Blade Nzimande vs Sowetan

Complainant: Blade Nzimande

Lodged by: Vuyelwa Qinga

Article: Calling analysts ‘dogs’ is dangerous – In defending Zuma, Blade Nzimande insulted people

Author of article: Prince Mashele

Date: 24 July 2012

Respondent: Sowetan

Complaint
Mr Blade Nzimande, Minister of Higher Education and General Secretary of the SA Communist Party, complains about a column and an accompanying cartoon in Sowetan on 11 June 2012. The article was headlined Calling analysts ‘dogs’ is dangerous – In defending Zuma, Blade Nzimande insulted people.
Nzimande complains that the:
  • statement that he called political analysts “dogs” is untrue;
  • article vexatiously linked the word “dogs” to a call for violence;
  • article incorrectly mentioned a number of well-known political analysts to whom he was supposedly referring to;
  • statement that he used the word “dogs” in defending Pres Jacob Zuma had no factual basis and had not been verified; and
  • headline and the sub-heading are false.
To this, I add Nzimande’s right of reply.
Analysis
The column, written by Prince Mashele, says that Nzimande said that political analysts “are ‘a pack of dogs’.” It then goes on to criticize him on several issues. (Mashale is the CEO of The Forum for Public Dialogue and teaches politics at the University of Pretoria.)
This was based on an earlier story on June 1 in which the newspaper reported that Nzimande said: “When you look at the analysts that there are in the media, they are like a pack of dogs criticizing the ruling party and government.” That story reported that Nzimande uttered these words while addressing vice-chancellors of universities at the University of Johannesburg.
The cartoon sketches an angry, barking dog (Nzimande) in front of five political analysts.
Political analysts ‘dogs’
The column states it as fact that Nzimande said that political analysts “are” a pack of dogs.
Nzimande denies that this statement was true. He states that he said that there was “a lack of diversity in the media in South Africa, and the media attacks like a pack of wild dogs when it is criticizing the government or the ruling party”.
 He adds that this misleading statement suggested that he was rude and insulted people without provocation and complains that it impacted negatively on his public image and reputation.
Sowetan replies that it was represented at the meeting by a senior reporter, an intern and a photographer. Its education reporter took notes and immediately thereafter wrote the story – and concludes that Nzimande did make the remark – “that analysts writing in the media were like a pack of dogs”.
Qinga writes: “In terms of the English grammar, I understand this to be referred to as a simile – i.e. likening the behaviour of journalists in reporting on government or the ruling party to how a pack of wild dogs attack and NOT saying that analysts or even the media are actually dogs (or wild dogs).”
I asked Qinga twice if I could possibly get a recording of Nzimande’s speech. No co-operation was forthcoming, so I eventually decided to carry on with my finding without the benefit of listening to such a recording.
Firstly, let me try to find some common ground here:
  • In his media statement, Nzimande says that he said that the media hunt like a pack of wild dogs;
  • The story of June 1 states: “When you look at the analysts that are in the media, they are like a pack of dogs criticizing the ruling party and the government”. (emphasis added); and
  • The editor himself, in his correspondence to this office, said that Nzimande used the phrase “like a pack of dogs” (I take this to be important as far as my ruling goes, coming from the editor himself).
Therefore, it is not in dispute that Nzimande said that analysts were like a pack of dogs.
The strongest argument, however, come from the notes taken by the journalist. They said: “…many analysts (are) like (a) pack of wild dogs…”
This is conclusive, I would suggest.
I pointed out to the Sowetan (email on 17 July) that unlike the 1 June story, the column stated that Nzimande said that they “are” dogs. I noted that this was not the same thing, and told the editor that he was welcome to comment on this observation – which he did not do.
It is indeed one thing to say that someone acts (verb) like a dog, and quite another to state that s/he is a dog (noun).
To the Sowetan’s argument that the column was about an analyst’s interpretation I need to say that more is on the plate here – the fact of the matter is that Mashele changed Nzimandi’s words and then based his interpretation on the “new”, but false (even according to the editor) version.
It is true that the Press Code guarantees freedom of expression when it comes to comment, but it also builds in the provision that comment should “take fair account of all available facts which are material to the matter commented upon”.
I also refer to the Constitutional Court’s ruling in April 2011 in this regard (Robert McBride vs. National Media) which said: “Criticism is protected, even if it is extreme, unjust, unbalanced, exaggerated and prejudiced, as long as it is an honest opinion, without malice, in the public interest and founded on true facts.” (own emphasis)
Seen together, this means that an analyst may not change (or ignore) a material fact, present the changed version as fact, and then continue to criticize the “new”, but untrue statement. That is simply not fair.
This is exactly what has happened with the column.
Note: The editor says that “as things stand” Nzimande never challenged the original story. But why would he, as the story merely reported that the Minister said that analysts were “like a pack of dogs” (which is not in dispute)? It is the assertion that they “are” dogs, as reflected in the column, that Nzimande challenges – hence his press statement, and his complaint to this office.
Call for violence
Mashele argues in his column that the use of the word “dog” was inflammatory. He explains that readers would understand this as inciting violence, and argues that “words kill” – as was the case with the genocide in Rwanda (after Hutus called Tutsis “cockroaches”).
He goes even further: “Quite clearly, Nzimande is not different from Hutus. Hutus called Tutsis cockroaches, Blade calls political analysts ‘dogs’. Fortunately, there is a difference between the Rwandese and South Africans. Even as Nzimande wishes death upon Habib, Friedman and Brown, South Africans are generally not murderous.” (emphasis added)
Nzimande says that to be called a dog among Africans (Sowetan’s readership is predominantly black) “is an insult that can even lead to a violent confrontation”. He also complains that Mashele’s linking of “dogs” to a call for a stoning made by a church-group (against the artist who painted a naked image of Zuma) suggests some acts of violence against the analysts. He also objects to the parallel that Mashele drew with the Rwandan context. He says the inference that can be drawn was that he was fanning the flames of violence against political analysts in the same manner than the Hutus did in Rwanda.
The newspaper does not respond to this part of the complaint.
Firstly, Mashele based his argument on sand as he made much out of nothing (as argued above).
Secondly, I am not too sure that the reference to “dog” as such would have or may have led to violence.
However, going by the gist of the column Nzimande was justified in complaining that this kind of comment falsely implied (“inference drawn”) that he was fanning the flames of violence. In fact, I would have worded the complaint even harsher if I were in his shoes. Mashele’s statement that Nzimande whished death on some analysts (he wrote “even as”, not “even if”) leaves little doubt that the writer directly accused him of murderous intentions.
This is the most unethical (especially read: unfair) comment that I can recall after having dealt with approximately 500 complaints in this office. Let me repeat: I cannot recall ever having seen irresponsible journalism on such an ugly scale as this. It does not get any worse.
The Preamble to the Press Code states: “As journalists, we commit ourselves to the highest standards of excellence, to maintain credibility and keep the trust of our readers. This means striving for the maximum truth, avoiding unnecessary harm and acting independently.” (emphasis added)
Mashele has succeeded in accomplishing the exact opposite.
Specific well-known political analysts
The column starts as follows: “Professor Adam Habib is a political analyst. He is a dog. Karima Brown is a political analyst. She is a dog. Indeed, Aubrey Matshiqi, Steven Friedman and many other political analysts. They too are dogs. This is according to…Nzimande.”
The cartoon also identifies these people.
Nzimande complains that he never referred to these well-known analysts as dogs. “This is another lie used to further prop up the first lie.”
The newspaper does not respond to this part of the complaint.
My argument above is also valid here.
For the sake of argument, let’s assume that Nzimande did say that media analysts “are” dogs. Even then, though, I do not think that he would have meant each and every analyst without exception. It was therefore again not fair to identify some prominent analysts, and then to conclude that Nzimande called them dogs.
But let me refer to the journalist’s notes again. According to that, Nzimande said that “many” analysts are like a pack of wild dogs – many, not all. Mashele was therefore not justified in saying that Nzimande called specific analysts “dogs”.
There are borders to the freedom of expression, and basing comment on true facts is one of them.
The cartoon does not portray the analysts as dogs. However, it does the opposite – it sketches Nzimande as one.
But again, I do not believe that this would necessarily inflame violence; it was also within the boundaries of freedom of expression.
Defending Zuma
Mashele writes that, when Nzimande called political analysts dogs, “he was also defending Zuma”.
Nzimande complains that this statement is untrue and unverified.
The newspaper does not respond to this part of the complaint.
Since I have no evidence at my disposal, including a recording of the speech, I am not able to come to a finding on this part of the complaint.
Headline, sub-heading
The headline reads: Calling analysts ‘dogs’ is dangerous, with the sub-heading: In defending Zuma, Blade Nzimande insulted people.
Nzimande complains that neither the headline nor the sub-heading reflected the truth.
The headline indeed incorrectly implies that Nzimande called political analysts “dogs”.
I am not able to come to a finding on the sub-heading for the same reason as the (Zuma) issue mentioned above.
Right of reply
Sowetan says that Nzimande initially did not complain and that it later offered him a right of reply of the same length and prominence – an offer that he rejected.
The editor says that this offer still stands, because:
  • the column was an opinion piece based on an analyst’s interpretation of certain public statements made by Nzimande; and
  • it is in the nature of debates that protagonists would necessarily disagree on interpretations – and the right to rebut such views should be afforded to both sides.
Nzimande replies that he is not interested in a right of reply, but rather in an apology.
To this, the newspaper responds that by demanding an apology Nzimande is merely attempting to avoid taking responsibility for what he said.
I am not suggesting that the June 1 story or Mashele should have asked Nzimande for comment – is not normal practice to ask for comment when reporting on a speech, or when writing a column.
However, after the column Nzimande denied that he called analysts “dogs”, as Mashele alleged. The editor then afforded him a right of reply – and yet the same editor refused to publish Nzimande’s media statement (in which he denied that he ever called analysts “dogs”).
I would have thought that that statement was his reply, and that the newspaper was ethically duty-bound to publish that denial.
General
In conclusion, Nzimande says that the column was an embarrassment to him, that it brought his integrity into question and caused damage to his public image.
Indeed it did, and unnecessarily so. Sowetan owes him an apology – and a big one at that.
Finding
Political analysts ‘dogs’
Mashele used a material fact (“many analysts are like a pack of dogs”), changed it (“analysts are dogs”), and then criticized the latter – which Nzimande never said. This is in breach of Art. 8.3 of the Press Code that states: “Comment by the press shall be an honest expression of opinion, without malice or dishonest motives, and shall take fair account of all available facts which are material to the matter commented upon.”
Call for violence
As Nzimande never said that analysts were dogs, the column falsely implied and stated that Nzimande had been inflaming violence – which caused huge and unnecessary harm to his dignity, reputation and integrity.
This is in breach of:
  • Art. 5 of the Code that states: “The press shall exercise exceptional care and consideration in matters involving dignity and reputation…”; and
  • Art. 8.3 of the Code.
Specific well-known political analysts
The column falsely implies that Nzimande referred to specific political analysts as “dogs”. This is in breach of Art. 8.3 of the Code.
The complaint regarding the cartoon is dismissed.
Defending Zuma
No finding.
Headline, sub-heading
The headline incorrectly implies that Nzimande called political analysts “dogs”. This is in breach of Art. 1.1 of the Code that says: “The press shall be obliged to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly.”
No finding on the sub-heading.
Right of reply
I shall direct the newspaper to publish Nzimande’s denial, which is contained in the text below.
Sanction
The Sowetan is directed to apologise to Nzimande for:
  • incorrectly stating it as fact in both the text and the headline that he called political analysts “dogs”;
  • falsely implying and stating that he was inflaming violence; and
  • falsely implying that he referred to specific political analysts as “dogs”.
The newspaper is severely reprimanded for publishing comment that amounted to such enormous unnecessary damage to Nzimande’s integrity, reputation and character.
The newspaper is directed to publish the following text in full on its front page, with the heading above the fold and containing the words “apology/apologises” and “Nzimande”:
Sowetan apologises to Minister of Higher Education and General Secretary of the SA Communist Party Blade Nzimande for incorrectly stating it as fact that he called political analysts “dogs”, for falsely implying and stating that he was inflaming violence, and for falsely implying that he referred to specific political analysts as “dogs”.
This comes after he lodged a complaint with the Press Ombudsman about a column and an accompanying cartoon on 11 June 2012. The article was headlined Calling analysts ‘dogs’ is dangerous – In defending Zuma, Blade Nzimande insulted people.
The column, written by Prince Mashele (the CEO of The Forum for Public Dialogue and teaching politics at the University of Pretoria), stated that Nzimande said political analysts “are” a pack of dogs. This comment was based on an earlier story which reported that Nzimande said that the media are “like a pack of dogs”.
Deputy Press Ombudsman Johan Retief said it was not the same thing to say that analysts are “like” a pack of dogs and that they “are” dogs.
He noted that both Sowetan’s editor and the journalist’s notes stated that Nzimande said analysts were “like a pack of dogs”, and he concluded that Mashele had changed Nzimandi’s words and then based his interpretation on this “new”, but false version. This, he stated, was in breach of the Press Code that stipulates that comment should “take fair account of all available facts which are material to the matter commented upon”.
Retief also heavily criticized Mashele for falsely and unfairly implying that Nzimande was fanning the flames of violence. He particularly found his statement that Nzimande whished death on some analysts disturbing.
“This is the most unethical (especially read: unfair) comment that I can recall after having dealt with approximately 500 complaints in this office. Let me repeat: I cannot recall ever having seen irresponsible journalism on such an ugly scale as this. It does not get any worse.”
Retief also found that Mashele was not justified in mentioning specific analysts whom Nzimande supposedly called “dogs”. The journalist’s notes made it clear that Nzimande said that “many” analysts were like a pack of wild dogs – “many”, not “all”.
He stated: “There are borders to the freedom of expression, and basing comment on true facts is one of them (as stipulated in the Press Code).”
In conclusion, we were “severely reprimanded” for publishing comment that amounted to such enormous unnecessary damage to Nzimande’s integrity, reputation and character – instead of promoting truth and avoiding unnecessary harm (as stated in the Preamble to the Press Code) Mashele succeeded in accomplishing the exact opposite.
However, Retief said that he was not too sure that the reference to “dog” as such would have or may have led to violence, as Nzimande suggested. He made no finding regarding the statement that when Nzimande called political analysts dogs he was also defending Pres Jacob Zuma, and therefore also could not come to a finding on the sub-headline.
The complaint about the cartoon was dismissed, as it had been within the borders of freedom of expression.
Visit www.presscouncil.org.za (rulings, 2012) for the full finding.
Appeal
Please note that our Complaints Procedures lay down that within seven days of receipt of this decision, either party 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 contacted at Khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.
Johan Retief
Deputy Press Ombudsman