Karin Badenhorst vs Middelburg Observer

Compliant: Karin Badenhorst

Lodged by: Karin Badenhorst

Article:  Dogs allegedly slaughtered (Honde glo geslag)Dog stolen from plot (Hond uit erf gesteel); and Unwanted pregnancy? Safe! Pain-free! or is it?

Author of article: 

Date: 3 May 2011

Respondent:  Middelburger Observer

Ms Karin Badenhorst complains about pictures (all in colour) in the Middelburg Observer, published on February 11, 2011, that go with stories headlined:
  • Dogs allegedly slaughtered (Honde glo geslag);
  • Dog stolen from plot (Hond uit erf gesteel); and
  • Unwanted pregnancy? Safe! Pain-free! or is it?
The complaint is about the “explicit” nature of the pictures (three that go with the first two stories and one that is used with the last one) and the fact that the newspaper did not notify its readers on its front page about the sensitive nature of these pictures.
The first story (Dogs allegedly slaughtered) says that the slaughtering of dogs is increasing in Middelburg since some Chinese people came to this town. Somebody reportedly saw how a Chinese man put dogs in plastic bags for three days until they suffocated. The reporter says that the ban on dog meat in South Africa is due to the country’s colonial history and lists several countries in Africa and Asia where dog meat is popular.
The second story (Dog stolen from plot) says that at least one person’s dog was stolen since the beginning of 2011. This, the story claims, fuels allegations that there is a market for dog meat.
The story headlined Unwanted pregnancy? Safe! Pain-free! or is it? asks the question if illegal abortions are really safe and pain-free. The journalist, Nelisiwe Masemola, writes that she went undercover to investigate how these clinics operate.
I shall now consider the merits of the complaint.
The three dog pictures
The first picture depicts a few pieces of raw meat (reportedly in China). The heads of the carcasses are removed, but the legs are still attached to the bodies. It is not clear from the pictures that the carcasses are those of dogs – this only becomes clear from the stories.
The second one shows the face of a living dog which is allegedly “attractive” to local Chinese (for eating).
The third picture portrays a dog’s cooked head, including its ears, one eye, nose and mouth (that shows its bare teeth) on a plate. Such a “dog platter” is reportedly popular in Vietnam.
Badenhorst complains that these pictures are too explicit and that the newspaper did not warn its readers about them on its front page.
The Middelburg Observer does not address this issue directly, but it does state that, as a community newspaper, it strives “to inform, educate and create awareness about all kinds of issues”. The newspaper argues that it is the eyes and ears for its readers and that the public expects the press to deliver stories in such a manner that will make people feel that they were at the scene. It says: “The print medium allows us to do so in words and photographs.”
In her reply to the newspaper’s response, Badenhorst says she wonders if these pictures were published to warn the community about what cooked-up dogs look like, so that people won’t buy it.
She also argues that the pictures:
  • did not create awareness about animal rights;
  • were in “very bad taste” and were only intended to shock;
  • will not prevent people from eating dog meat;
  • disgusted the community; and
  • maybe contributed to make the local community more intolerant towards people from Eastern descent.
The relevant clauses in the Press Code are:
  • Art. 1.7 that states: “…photographs…relative to matters involving indecency or obscenity shall be presented with due sensitivity towards the prevailing moral climate.”
  • Art. 8: “Due care and responsibility shall be exercised by the press with regard to the presentation of brutality, violence and atrocities.”
Badenhorst’s argument mentioned above may be and probably is mostly correct.
However, in general it should be said that one should be careful not to confuse culture with morality. The eating of dog meat (and the aversion to this practice) is a cultural thing – it is to a degree quite common in parts of the Second and Third World, but uncommon in the First World. It cannot be said that it is a moral or ethical issue, although it may be disgusting and in bad taste (forgive the pun) for many readers. Morality is about right and wrong (regarding principles) and good and bad (with regards to consequences). Unless someone can argue that the eating of dog meat breaks some moral principle or has bad consequences, it cannot reasonably be argued that a picture of raw dog meat is immoral and therefore in breach of the Press Code. Note that Art. 1.7 of the Code talks about the prevailing moral climate and not the prevailing cultural climate.
The first picture:
  • does not depict cruelty to any animal (if it did, the cultural issue would have become a moral one as it can justifiably be argued that cruelty to animals is immoral); and
  • may contribute to make the local community more intolerant towards people from Eastern descent – but if it is a reality that (some) Chinese people eat dog meat, it is the newspaper’s right to report on the matter.
The same can be said regarding the second picture – again, it is a cultural issue and not a moral one, no cruelty is involved, and the newspaper is justified to report on the matter.
It can be safely said that the third picture, at least to a South African readership, is decidedly disgusting, shocking and in bad taste. However, the same argument mentioned twice above is also relevant here.
The human foetus
The story (about illegal abortion clinics) is accompanied by a picture of a rather well-developed human foetus. A black bag covers the lower part of the foetus. The body is shown from the lower back, with the left shoulder visible. Its head is tilted backwards and is turned on its side so that a part of its face is visible. Some blood is visible on parts of the body. The picture is used big – it covers, in breadth, half of the page. There is no caption to this picture. Although it is difficult to estimate the age of the foetus, my guess is that it is approximately 6 – 7 months old.
Badenhorst says she understands that people should know the truth, but adds she does not believe that photos of this explicit nature should be published. She also complains that there was no “age control sign” on the front page to warn children.
The writer, Masemola, says that illegal abortion clinics have become prevalent in her community and that they could no longer be ignored. She argues that, if authorities cannot shut down these illegal clinics, the next best thing is to warn women – which may decrease the demand for illegal abortions and even ultimately eliminate it. She states: “Publishing a photograph of a baby that died as a result of an abortion was an appropriate tool; it would warn a woman about the illegal clinics and have readers feeling they were at the scene.”
Badenhorst replies that women who undergo (illegal) abortions should be warned about the dangers involved, but also says that such women were out to kill their children and that an explicit picture of a dead baby is not going to stop them from doing so. She says that, if the newspaper wants to warn women, other ways should be found to create awareness of the dangers of backstreet abortions. She advises: “Maybe place photographs of the serious side effects backstreet abortions might cause, i.e. excessive bleeding causing death or serious infections. I am sure the community will understand this and you will reach your goal by preventing woman to go for these abortions.”
The newspaper’s right to report on illegal abortion clinics is not in dispute, neither by Badenhorst nor by me.
Again, Art. 1.7 and Art. 8 of the Press Code apply here. The questions are therefore whether this picture is presented “with due sensitivity towards the prevailing moral climate” and if the newspaper exercised enough “care and responsibility” in publishing it.
There are some essential differences between this picture and the dog ones. This time:
  • it is not a cultural issue, but indeed a moral one (as both principles and consequences come into play);
  • the picture is of a human being, not of an animal; and
  • the argument of cruelty and the presentation of atrocities are relevant.
Also note that the:
  • face of the foetus is visible;
  • vital parts of the face are not blocked out;
  • picture is used large;
  • picture is in colour; and
  • Middelburg Observer is a community newspaper – one which children are likely to page through.
The facts that the picture is used large and in colour, that no part of the face is blocked out, that children were likely to stumble across the photo, and that there was no warning on the front page of what could be expected inside, all indicate that the newspaper did not exercise enough care and responsibility in this regard. (Note that I am not saying that no picture of a human foetus should ever be published.)
Also, it can be safely said that, for a large part of the community, abortion is a moral and a religious issue in which (human) life is seen as sacred. Given this consideration, coupled with what is mentioned in the previous paragraph, I do not think that the newspaper took the prevailing moral climate properly into account.
It should, however, be noted that the newspaper did well not to identify the foetus.
The dog pictures
The complaint with regard to all three dog pictures is dismissed.
The human foetus
If there was a warning on the front page, and/or if the picture was used smaller, and/or if parts of the face of the foetus were blocked out, this part of the complaint would have been dismissed.
However, none of these measures was applied. The specific use of this picture is therefore in breach of:
  • Art. 1.7 of the Press Code that states: “…photographs…relative to matters involving indecency or obscenity shall be presented with due sensitivity towards the prevailing moral climate.”
  • Art. 8: “Due care and responsibility shall be exercised by the press with regard to the presentation of brutality, violence and atrocities.”
The Middelburg Observer is reprimanded for publishing the picture of a human foetus the way it did.
The newspaper is directed to publish a summary of this finding (not the whole ruling) and sanction, and to furnish our office with the text prior to publication. Please add the following sentence at the end of the text: “Visit www.presscouncil.org.za (rulings, 2011) for the full finding.”
Please note that our Complaints Procedures lay down that within seven days of receipt of this decision, anyone of the parties may apply for leave to appeal to the Chairperson of the SA Press Appeals Panel, Judge Ralph Zulman, fully setting out the grounds of appeal. He can be reached at khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.
Johan Retief
Deputy Press Ombudsman