Minister David Mahlobo vs. News24


Wed, Mar 15, 2017

Ruling by the Press Ombud

15 March 2017

This ruling is based on the written submissions of Mr Brian Dube, spokesman for the Minister of State Security, Mr David Mahlobo, and those of Alet Janse van Rensburg, opinions editor of News24.

Mahlobo is complaining about an opinion piece on News24 Online of 7 March 2017, headlined Panicking Zuma has thrown caution to the wind.

Complaint                                            

Mahlobo complains that the columnist called him Pres Jacob Zuma’s “main attack dog” – he says calling him a dog was a direct attack on his persona, that it was demeaning and derogatory, and that it has harmed his reputation. He says that the expression was not used as a metaphor and notes that no inverted commas were used.  

The text

The article, written by Max du Preez, was about the alleged turmoil in the ANC. Referring to Mahlobo’s “warning” to regulate the internet and social media in order to stave off sinister foreign powers planning a regime change, Du Preez called him Zuma’s main attack dog.

News24 responds

Janse van Rensburg refers to Clause 7.2 of the SA Code of Ethics and Conduct which says, “Comment is protected even if it is extreme, unjust, unbalanced, exaggerated and prejudiced, as long as it expresses an honestly-held opinion, is without malice, is on a matter of public interest, has taken fair account of all material facts that are substantially true, and is presented in such manner that it appears clearly to be comment.”

She argues that Du Preez’s use of the term when describing Mahlobo’s actions in defence of Zuma was his honestly-held opinion. It was also in the public interest, as it concerned media censorship and internet regulation, “which poses a threat to the constitutional right to freedom of expression as set out in Section 16 in the Bill of Rights”.

She adds that, as an elected public official, all of Mahlobo’s conduct is open to scrutiny and comment.

Janse van Rensburg also points out that the column was clearly marked as comment.

In conclusion she says, “News24 cannot be held responsible for the views of its columnists and any further queries on this matter can therefore be directed to Mr Du Preez himself.”

Dube replies

Dube denies that Mahlobo pronounced on “media censorship and internet regulation” – all he did was to put the matter in the public domain for discussion and consideration.

He accepts that Mahlobo was a public official and under scrutiny – but the reference to him as an “attack dog” remained derogatory.

The spokesman adds that News24 cannot distance itself from the views of its columnists, and requests that both the publication and Du Preez apologise for the use of the expression.

Analysis

This complaint has more to it than may meet the eye.

As this was an opinion piece, Janse van Rensburg correctly cites Section 7.2 of the Code. However, one must not overlook Section 3.3 either, which reads, “The media shall exercise care and consideration in matters involving dignity and reputation…”

In this instance, two principles are in conflict with one another (freedom of speech vs. dignity and reputation), and my task is to weigh up these values against each other to establish which one should prevail in this specific case.

Let me make a general comment first: To call someone a certain animal may upset people in one culture, but not others in another group with different customs and beliefs. For example, to call someone a cow in India, where that animal is considered to be holy, may be perceived differently from calling a woman a cow in (say) England.

The animal in question here is a dog. In certain countries (cultures) dogs are despised and are deemed as the lowest form of life; in others they are pets, and in some cases even substitutes for children. I therefore take into account that people in different cultures may experience being called a dog in different ways.

I do not know if this is relevant in this complaint, but I leave that possibility open – the mere fact that Mahlobo complains, shows that he feels stronger about this than others may feel.

I am also cognisant of the fact that individuals may perceive being called a certain animal in different ways, irrespective of their culture.

Honing in on the particular case in question, I note that Du Preez did not call Mahlobo a dog. He did not say, “Mahlobo is a dog” – he called him an “attack dog”. I believe this was a figure of speech which should not be taken literally (as Mahlobo probably does, seeing that he rejects the possibility of this phrase having been a metaphor). Clearly, Du Preez (rightly or wrongly) wanted to emphasise that Mahlobo defended Zuma fiercely and also attacked opponents vigorously, whenever necessary.

In the English language there is an abundance of figures of speech, of which this was one.

Du Preez had the right to say this, even if he was wrong. 

I cannot resist this: As the Fourth Estate, the media are often called a “watchdog”. My office, indeed the whole system of independent co-regulation, is the watchdog who watches the watchdog. I have not received a complaint in this regard.

In this case, I believe that Du Preez’s freedom of speech weighed heavier than Mahlobo’s sense of dignity – even though it was unfortunate that he did take this so personally.

I agree with Dube, though, that News24 cannot distance itself from the views of its columnists. Of course the publication cannot be expected to agree with all the opinions expressed by its contributors – but at the same time it should take care that the texts do not breach the Code of Ethics and Conduct. In the end, the editor is responsible for everything that is printed.

I therefore find Janse van Rensburg’s comment in this regard rather problematic.

Finding

The complaint is dismissed.

Appeal

The 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 Appeals Panel, Judge Bernard Ngoepe, fully setting out the grounds of appeal. He can be contacted at Khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.

Johan Retief

Press Ombud