University of the Free State vs Volksblad, Beeld and Die Burger

Complainant: University of the Free State

Lodged by: Lacea Loader

Article: 

  • Volksblad, headlined Woede oor UV-koshuis – JBM ‘gestroop van Afrikaanse identiteit’;
  • Beeld  (Woede oor UV-koshuis);
  • Die Burger (Slegs Engels in dié koshuis, sê UVFoto’s, aandenkings is verwyder); and
  • Volksblad Kampus (March 25, Inwoners woedend oor JBM – Tradisies, kultuur só vernietig).

Date: 21 July 2014

Respondent: Volksblad, Beeld and Die Burger

This ruling is based on the written submissions of Ms Lacea Loader, director of Communication and Brand Management at the University of the Free State (UFS), and Gert Coetzee, assistant editor of Volksblad, on behalf of Volksblad, Beeld and Die Burger newspapers, as well as on a hearing that took place on 17 July at Bloemfontein.

The following people represented the UFS:

  • Mr JC van der Merwe, Institute for Reconciliation and Social Justice;
  • Ms Lacea Loader, Director: Communication and Brand Management;
  • Dr WP Wahl, Assistant Director: Housing and Residence Affairs;
  • Mr Dawid Mouton, Residence Head of JBM Hertzog Residence;
  • Mr Bernard Louw, prime of JBM Hertzog Residence; and
  • Andricia Hinckermann, member of the Student Representative Council.

The editor, Johanna van Eeden, Coetzee, Charles Smith, news editor, and the reporter, Pieter Steyn, attended on behalf of Volksblad.

The two members of the Panel of Adjudicators who assisted the Ombudsman were Henry Jeffreys (press representative) and Lindsay Clowes (public representative).

Although the complaints are directed at three newspapers, we are grouping them together as the story originated at one publication (Volksblad, which responded on behalf of the others as well). Also, even though all these newspapers are in Afrikaans, we are adjudicating in English as the complaints are in that language.

PART 1: A SUMMARY OF THE DOCUMENTATION PRIOR TO THE HEARING

COMPLAINT

                                    The stories, headlines, pictures in dispute

The UFS is complaining about four nearly identical stories on changes at the JBM Hertzog residence (JBM), published on 18 and 25 March 2014 in:

  • Volksblad, headlined Woede oor UV-koshuis – JBM ‘gestroop van Afrikaanse identiteit’;
  • Beeld  (Woede oor UV-koshuis);
  • Die Burger (Slegs Engels in dié koshuis, sê UVFoto’s, aandenkings is verwyder); and
  • Volksblad Kampus (March 25, Inwoners woedend oor JBM – Tradisies, kultuur só vernietig).

The complaint extends to a follow-up story in Volksblad (April 16, Alumni lewer nie groot bydrae, sê vise-rektor).

The bulk of these stories were accompanied by pictures of an empty display cabinet and a stack of framed pictures on a table.

The complaint

The UFS says that the following statements, and their accompanying headlines, were false/misleading:

  • Students at the JBM Hertzog residence were furious;
  • Dean of Student Affairs Rudi Buys reportedly admitted that JBM’s name might be changed as part of the transformation process;
  • The JBM’s historical character and identity had been destroyed;
  • JBM was going to be renamed after Steve Biko;
  • Memorabilia that reflected JBM’s culture were removed;
  • Students did not want to be identified as they feared victimization; and
  • English was the only language to be used in official communication in residences.

The university also complains that the reporter obtained his information and pictures dishonestly and unfairly.

THE TEXTS

The first four stories reported that students at the UFS and former residents of the JBM Hertzog residence were up in arms because the residence had reportedly been stripped of its Afrikaans identity and white history in the name of transformation.

The follow-up story in Volksblad reported that the “move” away from Afrikaans to English was hotly debated, and many speakers (at a convocation meeting) were reportedly dissatisfied that all meetings, including notices at residences, had to be conducted in English only.

Pieter Steyn wrote all the stories.

ANALYSIS

‘Inaccurate’ statements

JBM residence students ‘furious’

The stories reported that students and former residents of JBM Hertzog were furious (because the residence had reportedly been stripped of its Afrikaans identity and white history in the name of transformation – it was also rumoured that the residence, which was named after a former prime minister of the Union of South Africa, J.B.M. Hertzog, was to be renamed after Steve Biko, a former anti-apartheid activist who had been killed in police custody).

The UFS denies this. It says that a renewal process at JBM took place not only following extensive consultations, but that the students of this residence themselves formally and publicly declared their support for the programme (in the form of a letter, published in Volksblad on 27 March 2014).

Volksblad replies that it spoke to three current residents and two former residents, who all said that Buys was forcing the transformation process on them. “If everybody was so satisfied, why did one of the members of the Students Residence Committee resign?” It adds that several letters from people with ties to the UFS confirmed dissatisfaction amongst students.

The newspaper provided me with a recording of a meeting at JBM at which Buys spoke about transformation (https://soundcloud.com/volksblad), as well as a transcript of what was said at that event – and argues that both Buys’s tone and style, and the students’ reaction, show that at least some of them were unhappy with the programme.

Coetzee concludes: “[The recording] shows that there was a confusing, one-way traffic in which no opposition from students was allowed, and where [Buys] tried to think for the students.” He emphasizes that the newspaper did not know about this meeting when the story was written, and says that it merely shows that the story was correct in the first place.

He then continues to:

·         ask why the UFS was not open about the protest?

·         say that a letter by Afriforum (which Volksblad did not publish) demonstrated protest against the programme;

·         state that the 27 March letter by “residents from JBM” failed to mention the stormy meeting between Buys and the students; and

·         question the authenticity of this letter (suggesting some possible influence from the UFS)

The UFS responds that its complaint was not that Volksblad incorrectly indicated that some students were angry and that not all of them supported the process for change (Buys himself confirmed this at the meeting), but rather that the story was misleading as it did not also report the support for and participation in the process by other students, especially student leaders – rendering the story biased.

Loader adds that the:

·         newspaper used secondary sources (former students and letters from non-residents) – whose opinions should not have been “published as fact”;

·         story did not reflect Buys’s advice to students that they should consider leaving the residence “if they find a clash of values with the community”;

·         Residents’ Committee (RC) members who resigned did so of their own accord, without Buys’s involvement;

·         publication of a letter of support by the RC after the story itself appeared “only afterwards allowed for views different from its report and then only in the letters column and not in a news report”; and

·         RC’s letter was its own initiative, and she emphatically denies any influence from the UFS in this regard.

Dean admitting to a possible change of name

Steyn wrote Buys had reportedly admitted that JBM’s name might be changed as part of the transformation process.

The UFS complains that this statement was “severely misleading” as it quoted Buys out of context. It also misrepresented the support and the active leadership of the residence committee in the transformation programme.

Volksblad notes that the university does not show where and how Buys was quoted out of context, or what this “context” was. It says that the reporter sent the university a list of specific questions, but that replies were received in general terms – which is why Steyn had to set up a meeting in order to get clarification. Coetzee argues that the story was an honest attempt to put forward all sides of the story, despite the UFS holding back information and/or giving misleading, confusing and non-substantial responses.

The university denies withholding information, and states that Buys offered the newspaper an extensive interview that would address the full context and reasons for the transformation process. However, Volksblad then declined to publish the interview, but instead reported “misleading” statements, “selectively using only some quotes in support of its biased report”.

JBM’s historical character and identity destroyed

The stories attributed the “fury” to the allegation that JBM had been stripped of its Afrikaans identity and white history in the name of transformation.

Loader said that no such goal existed formally or informally in the residence culture renewal programme. Instead, the expressed objective of this programme was “to complete a holistic review to strengthen the residence community with values, traditions and symbols of inclusivity…” She argued that this implied the character and identities of residences would not simply be removed “and replaced with another and opposing character and identity”. The programme was meant to enable students to “meaningfully reflect on and foster the history of the residence while reviewing traditions aligned with current South African contexts”.

Volksblad replies that this part of the story came directly from residents – and argues that the story clearly attributed the statement in dispute to those students.

Coetzee also notes that the statement about “meaningfully reflect[ing]on and foster[ing]the history of the residence while reviewing traditions aligned with current South African contexts” (whatever that may mean) was never communicated to the newspaper.

The UFS responds that at no point in the meeting or in the process as a whole, “any particular ethnic-cultural identity was indicated as the target for intervention” – which, it claims, confirms the newspaper’s bias in reporting on this matter. The university argues that Volksblad did not clearly state that the comments in question were based on opinion.

Renamed after Biko

The stories reported the rumour that JBM might be renamed after Biko.

The UFS says there was no such proposal by its management or by students of the residence, either formally or informally. Instead, Buys “at several instances indicated that the name of the residence must be included in the holistic review of the residence culture …[and]repeatedly indicated that the name will change only by way of decisions by the students in the residence themselves…”

The university complains that this misrepresented communication and consultation with the students, its formal policy and procedures regarding name changes, as well as Buys’s approach to formal policy, procedures and consultation with students in this particular programme and in general.

Coetzee said the story did not state the Biko issue as fact or portray it as formal UFS policy, but rather reported it as a rumour (coming from a former member of the students’ RC). He also argued that a name change would be newsworthy and emphasized that the story merely referred to speculation in this regard.

Loader replies that the story reported the opinion of one student as fact (without stating such), which gained credence in conjunction with other “false statements” and the “selective use” of quotes by Buys. She adds that the story “rather insinuated in an evocative way that the name will most likely change from what one could term as ‘a leader of the apartheid state’ to ‘a leader of the liberation struggle’ – a provocative report that misled the public in its assessment of the change process at the university and triggered deep emotions and conflicts among alumni and students”.

Cultural memorabilia removed

The stories added that students were furious because pictures and memorabilia reflecting the residents’ culture had allegedly been removed. These allegedly included neck-ties and a Springbok jersey.

Loader denies this and adds that the UFS has no knowledge of such a rugby jersey.

She adds that the picture frames stacked on a table were “falsely published to prove that memorabilia were removed from the residence by [Buys]”. She explains that the student RC “have taken down pictures and memorabilia for reframing and repairing…with all intention to redisplay the memorabilia…” Loader adds that the UFS management was informed about the above only after the story in Volksblad had been published. “The report [therefore]published the pictures out of context and misleads the reader with the false report.”

The director concludes that this reportage misrepresented the UFS’s residence culture renewal programme as if the goal was to either remove or destroy memorabilia.

Volksblad replies that, once again, the information came from residents with whom the reporter spoke.

Coetzee adds that:

  • the UFS did not reply to a specific question to the university in this regard;
  • Buys himself told students at the meeting that JBM’s museum would be moved to the Department of Modern History; and
  • the university never, in any of its correspondence, stated that pictures were taken down to be re-framed – on the contrary, Buys told the students that they had to convince him of the value of each tie or jersey.
The UFS says that Buys responded in full to this question during his interview with the reporter, which Volksblad “subsequently did not publish as agreed [upon]”. The newspaper also admitted to inferring from different opinions of students that these claims were true – which they were not.

Loader adds: “The false and misleading way in which the reporting was done did not encourage the university to put the facts straight, as VOLKSBLAD already made up its mind and the mind of its readers.”

She also says that the newspaper continues to claim its opinion as fact about sports jerseys and other memorabilia being removed from the residence, “while no evidence has been found by the university of this being the case, as is also confirmed by the Residence Committee”.

Loader concludes that this confirms the newspaper’s “intentional misinterpretation” of Buys’s explanation in his interview, and denies that Buys removed memorabilia – Volksblad’s continued insistence that he did “shows its bias in this regard”.

Fearing victimisation

The sentence in dispute reads: “Residents, who did not want to be identified for fear of victimisation…”

The UFS says that no complaint of victimization has been registered (regarding this issue), and states that the programme itself consists of think tanks, chaired by the residence committee members themselves, with no involvement of staff, “where all students participate openly and frankly without fear”.

Loader argued that this statement was misleading as it falsely suggested that Buys did not allow for differences of opinion, while instead he had invited students to comment and raise questions and differences of opinion on any matter.

Volksblad replies that the students told the reporter they wanted to stay anonymous for fear of victimization. The newspaper also referred me to the recording of Buys’s meeting with the students, where his tone was quite threatening (“…if you do not want to be part of this, you should immediately leave…” etc.). Coetzee adds that, in one story, a mother of a student was quoted after speaking to Buys at the convocation meeting. Even this mother did not reveal her name to the dean for fear that her son would be victimized.

Loader responds that Volksblad elsewhere readily declares its sources to be either current or former students, “which it refuses to do in its reply to this part of the complaint, which calls into question the authenticity of its defense”. She also argues that the newspaper did not reflect the mother’s statement as an opinion, but as fact. She rejects “in the strongest possible terms” the notion that Buys may be victimizing students and attests that this reporting shows the newspaper’s bias and confirms the validity of the UFS’s complaint.

English only

Steyn quoted Buys as saying that house meetings and announcements over the intercom had to be in English only.

Loader says that this is not true, “as it misrepresents the policy and actual practice of the university to use both Afrikaans and English, as well as the continued use of both languages in the programme…”

Coetzee replies that this was the perception of some of the students.

He adds that the newspaper asked the UFS about its “cultural renewal” programme, and specifically wanted a response on the language issue. “The UFS opted not [to]respond unequivocally to this question – not now, and not later.”

The UFS notes that no evidence of this exists in the transcript of Buys’s comments at the residence meeting, and adds that the dean responded in full to this question during the interview – which Volksblad “subsequently did not publish as was agreed”. Instead, the newspaper quoted unverified comments by members of the convocation, “thereby unfairly giving credence to its original false claim with regard to the change process in the residence”.

Information, pictures obtained dishonestly, unfairly

The UFS complains Steyn obtained his information and pictures dishonestly and unfairly, “severely damaging” Buys’s dignity and reputation in the process.

Loader says that Volksblad published a recording of a meeting between the two parties online, without permission, and neglected to publish on paper this conversation between them (as previously agreed). “By not publishing the agreed article and obtaining news under false pretense and publishing online voice and video recordings obtained without permission, the Volksblad unfairly and dishonestly obtained news, while selectively using only some parts of the news obtained outside of the questions agreed to.”

She adds that the newspaper unfairly obtained pictures (of empty wall cabinets and of picture frames stacked on a table) without the UFS’s permission – all media are required to register with the university’s media office and gain formal approval prior to taking pictures. In addition, the UFS was not requested to clarify the content of the pictures.

Volksblad denies all of the above.

Loader says that all attacks on Buys’s dignity result from and are based on false and misleading information, as well as on selective use of some quotes from the interview.

PART 2: AT THE HEARING

At the beginning of the meeting Van der Merwe stated that, in essence, the complaint revolved around publication of false and misleading  reporting on three key issues:

·         The residence’s name may change to Steve Biko;

·         Memorabilia celebrating Afrikaner cultural history  had been removed; and

·         Only English may be used in residences.

Van der Merwe stated that, against the context of Bloemfontein’s cultural and language history these three false claims fed into highly charged emotional attachments that have had a negative impact on the university in terms of prospective students as well as alumni.  He added that they wanted a correction.

In response, Volksblad explained that publication of these three claims did not infringe the Press Code because:

·         the information came from reliable sources and was the best available at the time;

·         the matters were newsworthy to their shared communities;

·         publication was in the public interest;

·         sincere and repeated efforts had been made to obtain comment/responses from the UFS; and

·         the reports were not false and misleading – and if they were, the university should show it.

After substantial discussion, answers to some of the questions Volksblad had originally put to the UFS began to emerge:

Steve Biko

Buys made it abundantly clear that JBM’s name was going to be changed, but the UFS never officially confirmed that it may change to Steve Biko – this information was based on one (anonymous) source only. The panel believes that a newspaper is not at liberty to publish an allegation merely because some source made a statement.

Memorabilia

The stories and pictures left the impression that memorabilia were removed as part of the transformation process in the residence. However, the memorabilia were removed towards the end of 2013, while the transformation process in JBM only started in February this year. Louw also confirmed that the students themselves removed the material in order to renovate them.

The panel therefore believes that this impression (created by the stories and supported by the pictures) was misleading and unfortunate, and that it therefore caused the university unnecessary harm.

The taking of the pictures inside the residence was also a bone of contention. The UFS said that it was against its media protocol, while the newspaper stated that it was not part of that protocol.

The panel notes that the Press Code allows for the illegal obtaining of news – when public interest dictates otherwise. Given the reluctance by the UFS to properly respond to questions (see below), we understand that Volksblad believed that it was in the public interest to act the way it did.

However, in this case the taking and publishing of these pictures merely served to enhance the wrong suggestion that the removing of the memorabilia was part of the transformation process.

A healthy relationship between the two parties would have made the taking of these pictures without the proper sanction unnecessary.

Language

The stories said that English “only” was to be used for intercom messages and in house meetings.

The panel heard that this was not the official policy of the UFS, as residences themselves decide what language(s) to use. Louw testified (for example) that intercom messages at JBM were related both in Afrikaans and English.

The statement in the stories should therefore have read that English was “also” used, and not that it was the “only” language of communication at residences.

As this is a highly emotional matter, the panel believes that this part of the stories were particularly damaging to the university – and unnecessarily so.

And so…

As it became apparent that these three claims were not based on fact, and had, at times, been built on the basis of a single source, Volksblad volunteered to publish a correction.

Other issues: balance

It is not in dispute that some students were dissatisfied with the UFS’s transformation programme. The question, though, is whether the story was one-sided as it did not reflect the support by other students for the transformation process.

Steyn admitted that he concentrated on those students who were dissatisfied, and did not go to the trouble to get the other side’s views as well.

That is not balanced reporting.

Also, the panel is concerned that Volksblad’s over-reliance on single sources leant itself to misleading and inaccurate reporting by, for example, producing monolithic narratives (eg. ‘students were angry’) in which alternative perspectives were elided. Given the newspaper’s commitment to transformation articulated by the editor at the beginning of the meeting, the panel unanimously agree that Volksblad risks being seen to have an anti-transformation agenda unless it takes more care to:

  • draw on multiple sources; and
  •  acknowledge social complexity through articulation of dissenting perspectives.

The panel is unanimous in recommending that Volksblad reflects on the extent to which it’s reporting practices risked validating specific community perspectives, rather than serving the interests embodied in the Press Code of reporting that is truthful, accurate and fair.

The UFS

The panel is also unanimously of the view that  the UFS has to take some responsibility for the inaccurate and misleading reporting through its media policy/strategy that involved ignoring or refusing to answer questions put to it by the newspaper.  The panel therefore recommends that UFS reflects on the ways in which transformation requires openness and transparency alongside a multiplicity of voices and perspectives and what this may mean for the development of a media policy.

In the same breath we commend the newspaper for trying to get answers to pertinent questions, and understand the newspaper’s frustration in this regard.

GENERAL REMARK

This complaint speaks to important processes of transformation and change that express some of the challenges in this regard.

The panel thanks both parties for the constructive discussion at the hearing and for their commitment towards developing a more positive relationship with each other.

We see this as a first step, and propose that a conciliatory meeting be convened in order to further this process. The Press Council is willing to mediate such a meeting, if so requested by both parties.

FINDING

Volksblad’s reporting on language, the possible new name of the residence and the memorabilia is in breach of Sect. 2.1 of the Press Code which reads: “The press shall take care to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly.”

The newspaper’s over-reliance on single sources led to misleading, inaccurate and one-sided reporting, which has caused the university some serious, unnecessary harm. This is in breach of Section 2.2 of the Press Code that states: “News shall be presented in context and in a balanced manner, without any intentional or negligent departure from the facts…”

SANCTION

Volksblad, Beeld and Die Burger are directed to:

·         publish a correction of the issues mentioned above (English only, memorabilia and Steve Biko), and to acknowledge that it has caused the UFS unnecessary harm with its reportage;

·         provide this text to the panel prior to publication.

Please note that this text may include a reference to the UFS’s reluctance to respond to pertinent questions, and the panel’s finding that both Volksblad and the university were responsible for the incorrect reporting.

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.

Lindsay Clowes (Public Representative)

Henry Jeffreys (Press Representative)

Johan Retief (Press Ombudsman)