Radical Honesty White Refugee vs City Press

Complainant: Radical Honesty White Refugee

Lodged by: Lara Johnstone

Article: Rightwing group tries to scupper Reitz trial

Author of article: Khadija Bradlow

Date: 3 November 2010

Respondent: City Press

The RH complains about a story in City Press, published on July 30, 2010 and headlined Rightwing group tries to scupper Reitz trial.
The complaint is that the headline is a misrepresentation that alters the context of the story. The RH also complains that Johnstone was never asked for comment.
The parts of the complaint stating that the story omits an accusation against the media, the reference to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and the statement that the journalist’s source was uninformed and prejudiced towards minority groups are all frivolous and cannot be entertained.
The story, written by Khadija Bradlow, is about the sentencing of the Reitz Four that was briefly postponed in the Bloemfontein’s magistrates court “…after a little-known group calling itself ‘Radical Honesty’ made an eleventh hour attempt to be admitted as a friend of the court”. (The Reitz Four are students who were found guilty of crimen injuria following the leaking of a video showing them humiliating five university cleaners.) The story says that, in its founding affidavit, RH attacks the TRC and calls the trial against the Reitz Four “a grave injustice”. She is also quoted as saying that the Reitz Four were “used as scapegoats in a race war”.
We shall now consider the merits of the complaint:
Headline: a misrepresentation
The RH complains about one phrase and one word in the headline: “rightwing group” and “scupper”.
First, with regards to the phrase rightwing group: Johnstone denies that the organization is “rightwing”, saying that RH supports the rule of law for everyone. She says that even if the organisation happens to support right-wingers it does not necessarily mean that the RH itself is rightwing.
City Press argues that Johnstone, in her application to intervene as a friend of the court in the Reitz Four trial, says (amongst other things) that:
  • the liberation struggle in South Africa could not have been considered a “just war” when apartheid had raised poor black living standards to the highest in Africa;
  • apartheid was not a crime against humanity, but a just war for “Afrikaner Demographic Survival”;
  • she endorses the concept of “white refugees” in South Africa;
  • she renounces the TRC; and
  • she regards the Reitz Four as victims rather than wrongdoers.
The newspaper says that, in her application to the Constitutional Court, she:
  • defends the use of the word “kaffir” in the South African context;
  • mentions that she has been previously convicted of crimen injuria for using this word; and
  • uses race repeatedly as a prominent concept in her world view.
In a rather lengthy response to the above Johnstone mentions some of the issues, but she does not adequately refute what the newspaper is stating.
The best example of this is Johnstone’s defence of the k-word. In her correspondence with our office she cites 26 different definitions of the word “kaffir”, all intended to justify its use.
She may as well have given 1 000 definitions – the fact of the matter is that by far the majority of people in South Africa finds this word offensive. No “definition” on earth will change this situation and merit its use in the South African context. It is reasonable for the newspaper to use the word “rightwing” if only for the fact that she keeps on defending the use of this word.
Her false accusations against City Press can also not go unnoticed. She says that she is “absolutely astounded” by the newspaper calling the Reitz Four “wrong doers” (she calls them “victims”). Johnstone admits that she has no idea if the students are guilty or not (even though she herself cites news reports that state that they were found guilty), but she nevertheless goes on to accuse the newspaper of demonstrating its preference for mob-justice and other not-so-nice things, such as that it acted as a judge in this case.
Two remarks are appropriate:
  • She would have done well to check her facts first – the Reitz four were sentenced to a R20 000 fine each or 12 months imprisonment earlier this year after they have pleaded guilty to a charge of crimen injuria. It was not the newspaper that acted as a judge, but a proper court of law.
  • The Reitz Four’s behaviour is widely seen as race-related – again, she must not be surprised when she is being called “rightwing” if she continues to call the transgressors (found guilty by a court of law) the victims.
Also consider the fact that Johnstone is the only member of RH in South Africa. While it may be true that the RH is not a “rightwing” organization, the only source that the newspaper can go on is Johnstone. She should again not be surprised if the newspaper calls her organization “rightwing” when she, as its only representative in this country, makes rightwing-like statements.
Now, on the use of the word scupper: City Press says that she brought her application in the Reitz matter (to be allowed as a friend of the court) at the moment of sentencing, resulting in a brief postponement of procedures in a highly-publicised, race-related criminal trial.
(City Press says her application was unsuccessful. A telephone call to the Constitutional Court affirmed that the newspaper is not correct – her application was indeed successful. However, this issue is immaterial to our investigation and this matter is therefore not to be pursued any further.)
According to a dictionary the word “scupper” means to “wait in hiding to attack” or to “put in a dangerous, disadvantageous, or difficult position”. Considering her timing as well as the nature of the Reitz Four trial, it is reasonable to accept that the word “scupper” is reflective of what transpired.
Not asked for comment
Johnstone says that the newspaper did not approach her for comment.
The newspaper argues: “But her abortive attempt at intervention in the Reitz matter was in itself a public event, on which City Press merely reported.”
The newspaper reported on a court case and was under no obligation to ask Johnstone for comment. This is standard journalistic practice.
The headline is not misrepresentative of the story and it also does not alter the context of the article in any way. This part of the complaint is dismissed.
Not asked for comment
This part of the complaint is dismissed.
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