Naleni Atwaru vs The Witness

Complainant: Naleni Atwaru

Lodged by: Naleni Atwaru

Article: Residents’ complaints about church noise fuel heated debate at Executive Committee meeting

Author of article: Thobani Ngqulunga

Date: 13 July 2014

Respondent: The Witness

Complaint

Atwaru is complaining about a front-page story published on 20 June 2014, headlined Residents’ complaints about church noise fuel heated debate at Executive Committee meeting.

She says that her remarks were taken out of context and portrayed as sensationalist, and that the story was factually inaccurate on several counts (details below).

The text

The story, written by Thobani Ngqulunga, reported on a debate at an Executive Committee meeting, initiated by Atwaru, on a complaint by a resident about noises emanating from church services.

Analysis

Atwaru complains that the story was biased in that it reflected only contentious aspects of the meeting, “thus adding to the incitement of religious organizations and churches”. She alleges that the reporter seemed to have purposefully misrepresented what was actually said. As a result, she says, she is now facing divisions within and between religious groups and the community. “This sort of reporting polarizes the community and is not ethical.”

She adds that the following quote of her words was taken out of context: “We can’t have churches popping up everywhere, so I think we need to investigate how these premises were awarded to the church because people do like to have their quality time on Sundays.” She says the gist of her message was that the committee should investigate whether the church made the relevant applications to the town-planning department “to see if proper procedure and by-laws were in fact followed with notifications to be given to the residents of the community”.

Atwaru also complains that the story inaccurately reported that “she insisted that she had tried to speak to church leaders but every time she went there people ignored her”. She says: “This is incorrect, I had stated that they informed me that they will hand my number to the leaders, but I never received any responses, then [I] requested the officials to assist.”

She concludes that she also said this matter should not be turned into a racial issue – but the reporter only quoted another councilor to this effect.

Trench denies that the reporter was biased and the story sensational. He says that the draft minutes of the meeting (Atwaru provided this office with a copy) are largely unintelligible and cannot be “heavily relied on as an accurate record to support [her]argument” – yet, from a reading of this document he was satisfied that the story fairly reflected the nub of the debate “and that we represented the discussion as fully as required in the space allocated for the report”.

He concludes that the issue was contentious and thus newsworthy, and invites Atwaru to expand her viewpoint directly to the reporter or through the letters pages of the paper.

My considerations

I shall follow Atwaru’s arguments in the same order as above:

Biased, selective reporting: Firstly, a newspaper report is fundamentally different from the minutes of a meeting (certainly regarding the nature of these draft minutes) – the journalist should be able to discern between what is newsworthy and what not (in other words, to zoom in on matters that are material, and to ignore those which are not, or are less important).

With that in mind, I compared the draft minutes (all I have to go on) and the story.

The only possible material issue not reflected in the story is Atwaru’s statements (plural) that she was not choosing sides. However, in general the article did not indicate any animosity by Atwaru towards the church or religion (with a possible exception, which I shall discuss below).

For that reason, I think that the reporter adequately discerned between what was important or newsworthy, and what was not. I therefore do not believe that he was biased or the story sensational.

But this is a general remark – there is an (isolated) exception…

Churches popping up everywhere: The sentence in dispute reads: “We can’t have churches popping up everywhere, so I think we need to investigate how these premises were awarded to the church because people do like to have their quality time on Sundays.”

Several issues come to the fore:

  • The gist of the draft minutes on this matter corresponds exactly with what the story said, which means I am satisfied that the sentence itself is accurate;
  • Atwaru says the gist of her message was that the committee should investigate whether the church made the relevant applications to the town-planning department “to see if proper procedure and by-laws were in fact followed…” To my mind, though, the words “we need to investigate how these premises were awarded” adequately reflect her intention; and
  • Directly after Atwaru uttered the words in question, she emphasised that there were two sides to this matter – “…we need to look at both sides…[to ensure that]both parties get along and have their congregations and have their family time on the same day and still…be able to live in harmony with one another…” She added: “I am not saying the church is wrong or the residents are wrong – all I am saying [is that]we as the committee…should look [and]see what we can do to listen to both sides and find an amicable solution for both parties.”

I am convinced that the story should have reported the gist of the above, as that would have assured readers that Atwaru was not anti-religion (but that she in fact tried to accommodate both sides). This omission probably did cause her unnecessary harm, as she claims it did.

This is evident from a letter by pastor Mark Green published in The Witness. He said that her comment about churches popping up everywhere “smacks of discrimination against Christianity”. However, the draft minutes make it clear that she is miles from such discrimination. The blame for this is not on Green, but on the newspaper.

Please note that one swallow does not make a summer. I believe that this omission was an isolated mistake, and I am not willing to accuse the journalist of bias based on one lapse only.

Church leaders ignoring her: Atwaru complains that the story inaccurately said that “she insisted that she had tried to speak to church leaders but every time she went there people ignored her”. Instead, she says, she stated that church members had informed her they would give her number to the leaders, but she says she never received any response.

The draft minutes made it clear that Atwaru admitted she had not spoken to the church leaders, and that those members to whom she did speak were not co-operative. I am therefore satisfied that the journalist reported adequately on this matter.

Racial issue:

Atwaru complains that the reporter did not quote her on this issue.

This matter is not material enough for me to decide that the newspaper breached the Press Code.

Finding

Biased, selective reporting

In general, Ngqulunga adequately discerned between what was important or newsworthy, and what was not, and (again in general) I do not have enough evidence to find that he was biased or that the story was sensational. This part of the complaint is dismissed.

Churches popping up everywhere

The sentence in dispute was accurate, and therefore this part of the complaint is dismissed.

The story adequately reflected Atwaru’s intention, and therefore this part of the complaint is dismissed.

The story did not balance out the sentence in question with Atwaru’s repeated statements that she was not one-sided in this matter. This is in breach of Section 2.2 of the Press Code: “News shall be presented in context and in a balanced manner, without any intentional or negligent departure from the facts whether by…material omissions or summarisation.”

Church leaders ignoring her

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

Racial issue

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

Sanction

The Witness is directed to:

  • apologise to Atwaru on its front page for not balancing out her statement about churches that should not be allowed to pop up everywhere with her repeated statements about her neutrality in this matter – and for the possible unnecessary harm that this may have caused her; and
  • furnish this office with the text prior to publication. The text should end with the words: “Visit www.presscouncil.org.za for the full finding.”

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 Chairperson of the SA Press Adjudication Panel, Judge Bernard Ngoepe, fully setting out the grounds of appeal. He can be contacted at Khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.

Johan Retief

Press Ombudsman