Miyash Rampersad vs Natal Witness

Complainant: Miyash Rampersad

 Lodged by: Miyash Rampersad

 Article: Insult to Indian community

 Author of article: Ashin Singh

 Date: 11 November 2013

 Respondent: Natal Witness

THE COMPLAINT

Rampersadh complains about a letter in the Natal Witness on 4 November 2013, headlined Insult to Indian community.

She complains that the publication of the letter:

·         has brought her dignity and reputation into disrepute, and discriminated against her due to her marital status;

·         was not in the public interest; and

·         prior to the outcome of a competition was unfair and prejudiced.

THE TEXT

The letter, written by Mr Ashin Singh from Pietermaritzburg, said Rampersadh insulted the entire South African Indian community, that she was an outcast, that she had a sad upbringing, and that she was a sourpuss – “little wonder that she is not married… Maybe that is the source of her frustration”.

This came as a response to an opinion article, written by Rampersadh, headlined Tyranny of the gossip mill, and published a few days earlier (on October 28). Her article was mainly about gossip amongst the Indian community, and was submitted for a writing competition, the winners of which are to be announced in the last week of November.

THE ARGUMENTS

Editor Andrew Trench says that the justification for publishing Singh’s letter must be understood within the context of Rampersadh’s column in which she “offered a highly personal view on Indian society and family life which played on a number of stereotypical views”. As such, her opinion was “provocative and bound to stir commentary”.

He continues: “Ordinarily we would not consider running a letter that contained pointed personal criticisms of a writer… However, I also believe [not to publish a reaction]is patently unfair on other readers whose emotions may be stirred by such writing and who will be moved to offer a rebuttal or contrary view. This is why I decided that we would run this letter.”

In particular, Trench argues that:

·         Rampersadh herself referred to her marital status in her article “and, in fact, is the thread which runs through it” – so she opened the door through which Singh walked;

·         the word “outcast” simply meant that she stood outside of the mainstream of the mores of her community (he calls this the “sub-text of her column”);

·         references to race were relevant since both Singh and Rampersadh were part of the community which formed the basis of her commentary; and

·         her dignity and reputation were over-ridden by the nature, tone and content of her column – by placing herself at the centre of her commentary she opened the way for Singh’s criticism and invited a fiery response “by the very nature of the original piece”.

The editor concludes: “While I have sympathy that her feelings have been hurt by the tone of her critic, it is also my view that if she was prepared to offer a personal view, based on stereotypes which others were likely to find offensive, then she should have anticipated the likely reaction and be prepared to take the robust criticism that follows. What is good for the goose, is good for the gander… [T]he rights of the other party to this correspondence need to be weighed up under the references in the Preamble to the Code which emphasizes Section 16 of the Bill of Rights and its provisions for freedom of expression.”

In her reply to the newspaper’s response, Rampersadh says that it was not the criticism in Singh’s letter that she complained about, but rather “the personal attack that should have been edited” (emphasis added). She says that being labelled a sourpuss, perhaps being sexually frustrated due to her being unmarried, was “traumatizing to say the least”.

ANALYSIS

Dignity, reputation, discriminatory

I need to make an extremely important distinction between criticism on the one hand, and a personal attack on the other – and outline the borders of the latter.

In general, the Press Code not only protects criticism, but also encourages it. The Preamble to the Code mentions the importance of “independent scrutiny”, and Section 7 elaborates on how such criticism should take shape.

In addition to this, both the Code and the South African Constitution champion freedom of speech and expression.

Therefore, there can be no doubt that this office defends, supports and advocates criticism and freedom of speech. We have rigorously done so in the past and shall relentlessly continue to do so.

However, even this freedom has its borders or boundaries – which is why there is a Press Code in the first place. With freedom comes responsibility (as outlined by the Code). While robust criticism is one thing, a personal attack on somebody is a different kettle of fish. That is why Sections 4.2 and 5.1 are specifically relevant in this case – the former protects people’s dignity and reputation, the latter their marital status (these sections are all on a personal level).

Section 4.2 reads:

·         “The press shall exercise care and consideration in matters involving dignity and reputation…”; and

·         5.1 states: “…the press shall avoid discriminatory or denigratory references to people’s…marital status…”

It is clear from these sections that there is a difference between a personal attack and criticizing an issue.

Let me now repeat that the letter said Rampersadh insulted the entire South African Indian community, that she was an outcast, that she had a sad upbringing, and that she was a sourpuss – “little wonder that she is not married… Maybe that is the source of her frustration”.

Surely, these statements are of a personal nature and tarnish Rampersadh’s dignity and reputation. The connection in the letter between her marital status and her being a sourpuss (one definition of sourpuss is: A habitually gloomy or sullen person) is especially pertinent.

However, even a personal attack that tarnishes somebody’s dignity and reputation and is discriminatory by nature cannot by default be in breach of the Press Code – which is why I have quoted these sections so far only in part. For both of them include a very important condition, namely that of public interest.

So, the argument continues.

Privacy, public interest

In addition to the two sections of the Press Code quoted above, Section 4.1 reads: “The press shall exercise care and consideration in matters involving the private lives and concerns of individuals. The right to privacy may be overridden by a legitimate public interest.”

The condition of a legitimate public interest is supported by our judicial system. The Constitutional Court (Judge Edwin Cameron) has ruled (McBride vs. The Citizen) as follows: “Criticism is protected even if extreme, unjust, unbalanced, exaggerated and prejudiced, as long as it expresses an honestly held opinion, without malice, on a matter of public interest on facts that are true.” (emphasis added)

Another well-known judgment said: “In our law, it is not good enough, as a defence to or a ground of justification for a defamation, that the published words may be true: it must also be to the public benefit or in the public interest that they be published.”

My basic question, therefore, boils down to this: Did the personal attack on Rampersadh serve the public interest, or was to the public benefit?

I keep in mind that the nature of Rampersadh’s column was clearly an opinion (to which she was entitled). There could have been no possible public interest in labelling her as a sourpuss due to her marital status, and her having been an outcast with a sad upbringing.

That was utterly degrading, without any public interest (described as “information of legitimate interest or importance to citizens” in the Preamble to the Press Code) whatsoever.

I therefore also believe that the letter invaded her privacy.

Publication prior to the outcome of the competition

Rampersadh complains that this was unfair and prejudiced.

I do not believe that this part of the complaint has any legs to stand on – the publication of Singh’s letter prior to the outcome of the competition may have been unfortunate, but it certainly was not in breach of any Section of the Press Code.

General comments

Please note that I agree with the editor that the column was “provocative and bound to stir commentary”, and that Rampersadh had to expect robust criticism. However, while such criticism is one thing, a personal attack on her such as this one (without public interest involved) is quite another.

I have little doubt that the publication of this letter unnecessarily caused Rampersadh some serious harm and trauma.

In an email to the Public Advocate, the letters editor says: “I wish to place it on record (and regardless of who may be reading this email) that I rejected Ashin Singh’s letter as devoid of content and unworthy of publication. I have rejected many similar letters in the past. On this occasion I was overruled. In my opinion it was a gross error of judgement.”

Bingo.

FINDING

Dignity, reputation, discriminatory; Privacy, public interest

The publication of the letter is in breach of Sections 4.1, 4.2 and 5.1 of the Press Code (as cited above).

Publication prior to the outcome of the competition

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

SANCTION

Natal Witness is directed to:

·         apologise to Rampersadh for causing her unnecessary harm by bringing her dignity and reputation into disrepute, by a discriminatory remark about her marital status, and by infringing on her privacy;

·         publish the text that follows below; and

·         include her surname as well as the word “apology” or “apologise(s)” in the headline.

Beginning of text

Natal witness apologises to Ms Miyash Rampersadh for causing her unnecessary harm by bringing her dignity and reputation into disrepute, by a discriminatory remark about her marital status, and by infringing on her privacy.

Rampersadh lodged a complaint with the Press Ombudsman about a letter that we published on 4 November 2013, headlined Insult to Indian community.

The letter, written by Mr Ashin Singh from Pietermaritzburg, said Rampersadh insulted the entire South African Indian community, that she was an outcast, that she had a sad upbringing, and that she was a sourpuss – “little wonder that she is not married… Maybe that is the source of her frustration”.

This came as a response to an opinion article, written by Rampersadh, headlined Tyranny of the gossip mill, and published a few days earlier (on October 28). Her article was mainly about gossip amongst the Indian community, and was submitted for a writing competition.

Press Ombudsman Johan Retief said that, while freedom of expression allows for criticism and even a personal attack on somebody, the publication of such should be in the public interest – which is was not.

He added: “I have little doubt that the publication of this letter unnecessarily caused Rampersadh some serious harm and trauma.”

Retief dismissed the complaint that the publication of the letter prior to the outcome of the competition was unfair and prejudiced.

Visit www.presscouncil.org.za for the full finding.

End of text

APPEAL

Our Complaints Procedures lay down that within seven working days of receipt of this decision, either party may apply for leave to appeal to the Chair of Appeals, Judge Bernard Ngoepe, fully setting out the grounds for the application. He can be contacted at Khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.

Johan Retief

Press Ombudsman