Mr Damon Leff, Director of the South African Pagan Rights Alliance, vs Various Publications

Complainant: South African Pagan Rights Alliance

Lodged by: Mr Damon Leff

Article: self-styled witches

Date: 09 May  2009

Respondent: Various Publications

Over a considerable period, Mr Leff has complained against a number of publications – among them Die Burger, The Witness, Vaal Weekly, IOL, Dispatch Online – alleging that they defamed “self-styled witches”. The latest complaint is against Die Burger for an article by Marlene Neethling on March 25, 2009 headlined Kat dalk in heksedaad bedwelm.
This complaint follows the pattern of all the others. The articles he submitted to this office, from titles across the country, are from the web and not from actual newspapers. We can fairly infer that Mr Leff trawls the web looking for South African newspaper references to witches and uses his “hits” as bases for his complaints.
In the complaint against Die Burger, Leff argues:
·   “The word ‘Witchcraft’ was used twice in the article…(and) the context of the use was prejudicial and, whether so intended or not, easily interpreted as attempt to portray Witchcraft, and by natural extension self-defined Witches in this country…as drug users and animal abusers.”
·   The newspaper refused to retract and apologise to Mr Andries Venter, Chief Inspector of the SPCA, when he wrote to the editor saying he had been misquoted by the reporter.
The dictionary gives several meanings of the words witch and wizard. Some of these meanings would be pleasing to Mr Leff and others are less than flattering: a hag; woman claiming or popularly believed to possess magical powers and practises sorcery; a sorcerer or magician; woman considered to be spiteful or overbearing; and of course, the meaning that Mr Leff wants all publications to adopt – a polytheistic Neo-Pagan nature religion inspired by various pre-Christian western European beliefs, whose central deity is a mother goddess and which includes the use of herbal magic and benign witchcraft.
The use of the word benign in this context implies that there could be witchcraft that was malignant.
With these meanings in mind, we can turn to Mr Leff’s complaint:
The story says a black cat found by its owners drugged in their house is suspected to have been a victim of witchcraft.
Local SPCA chief Perrins believes it had ingested opiates.
SPCA chief inspector Venter says they suspect the cat could have been a victim of witchcraft particularly because it was black but this possibility was being investigated.
Mr Leff’s argument that this story was “prejudicial and can be interpreted as attempt to portray Witchcraft, and by natural extension self-defined Witches in this country…as drug users and animal abusers” is absurd. Stretching this logic to saying the article defames self-styled witches is even more absurd.
There is no reference to self-styled witches. The reporter is using an ordinary meaning of the word witch and is quoting what witnesses told her they suspect.
What is obvious from this and other complaints is that Mr Leff is trying to abuse the Ombudsman’s system to preach his religion. Proselytising for any religion is outside the mandate of this office.
The Press Ombudsman cannot entertain the defamation complaint just as we reject the complaint about Mr Venter. Leff has no standing to complain on Venter’s behalf.
In any case, in the letter Mr Venter wrote to the editor of Die Burger, he did not deny that the words the journalist quoted were not uttered. He wrote that he had asked the journalist not to use the quote and he said the journalist had overhead a trainee inspector in a two-way radio conversation.
This complaint is also dismissed.
The complaints against The Witness, Vaal Weekly, IOL, Dispatch Online are also dismissed.
In terms of our Complaints Procedures, where the Ombudsman declines to accept a complaint…the complainant may, within seven days, with full reasons, request the Chairperson of the Press Appeals Panel, Judge Ralph Zulman, to review the decision.
Joe Thloloe
Press Ombudsman
May 14, 2009