged and hurt because it was disrespectful, insensitive, fallacious, disingeneous and insulting as it ridiculed, trivialized and belittled Indian culture and religion – and that it exceeded the parameters of freedom of expression. Some complainants mention the merits of the case of what has transpired between Cricket South Africa (CSA) and the Indian cricket authorities (BCCI), arguing that the cartoon was misrepresenting the situation; another person argues that Hindus do not make sacrifices to Lord Ganesha, as portrayed in the cartoon (but abstain from meat and or are vegetarians), and that he has nothing to do with money.

Some complainants also call it blasphemy.

Please note: One complainant (whose name is not mentioned above) called Zapiro a “pathetic excuse for a human being”, upon which I wrote him the following letter:

Dear xxx

I have considered your complaint against Zapiro’s cartoon in Sunday Times, and have decided to dismiss it out of hand. Section 1.5.2 of our Complaints Procedures says that this office should not accept a complaint that is malicious. I refer you to your statement about Zapiro, calling him a “pathetic excuse for a human being”.

This office cannot entertain deeply degrading language such as this, irrespective of the nature of the complaint.

You can apply to the Chair of Appeals, Judge Bernard Ngoepe, for leave to appeal against this decision. If so, please do it within seven working days from now. You can direct your application to khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.

Regards

Johan

Another complainant said: “We demand an apology for this insult, or else……………….face the consequences.”

This office will also not allow any such open-ended threats. This is the email that I sent to this complainant:

Dear yyy

I have considered your complaint against Zapiro’s cartoon in Sunday Times, and have decided to dismiss it out of hand. Section 1.5.2 of our Complaints Procedures says that this office should not accept a complaint that is malicious. I refer you to your statement that read: “We demand an apology for this insult, or else………………………..face the consequences”.

This office cannot entertain…threats such as this, irrespective of the nature of the complaint.

 

You can apply to the Chair of Appeals, Judge Bernard Ngoepe, for leave to appeal against this decision. If so, please do it within seven working days from now. You can direct your application to khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.

Regards

Johan

ANALYSIS

The background

The cartoon, by Zapiro, depicted the Hindu god Lord Ganesha holding a cricket bat and some money – while CSA CEO Haroon Lorgat, tied up on an altar, was about to be stabbed (sacrificed) by two CSA  officials. They said: “Sorry Mr Lorgat, it has a strange hold over us!” In other words: Lord Ganesha symbolizes the BCCI, with their South African counterparts that bow before them.

This came after CSA had agreed to suspend Lorgat for the duration of India’s tour to this country, following alleged pressure by the cricket authorities from that country.

Without going into too much detail, an internet search revealed that Hindus (and indeed some other religions) worship Lord Ganesha as a god of wisdom and success, a patron of arts and sciences, and a remover of obstacles. He is invoked prior to any major undertakings and is revered as one of the five prime Hindu deities.

The complaint

In addition to the complaint as set out above, Zed says that:

·         Lord Ganesha was meant to be worshipped “and not to be thrown around loosely in reimagined versions for dramatic effects or other agenda”;

·         unnecessarily tying the deity with the BCCI, depicting human sacrifice at his feet, and him holding a cricket bat and wads of money in his hands (instead of the usual objects, like conch shell) was “highly inappropriate”;

·         Hindus support free artistic expression – but faith was something sacred and attempts at trivializing it hurt the devotees; and

·         symbols of any faith “should not be mishandled”.

The SA Hindu Dharma Sabha argues: “This degrading cartoon is sac-religious and…has the potential of fanning the flames of religious acrimony and division. More-over, it will impact negatively on inter-faith harmony, unity in diversity, social cohesion and nation building in our beloved country…”

The organization also demands an undertaking that Hindu symbols will not be used in cartoons in future in any newspaper or magazine.”

Another complainant argues: “A metaphor and/or a picture can be interpreted differently by different people. Furthermore, religious beliefs affect everyone, even the man in the street that might not be as ‘clever’ as the rest of us and might not even understand why his religious are being portrayed for cricket. It might come as a shock but not all Indians support cricket. We actually support rugby as well and I am a fanatical soccer fan.” (slightly edited).

The defence

Editor of Sunday Times Phylicia Oppelt calls the interpretation by “so many Hindus” as an attack on their deity “unfortunate”.

She argues that the cartoon:

·         made no comment on Hinduism or on Lord Ganesha;

·         robustly commented on CSA’s decision to “sacrifice” Lorgat in order to secure a lucrative Indian tour to South Africa;

·         suggested that CSA behaved as supplicants to the BCCI; and

·         merely depicted Ganesha as a symbol of the BCCI because of its strong association with India.

Oppelt concludes: “The fact that Ganesha’s headgear was labeled BCCI Indian Cricket, and he was holding a cricket bat and money, underscores the meaning the cartoonist sought to portray. To read the cartoon as an expression of disrespect to Hinduism is to misconstrue the point.”

Zapiro explains that cartoonists do two kinds of cartoons involving religion – some comment on a particular religious doctrine or the way some of its adherents behave (especially with regards to universal human rights); others (like the one in dispute) use religious iconography as a metaphor to comment on something else.

He adds that not many readers would think that the cartoon was an attack on any aspect of Hinduism, and that most readers would see it as metaphorical and not literal (it commented on cricket, not on religion).

Zapiro concludes: “The cartoon criticizes the way the Indian Cricket Board…the world’s richest and most powerful cricket board, has bullied Cricket SA into sidelining…Lorgat. The Hindu faith has provided the world with some of the richest imagery found in any religion. India is so closely associated with Hinduism that I feel the metaphor I have used will be broadly understood. I accept that my criteria as to what is an appropriate metaphor may be different from the criteria of some devotees of various religions.”

Legal editor Susan Smuts says the newspaper will not apologise for the cartoon (based on Zapiro’s right to freedom of expression), but it does recognize that many of its Hindu readers have taken offence “and we will publish a selection of letters of complaints reflecting their views”.

In later correspondence she argues: “We submit that there can be no doubt whatsoever what the cartoon intended to portray. Any attempt to read another meaning into it should be dismissed. Furthermore, we point out that while a number of people have taken offence at the column, this is by no means a universal reaction among Hindus to the cartoon. In any event, we submit it does not behove us to avoid giving offence. The strength of the feeling aroused by the cartoon is not a yardstick by which to judge its acceptability. It does behove us to comply with the Press Code, and the Constitution. We submit the cartoon complies with both.”

She states that the cartoon was covered by Section 7 of the Press Code (which deals with comment), and adds:

·         “None of the complainants has made out a case to show we have failed to adhere to the Press Code. This, we submit, is because there is no case to be made;

·         “The complainants are aggrieved at the cartoon. They are entitled to feel aggrieved at it, and we acknowledge their feelings. We do, however, submit that we should not be compelled to elevate religious factors over other considerations when making our decisions;

·         “Democracies can only thrive when there is robust debate and freedom of expression. We submit that this implies that citizens will of necessity frequently encounter views and opinions and statements that they find offensive. These views should be expressed and debated, not banned or punished, as it is only through discussion that they can be tested and our knowledge and understanding deepened.”

Smuts also refers to Section 16 of the Bill of Rights, and concludes: “The cartoon most certainly did not deride or denigrate Hindus or Hinduism, or attempt to stir up hatred, and none of the complainants have suggested that it did so. We submit that the cartoon is comfortably protected by the Bill of Rights.”

She adds that, while it was possible that Zapiro could have found another way to illustrate his point, his decision was valid and protected by freedom of expression – there was no reason why he should be compelled to exclude Ganesha, or any other deity for that matter, from his options.

My considerations

Let me say at the outset that this ruling not only proves to be an interesting exercise in media ethics, but it also testifies to the complexity thereof. There are so many shades of grey in this field, and one sometimes needs exceptional wisdom and insight to come to a reasonable conclusion.

In this case, I realize that I cannot please everybody. But then my role is not to please anybody – instead, my focus is on the Press Code, and what is just, fair and reasonable reportage.

In essence, I need to weigh up Zapiro’s and the newspaper’s right to freedom of expression against the offence that the complainants took to the cartoon.

In particular, the following sections of the Press Code are relevant:

·         5.1: “Except where it is strictly relevant to the matter reported and it is in the public interest to do so, the press shall avoid discriminatory or denigratory references to people’s…religion…belief, culture…”; and

·         7.3: “Comment by the press shall be an honest expression of opinion, without malice or dishonest motives…”

I make my first observation with lots of reservations, as it is dangerous to disagree with the author on the main focus of his own criticism. Yet, I do need to pursue this issue.

Let me quote Zapiro again: “The cartoon criticizes the way the Indian Cricket Board… the world’s richest and most powerful cricket board, has bullied Cricket SA into sidelining…Lorgat” (emphasis added). Clearly, the BCCI is the main focus of his criticism.

I interpret the cartoon by looking at the opposite side of this coin, namely the way Cricket SA has allowed itself to be bullied by the Indians. Seen this way, the emphasis is not on the Indians, but rather on the South Africans.

My main reason for this interpretation is that the people who spoke in the cartoon were CSA officials – not the BCCI (or Lord Ganesha). If the main focus of the cartoon was on the BCCI, then Lord Ganesha should have spoken and not the South Africans. The words, “Sorry Mr Lorgat, it has a strange hold over us!” would then have read, “Sorry Mr Lorgat, it has a strange hold over them!”

I am not splitting hairs here, as my argument points to the fact that the cartoon indeed focused on South African cricket, and not on the Indians (which formed a necessary counterpart of the cartoon, of course, but which was not the main point of focus) and even less so on Lord Ganesha.

Strangely enough, this serves to strengthen Zapiro’s argument, namely that the cartoon did not cricitise Hinduism (nor even the BCCI in the first place) but rather commented on the South African reaction to the happenings in the world of Indian cricket. This indeed weakens the complainants’ views – at least to some extent.

Based on the above I do not believe that the cartoon commented on Lord Ganesha himself – it rather had the BCCI in its view as secondary comment. That is why the words “BCCI Cricket India” appeared on the deity’s forehead.

This brings me to the question of the possible perversion of the deity, with the corresponding implication of blasphemy. I know that Lord Ganesha is usually depicted as holding sea shells in his hands, that the cricket bat and money were offensive to Hindus, and that no sacrifices were made to him. However, I also take into account that cricket in India is to many like a religion (much as soccer and rugby is to many South Africans). When seen in that light, the cartoon depicted CSA as bowing before the cricket gods of India as personified by Lord Ganesha (India” on the deity’s forehead) – nothing more, and nothing less.

Therefore: The money and the cricket bat in Lord Ganesha’s is not directed at the deity, but rather at CSA in the first place and secondly at the BCCI. The perversion is not about Lord Ganesha, but rather about the adverse influence of money in the game of cricket; it is about how people religiously allow that influence to taint their decisions.

Let me be quite clear about this: If the cartoon did ridicule the deity, it would have been an entirely different kettle of fish. In this case, though, Lord Ganesha was merely a tertiary figure from which a message was relayed through a secondary medium (the BCCI) to get to the primary target – the perception that CSA had bowed before the Indian cricket gods. The “attack” was directed at targets one and two, and not at three.

Having said that, on the other hand the facts remain that Zapiro connected Lord Ganesha with money and cricket, and that many Hindus took serious offense to that. Surely he could have used another image to project his message? I have little hesitation in saying that the cartoon was in bad taste, and that it came dangerously close to having been in breach Section 5.1 of the Press Code.

Here are some other considerations:

·         The arguments that a metaphor and/or a picture can be interpreted differently by different people, and that not all readers may have understood why religion was brought into this matter do not hold water – a cartoonist cannot ensure that everybody understands his drawing before publishing it.  Surely, Zapiro was not to be blamed that some readers were not “clever enough” to understand the cartoon;

·         The interpretation of the SA Hindu Dharma Sabha (the cartoon has the potential of fanning the flames of religious acrimony and division and that it will impact negatively on inter-faith harmony, unity in diversity, social cohesion and nation building in our country) will only realise if the Hindu community chooses to make it happen – which, to my mind, should not be necessary;

·         The organization’s demand for an undertaking that Hindu symbols will not be used in cartoons in future in any newspaper or magazine cannot be granted. This office is a regulatory one, which deals with published material – we cannot engage in censorship, which is what it proposes; and

·         Whether or not Zapiro’s message is correct is not the question at all – I accept that his drawing was honest and without malice (see Section 7.1 of the Press Code).

This brings me to the issue that I have started with, namely to weigh up Zapiro’s right to freedom of expression against the offence that many Hindus clearly took to the cartoon. This is indeed an extremely difficult call to make, as I have stated above.

After having done so, my mind is swayed towards giving the benefit of the doubt to the newspaper for exercising its right to freedom of expression – for these fundamental reasons:

·         The focus of the cartoon was about how CSA religiously allowed money to influence its decisions, then came the role of the BCCI, and only thirdly was the deity brought in as representing the Indian cricket authorities;

·         The question if the cartoon did denigrate Lord Ganesha is a matter of opinion and public debate; and

·         Public interest was clearly evident in this case (CSA stood to lose millions of rands in the event of a shorter tour).

Speaking of public interest: I find it quite odd that neither Oppelt, nor Zapiro, nor Smuts used public interest in their arguments – while Section 5.1 (which is at least partly at the heart of this finding) provides for it.

I eventually conclude that the cartoon was unfortunate and in bad taste, but that the offense that Hindus took to it did not outweigh Zapiro’s right to freedom of expression – although he came dangerously close to breaching the Code.

Please note: This ruling does not give the press the green light to discriminate against or denigrate religions.

I friendly word towards Zapiro and Sunday Times would be appropriate here: The cartoon came much closer to breaching the Code than it appears to appreciate – in future, please proceed with caution.

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 Chair of Appeals, Judge Bernard Ngoepe, fully setting out the grounds for the application. He can be contacted at Khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.

Johan Retief

Press Ombudsman