UNPRECEDENTED PRESS COUNCIL RULING

Media Statement

UNPRECEDENTED PRESS COUNCIL RULING

Newspaper must publish full-page apology and advertisement

In an unprecedented ruling by the Press Ombudsman, a community newspaper has been ordered by the Ombudsman Dr Johan Retief to publish a half page apology accompanied by a half page advertisement after the publication was found to have seriously breached the Press Code.

The order was endorsed by the Chairman of the Appeals Panel, retired Judge Bernard Ngoepe following an appeal by the publication, Die Kormorant, which is distributed for free in the Hartebeespoort area.

The order followed a finding that the newspaper had breached various sections of the Press Code, including unfair, unbalanced and inaccurate reporting, on the proposed establishment of a “Wellness Centre” in Schoemansville on the banks of the Hartebeespoort Dam.

Further complaints by Mathibedi OTN Holdings (represented by Mr Thabiso and Ms Onica Mathibedi) that the reportage was defamatory, malicious and racist were dismissed.

The Kormorant ran a series of articles in March this year, purportedly showing that Mathibedi OTN Holdings had started to develop land belonging to the Department of Water Affairs and Sanitation without the necessary approvals.  The editor, Deon van Huizen, wrote two strong articles criticising the proposed development and mobilising resistance from the, mainly white, readership.

The editor mounted a strong defence against the complaint, including that the articles were “fair comment” and “advocacy” as allowed in the Press Code, but acknowledged that comparison with a project known as “ African Island” (which was almost exclusively attended by blacks, and was a pleasure resort, unlike the intended Wellness Centre) was not correct.  He offered an apology in this respect.

In his ruling, Retief criticised the editor’s failure to correct the false comparison with “African Island”, and the suggestion that the Mathibedis had illegally occupied the land. In a later article, the term “land grab” was used, which he considered provocative in the light of the current national debate on the expropriation of land without compensation.

“While I do not believe that the newspaper intended or even envisaged vandalism and confrontational behaviour to follow its reportage, property has indeed been vandalised, the reportage stirred up at least some readers. It landed the Mathibedis in a precarious position as it was the catalyst for the continued barrage of racial slurs, verbal insults, death threats, intimidation and victimisation against them.”

“If reporting is unfair, unbalanced and inaccurate, and leads to violence, whether intended or not, this office should do everything in its power to prevent such a situation,” he said. “I am concerned that the newspaper lost its independence in this particular matter, and that this could have led readers to doubt its professionalism and credibility.”

Commenting on the  allegations of racism, Retief said he was satisfied that the articles were not intended to be racist, but found that the perception could have been created in the minds of some readers that the writer thought black people should be kept out of the area.

In rejecting the newspaper’s appeal against the ruling, the Press Council’s Chair of Appeals, Judge Bernard Ngoepe, agreed that there were “racial overtones” to the articles.

Describing the offences as severe, the Press Ombud ruled that the publication must apologise unconditionally to the Mathibedis for:

  • Wrongly assuming that the proposed Wellness Resort was similar to “African Island”, and for not promptly correcting that statement;
  • Suggesting that they were occupying the land illegally, evoking racist interpretations to the reporting, “even though that was not its intention”;
  • Exacerbating the situation by openly campaigning against the proposed development, instead of merely advocating a point of view;
  • Neglecting to ask them for comment or advising that they could not be reached for comment; and
  • Causing their reputations serious, unnecessary harm.

The newspaper was also instructed to apologise to its readers for:

  • Providing misleading information about the suggested parallel with African Island, that had “unnecessarily led to vandalism and confrontational behaviour towards the Mathibedis”; and
  • Confusing “news” with “opinion”, which “must have confounded some readers”.

This apology must be published on a dedicated page along with a statement from the DWS describing the true circumstances regarding the leasing of the land, and a detailed statement from the Press Ombud describing his concerns about the matter.

The newspaper was also instructed to make the lower half of the page available to the Mothibedis for an advertisement describing their project proposal.

The rulings of the Press Ombud and the Chair of Appeals can be found at www.presscouncil.org.za

Media statement issued on behalf of the Press Council of South Africa by the Executive Director, Latiefa Mobara (Cell: 076 826 3001, Tel: 011 484 3612, mobara@ombudsman.org.za)