John Stewart vs Roodepoort Record

Complainant: John Stewart

Lodged by: John Stewart

Article: Fate? – Townships Board will decide Mosque’s future (August 13, 2010); and Mosque well on track of being approved (September 24, 2010)

Date: 3 November 2010

Respondent: Roodepoort Record

Complaint
Mr John Stewart complains about two front page stories in the Roodepoort Record, both written by Tihan van der Walt and headlined:
  • Fate? – Townships Board will decide Mosque’s future (August 13, 2010); and
  • Mosque well on track of being approved (September 24, 2010).
The complaint is multi-faceted.
Stewart says that the following sentences in the first story misrepresent the facts:
  • “The other issue John is facing is that the services which take place in the mosque can clearly be heard at his property…”
  • “Stewart is also skeptic about the iron roofing currently on the mosque.”
  • “According to Member of the Mayoral Committee for infrastructure and Services Ross Greeff, Council is awaiting the outcome of the Townships Board hearing which was held in May this year, before they can act.
He adds that the story fails to:
  • refer to the development condition stating that the development was to be residential in character; and
  • include responses by council officials “…who should have been compelled to comment”.
He concludes that the crux of his complaint is that the story does not reflect the Council’s “inaction, dubious behaviour and downright negligence”.
The complaint regarding misrepresentations with regards to the second story is frivolous and cannot be entertained – he says that he has not received documentation from the Townships Board, that he cannot comment and that a certain fact is well-known by Council officials.
Stewart also complains that, with regards to both stories, an agreement between himself and the journalist (namely to give him an opportunity to comment) was dishonoured.
Analysis
The first story says that the Helderkruin mosque continues to operate – despite the fact that it still has not complied with some of the prescribed conditions set by the local Council years ago. The story mentions some of these conditions. It is reported that it is now up to the Townships Board, a provincial adjudicating body, to determine the outcome of the issue. The story also says that a number of local residents are not happy with the way the mosque is operating. One of these residents reportedly is Stewart.
 
The second story reports on progress made by the Townships Board regarding this matter.
We shall now consider the merits of the complaint:
The first story
Mosque services audible from outside
It has to be noted that Stewart’s property is adjacent to and at the rear of the mosque.
The sentence in dispute reads: “The other issue John is facing is that the services which take place in the mosque can clearly be heard at his property…”
Stewart complains that it is not he who is facing this issue, it is rather a condition set by Council that “no sound shall emanate from the building”. The complaint, therefore, is that the focus is on him, rather than on the Council.
This statement necessitates the following remarks:
  • The intro should be considered. It reads: “The Helderkruin mosque continues to operate – despite the fact that it has still not complied with some of the prescribed conditions set by Council – now it is up to the Townships Board to determine the outcome.” (emphasis added) From this it is clear that the focus of the story is not on Stewart but on the Council and especially on the Townships Board.
  • This is confirmed by the extent to which the story mentions Stewart. Of the 28 paragraphs that the story consists of, he is either directly or indirectly referred to in 11 of these paragraphs. The bulk of the story focuses on the Council and the Townships Board.
  • There is nothing wrong with focusing (for a while) on an aggrieved resident. Stewart is such a resident and as such an interested party.
It also has to be noted in passing that the correct wording of the condition mentioned by Stewart is not that “no sound shall emanate from the building”, but rather that “no amplified call for prayer shall emanate from the site.” Yet, it still is reasonable to accept that noise emanating from the site is an issue for Stewart (taking the proximity of his house into consideration).
Skeptical of the mosque’s iron roof
Stewart’s complaint refers to the following sentence: “Stewart is also skeptic about the iron roofing currently on the mosque.” He again says that this puts the focus on him, while he says it is rather a title deed restriction (the focus should therefore be on the Council).
The title deed restriction that he refers to prohibits the use of iron as roof material for the mosque.
The newspaper denies that it reported incorrectly on this issue.
Stewart is correct in that the issue is not the question if he is the one who is skeptic about the iron roofing – it indeed is a title deed restriction. However, Stewart complained to the newspaper about the mosque and it is reasonable to accept that he was also skeptical of the roofing. And again, there is nothing wrong with focusing (for a while) on Stewart as a concerned party. Besides, the story does refer to this matter later on without reference to Stewart.
Council awaiting the outcome
The sentence in dispute reads: “According to Member of the Mayoral Committee for Infrastructure and Services Ross Greeff, Council is awaiting the outcome of the Townships Board hearing which was held in May this year, before they can act.”
Stewart says this statement is correct, but that it refers to an appeal “…that was somehow allowed despite the fact that the developers were in breach of a 90 day final demand issued by council in June 2009, and council had initiated legal proceedings in February 2010 and then mysteriously stopped proceedings in March 2010.” This fact, Stewart complains, was not reported.
The newspaper says the following sentence in the story regarding legal action put matters in perspective: “The Townships Board hearing supercedes any other process and therefore we need to wait until we have the outcome in writing.” The complaint, the newspaper says, is therefore unfounded and/or unsubstantiated.
The newspaper’s argument is reasonable. It was not necessary to report on this issue since the outcome of the matter was still outstanding (as stated in the intro and again later in the story).
Residential in character
The story mentions several conditions set by Council – the planting of seven mature trees along the boundary walls of the mosque; sound emanating from the site; the iron roofing; and parking bays.
Stewart complains that the article does not mention the condition that the development is to be residential in character, “…despite this being a crucial point of contention”. He says he thinks that this omission was deliberate.
The newspaper says documentation provided to it by Stewart did not mention this issue. Hence, it says, there was no need to report on it. Also: “The present mosque as it stands appears to blend in with the residential requirements of the neighbourhood – which is apparent from site visits and the photographs.”
The following remarks need to be made:
  • Despite the mosque’s residential character being “a crucial point of contention”, Stewart himself does not elaborate on this matter in his complaint;
  • The story quotes the mosque’s developer and chairman of the board of trustees Ashraf Kaka to the effect that he expects the tree-issue to be the most important aspect of the Townships Board’s hearing;
  • The purpose of the story is not to list all the conditions, but rather to state that the Townships Board is going to determine the future of the mosque.
The omission of the “residential character” of the mosque is at most unfortunate.
No response by council officials
Stewart complains that, apart from comments made by Greeff, the article does not include any response by council officials “…who should have been compelled to comment.” He says the real culprits have never been quoted, interviewed or mentioned – “and this for me lies at the heart of this matter.”
The newspaper argues that it chose to approach a single person in an authoritative position and to whom other officials are ultimately answerable. “Her (Greeff’s) comment was published…and was regarded by us as more than adequate.”
The story says that Greeff is a “Member of the Mayoral Committee for Infrastructure and Services”. This indeed qualifies her to speak with authority on the matter at hand. It is standard journalistic practice to speak to one person who is in an authoritative position.
Agreement dishonoured
Stewart says that an agreement between himself and van der Walt was dishonoured. “The agreement afforded me the opportunity to confirm and edit certain specific content of the article…as I was in possession of file material pertaining to the matter.”
The newspaper says it is not standard journalistic practice to have any articles pre-approved by any outside party who wishes to dictate and determine what should be published and what not. “It is our prerogative to decide on the relevance of information provided and to afford all parties concerned an opportunity to express their side of the story.”
However, the newspaper says that it did – out of courtesy – e-mailed Stewart a draft article long ahead of publication. It says it received confirmation of delivery on the same day. The newspaper says its journalist then phoned Stewart who confirmed having received the e-mail, complained about the length of the article and said that he would let Stewart know about any changes. This, the newspaper says, never happened. “We therefore submit that John Stewart was afforded a golden opportunity to express and have his exact viewpoint published, but (he) failed to make use of it.”

Let’s look at the facts. Van der Walt did send an e-mail to Stewart, dated July 19, containing a draft article for Stewart to comment on. In this e-mail he asks Stewart to “alter or add” any information he would like. Documentation in my possession proves that Stewart received this document.

The newspaper can be forgiven for saying: “I rest my case.”

Story does not reflect Council’s inaction
Stewart complains that the story does not reflect the Council’s “inaction, dubious behaviour and downright negligence”. He explains that he went to the newspaper after years of challenging Council to fulfill its mandate of service delivery by applying its own laws and regulations. He says that the newspaper has also now “failed” him, as it neglected to unearth the “dirt” piling up in the Council regarding this matter. Instead, Stewart says, the newspaper chose to create and focus on a supposed “issue” between himself and the mosque developers.
This may or may not be true. However, for our office to find for Stewart in this matter, we shall have to conduct our own investigation into Council’s affairs – which would fall squarely outside our mandate.
The second story
Agreement dishonoured
Stewart says that, after the publication of the first article, the newspaper again informed him in an e-mail that its task was to be unbiased and that it would allow all interested parties to be afforded the opportunity to comment in a follow-up story. This, Stewart complains, did not happen. He says it was unfair of the newspaper to ask a representative of the mosque for comment, while he was ignored.
I asked Stewart to supply me with a copy of the e-mail in question. He could not do so, but instead referred to an “unwritten agreement”. This makes any kind of adjudication difficult.
Be that as it may – agreement or no agreement, the question remains whether or not the newspaper should have asked him for comment.
The story says that the Townships Board has stipulated the conditions to be complied with for the mosque to continue operating (ten years after the mosque issue came to light). It lists 12 such conditions. The story quotes Ward Councillor for the area, cllr Rae Baur, as well as Kaka. It does not mention Stewart.
It should have – he is a role-player, together with the Council and people representing the mosque. He may not be the biggest role-player, but he remains one. This omission is unfortunate.
The question, however, is whether or not this omission represents a breach of the Press Code. The relevant part of the Press Code is Art. 1.5 which states: “A publication should usually seek the views of the subject of serious critical reportage in advance of publication…”
This specific story is not about Stewart, which means that the newspaper was under no obligation to ask him for comment.
Not all bad journalism equals a breach of the Code.
Another issue
The third sentence of this first story reads as follows: “A number of residents of this area are not happy with the way the mosque is operating.” The caption to the picture confirms this, stating: “…Residents close to the building feel that nothing is being done about the problem the mosque is creating.”
By the newspaper’s own admission, these sentences are false.
Consider the following e-mail by group editor (editorial department) Caxton Johannesburg Newspapers Jaques Coetzee to Stewart a few days after the first story was published: “To date, you are the only person who has approached us about the mosque. In fact, I think we were rather kind in the report to say that ‘a number of residents in the area…’ while you, Mr Stewart, is the only one on record.”
In its response to the complaint, the newspaper explains that it used the plural “not to pinpoint Stewart as the only complaining resident in Watson Street – directly behind the mosque”.
The newspaper’s motive may be noble, but that does not justify inaccurate reporting (which is exactly what it is) in any way. This kind of misleading reportage gives the press a bad name and has no place in responsible, ethical journalism.
Finding
Mosque services audible from outside
It was reasonable for the newspaper to report that Stewart was facing the issue that he could hear noise emanating from the mosque clearly. This part of the complaint is dismissed.
Skeptical of the mosque’s iron roof
It is reasonable to accept that Stewart was skeptical of the roofing; the story also mentions that this matter is a condition set by the Council. This part of the complaint is dismissed.
Council awaiting the outcome
It was not necessary to report on this issue since the outcome of the matter was still outstanding. This part of the complaint is dismissed.
Residential in character
The omission of this aspect may be unfortunate, but within the context of the story it cannot be construed as a breach of the Press Code. This part of the complaint is dismissed.
No response by council officials
It is standard journalistic practice to ask one person in an authoritative position for comment. This part of the complaint is dismissed.
Agreement dishonoured
Regarding the first story, there is documentary proof that Stewart was afforded an opportunity to respond. This part of the complaint is dismissed.
As far as the second story is concerned: The newspaper’s neglect to ask Stewart for comment is unfortunate, but it is found not to have breached the Press Code. This part of the complaint is dismissed.
Story does not reflect Council’s inaction
As this matter falls outside the mandate of this office, this part of the complaint is dismissed.
Another issue
By the newspaper’s own admission, the sentences saying that a “number of residents” of the area were not happy with the way the mosque is operating are false. This is in breach of Art. 1.1 of the Press Code that says: “The press shall be obliged to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly.”
Sanction
The newspaper is reprimanded for the above-mentioned breach of the Press Code and directed to publish this sanction, together with a summary of this finding (not the whole ruling) on its front page. Our office should be furnished with this text prior to publication.
The following sentence should be added at the end of the text: “Visit www.presscouncil.org.za (rulings, 2010) for the full finding.”
Appeal
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