Complainant: SACP (Eastern Cape)
Lodged by: Xolile Nqatha
Article: Ritual of death – The 39 faces of botched circumcisions
Date: 4 September 2013
Respondent: Daily Dispatch
The SACP complains about a front page story in the Daily Dispatch on 31 July 2013, headlined Ritual of death – The 39 faces of botched circumcisions. The largest part of this page portrayed mug shots of the men who have died as a result of circumcisions that went wrong. The story continued on an inside page.
The SACP complains that the headline, the “parading” of faces of dead minors in initiation schools, as well as the story were insensitive, in bad taste and were in fact undermining and scandalizing the traditional African custom of initiation.
The story was about 39 males between the ages of 14 and 43 who have died during the last circumcision season in the Eastern Cape as a result of botched circumcisions. The newspaper had visited some areas and the story mentioned several statistics and portrayed stories of what had happened.
Some kickers (which adequately summarized the content of the story) read:
· “This province has seen 359 initiates admitted to different hospitals and 13 young men losing their manhood as the outcry for government to step in and closely monitor the customary circumcision rite gathers steam”;
· “Since 2006, 462 initiates have died in the Eastern Cape while more than 200 have lost their manhood through penis amputations”;
· “People are asking why we put our children through this torture knowing that some will not survive and some will lose their manhood”; and
· “This custom has been turned into nothing else but a mutilation of the private parts of young boys.”
Arguments about scandalising the custom
The SACP complains that the reportage disrespectfully undermined the old African custom of initiation and in fact scandalized and criminalized it. The exhibition of the 39 initiates were “like walking the entire population of the Province into the mortuary”.
It adds that the story:
· did not provide any solution to the challenge facing the people of the Eastern Cape;
· was “an attack to the dignity of African people”; and
· failed to consider the trauma that this parading of faces would have caused all those concerned – including entire communities.
The Daily Dispatch replies that this office should not entertain the complaint as there is no section in the Press Code that addresses this issue.
That is not true. Section 5.1 of the Code says: “Except where it is strictly relevant to the matter reported and it is in the public interest to do so, the press shall avoid discriminatory or denigratory references to people’s…culture…”
Be that as it may, the newspaper says that:
· all the pictures that were published were obtained from family members;
· all those pictures were taken when the deceased were alive, rendering the mentioning of the word “mortuary” in connection with the faces senseless;
· the headline did the opposite of scandalizing an African custom – it was rather an accurate expression of outrage at lack of respect for a tradition and the abuse thereof;
· the custom is meant to be a ritual of life (the celebration of new beginnings and a proud past) – but the rite has been turned into a “ghastly farce, the opposite of itself”;
· the above was accentuated by the intro which stated: “What was once a proud tradition…”;
· it has reported on deaths at every initiation for years, and this reportage has changed nothing – “The new approach – personalizing and humanizing the deaths – clearly showed a strong desire for the deaths to end, not the ritual”;
· it came out on the side of the poor and powerless – the story clearly said that the ritual was safe for people who can afford good medical assistance (and unsafe for those who cannot);
· caring for the trauma and suffering of the extended families of the dead initiates was one of the main reasons for its investigation; and
· it could not possibly have failed to appreciate the values and ethos shared by African communities in this instance.
The Daily Dispatch concludes that it has fulfilled its responsibility to inform society “by upholding the real culture and traditions of the province’s majority”.
I now need to look at the three aspects of the complaint: the story, the headline and the pictures.
Having closely scrutinized the story, I can find no trace of evidence to support the complaint. The article reflected the harsh reality, and it was in the overwhelming public interest to do so. Moreover, there is not a word in the story that points to any kind of disdain for the custom itself – it is the “mismanagement” of the tradition that is consistently in question.
The headline should be read in context with the story. That is why Section 10.1 of the Press Code says: “Headlines…shall give a reasonable reflection of the contents of the report or picture in question.”
Given this context, I am satisfied that the headline was not a general statement about the custom as such, but rather a specific one directly relating to some specific people who had died because of botched circumcisions – in other words, it was a reasonable reflection of the contents of the story (which was about the lethal consequences for so many people due to mismanagement, and not about the custom as such).
A total of 21 of the 39 faces were silhouettes (where no faces were visible). The editor explains that this happened because their families or relatives did not have any photographs of the deceased. He said: “All those that were published were obtained from and used with permission from the families.”
The SACP does not deny any of these statements.
Section 8 of the Press Code deals with children. The central part of this whole section is the words: “If there is any chance that coverage might cause harm of any kind to a child…” In this case, though, the publishing of the pictures of children cannot cause them any harm (because they were dead), which means that the newspaper cannot be in breach of this particular section.
I also take into account that the pictures were not taken when they were dead, but that they were taken while they were still alive. That does make a huge difference to the impact that pictures can have on those who are affected by their loved-ones’ death. In other words, in this case the harm that the publication of such pictures may cause is significantly lowered.
Another important factor is that the newspaper got permission from the respective families of all the pictures that were used. The SACP’s argument about “entire communities” (read: extended families) that may have been traumatized by the publication of the pictures does not hold water – if the pictures were given for publication by family members, then surely that responsibility falls on their shoulders and not on that of the newspaper.
I therefore do not believe that the publication of the pictures was insensitive, as argued by the SACP.
I can understand that some people, including the complainants, thought that the reportage was in bad taste. Personally I do not agree with that – but let me say that even if that was true, that in itself would not have been in breach of the Press Code. There is no clause that prohibits “bad taste”.
The argument that the newspaper did not put forward any solution is also weak. It is not the publication’s responsibility to offer solutions to problems in society – their “loyalty” to society is expressed by the fulfilment of their role as the Fourth Estate (which the newspaper in this instance succeeded in doing).
The complaint is dismissed in its entirety.
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.