AfriForum vs. Huffington Post SA


Thu, Nov 23, 2017

Ruling by the Press Ombud

22 November 2017

This ruling is based on the written submissions of Mr Ernst Roets, deputy CEO of AfriForum, and those of Pieter du Toit, editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post SA.

AfriForum is complaining about an editorial on the Huffington Post SA’s website of 30 July 2017, headlined Tumi Morake: A victim of South Africa’s ‘Bell Pottinger’ – Solidarity and AfriForum thrive on ethnic mobilisation and false narratives. Now they have a popular radio presenter in their sights.

Complaint      

AfriForum complains about several falsehoods in the text regarding its views, policies and activities, as well as the editorial’s comments and conclusions. The organisation inter alia denies that it has ever targeted, attacked or vilified Jacaranda FM breakfast show presenter Tumi Morake, that it has “harked back” to the time of apartheid, and that it has resorted to “racially divisive” tactics.

The complaint is detailed below.

The text

The editorial said that civil rights organisation AfriForum and trade union Solidarity, both headquartered in DF Malan Avenue in Centurion, were “targeting” Morake.

They were said to threaten to take her to the Broadcasting Complaints Commission (BCCSA) over an analogy she had drawn between the effects of apartheid and how a school-ground bully reacts after being forced to make peace with the victim. They have also launched a campaign against her on social media and have penned a nasty editorial on one of their various websites, the text went.

The editorial said that the Afrikaner activists from Pretoria employed subtle and polished, but racially divisive tactics to get their message across. They were said to hark back to yesteryear when Afrikanerdom was on the ascendant and the only race that was talked about was whites.

The organisations were said to have:

·         fanned the Spur restaurant boycott after a white man was banned from returning to the restaurant when he had been filmed abusing a black woman;

·         launched a campaign against the new director of the Afrikaanse Taal- en Kultuurvereniging [Afrikaans Language and Cultural Association] because she wanted to build bridges between Afrikaans and other languages; and

·         maintained a vindictive boycott against Beeld newspaper after it had exposed dubious initiation practices at North-West University in 2014.

“All with the same subliminal message: whites are being marginalised, whites are under siege, whites need to get back into the laager. Solidarity and AfriForum thrive on ethnic mobilisation through fear and creating a victim complex. And now Morake is the target because she was ‘racist’. Another opportunity to scare whites into joining the two sister organisations by creating false narratives,” the editorial read.

The complaint in more detail

AfriForum complains about the following passages:

·         “AfriForum and Solidarity, the two Afrikaner-rights organisations headquartered in DF Malan Avenue in Pretoria, are now targeting Tumi Morake, one half of the presenting team on Jacaranda FM's popular breakfast show. They are threatening to take her to the Broadcasting Complaints Commission of South Africa... They have also launched a campaign against her on social media and have penned a nasty editorial on one of their various websites”;

·         “Solidarity and AfriForum, who have attacked and vilified Morake for her views, can quite easily be compared to Bell Pottinger, the disgraced British public relations firm. Like the Brits from London, the Afrikaner activists from Pretoria employ subtle and polished, but equally racially divisive tactics to get their message across”;

·         “But they hark back to yesteryear when Afrikanerdom was ascendant and the only race that was talked about was whites. They fanned the boycott of the restaurant chain Spur earlier this year after a white man was banned from returning to the restaurant after he was filmed abusing a black woman. They have launched a campaign against the new director of the Afrikaanse Taal- en Kultuurvereniging [Afrikaans Language and Cultural Association] because she wants to build bridges between Afrikaans and other languages”; and

·         “Solidarity and AfriForum thrive on ethnic mobilisation through fear and creating a victim complex. And now Morake is the target because she was ‘racist’. Another opportunity to scare whites into joining the two sister organisations by creating false narratives.”

In general, Roets says these are all either blatant lies regarding the views, policies and activities of AfriForum, or comments and conclusions based on falsehoods that only serve to increase defamatory untruths regarding the organisation.

In particular, AfriForum denies that it has ever attacked or vilified Morake for her views, that it has ever targeted her in any campaign or threatened to file any charges against her, or penned any “nasty editorial articles” regarding her comments.

Roets adds that AfriForum has never:

·         fanned, encouraged, participated in or promoted a boycott against the Spur restaurant chain – it repeatedly stated that, while it believed that the conduct of Spur’s management with regard to the incident in question had been wrong, it did not engage in any boycott. “The statement about AfriForum fanning a boycott is maliciously false”;

·         launched a campaign against the ATKV;

·         criticised any person for wanting to “build bridges between Afrikaans and other languages” – in fact, building bridges between Afrikaans and other languages is part of AfriForum’s civil rights manifesto and mission statement; therefore this Huffington Post claim is also “maliciously false”; and

·         accused Morake of being “racist”, despite its disagreement over her views; this is another “malicious misrepresentation” of AfriForum’s views.

Regarding AfriForum’s responses to Morake’s comments, Roets says Huffington Post contacted him for comment. He replied that, according to the information available to him, no grounds existed for the filing of charges against Morake and that AfriForum respected Morake’s right to freedom of speech. AfriForum’s position was also published on Huffington Post as such, before the publication of the article in question.

He submits that AfriForum’s CEO, Mr Kallie Kriel, stated his disagreement with Morake’s comments in radio interviews after publication of the article. “Even AfriForum’s disagreements never amounted to an attack on Morake, nor a vilification of her views. Kriel even invited Morake during a live discussion on Jacaranda FM to visit AfriForum’s office for a cup of coffee, to discuss this disagreement,” he adds.

Roets also singles out the following statements as “blatantly, maliciously false and reprehensible”:

·         AfriForum “harks back” to a time “when Afrikanerdom was ascendant and the only race that was talked about was whites”. This is “blatantly false and reprehensible” (while instead, AfriForum repeatedly criticised apartheid and took a firm stance against white racism in particular);

·         AfriForum is attempting to “scare whites into joining the two sister organisations by creating false narratives”;

·         The comparison of AfriForum to British PR firm Bell Pottinger depicted AfriForum as a dishonest, unethical and malicious organisation (while, ironically, the editorial itself was inundated with malicious, distorted and false accusations);

·         AfriForum resorted to “racially divisive” tactics (while it has actively been campaigning against all forms of racism since its founding in 2006); and

·         The reference to D.F. Malan Avenue, as this attempted to portray the organisation as having the intention of promoting racist and racial discriminatory policies.

Huffington Post responds

Du Toit remarks that the editorial was protected under the provisions for fair comment – he says the comments were factually based and within the bounds of justified comment. He also offers AfriForum a right of reply.

The editor says his intention was to convey to the reader the organisation’s modus operandi in relation to the Morake issue. “This was informed by my own reporting on, exposure to and interaction with the organisations and its leadership over several years,” he adds.

Solidarity and AfriForum

Du Toit explains why he grouped AfriForum and Solidarity together in his editorial, illustrating that the organisations “acted in partnership with each other and have done so historically”.

He says the Solidarity Movement is an umbrella organisation which includes, inter alia, the trade union Solidarity, AfriForum and the Federasie van Afrikaanse Kultuurvereniginge (FAK).

The editor cites examples to show the close ties between AfriForum and Solidarity, such as:

·         Mr Flip Buys, chairperson of the Solidarity Movement, says they have more than 300 000 members, which includes AfriForum;

·         The latter was established in 2006 by Solidarity under Kriel’s leadership;

·         The two organisations share the same address (DF Malan Avenue in Centurion, Pretoria);

·         The Movement’s leadership also serves on the board of AfriForum, including Buys and Solidarity’s CEO Mr Dirk Hermann;

·         The leaders regularly refer to AfriForum and Solidarity as “us” on public platforms;

·         Kriel, AfriForum’s CEO, was previously Solidarity’s head of marketing, while Roets was previously head of AfriForum and Solidarity’s youth arms;

·         Buys, Hermann, Kriel and Roets regularly appear on the same public platforms, including events organised jointly and separately by Solidarity and AfriForum; and

·         They also contribute opinion pieces and editorials to the various media platforms managed by Solidarity and AfriForum, including Maroela Media, Forum Nuus, Solidarity Blog, Forum Films and other publications. “These editorials are generally broadly in agreement with each other. All these platforms are part of the Movement.”

Tumi Morake

Du Toit says Morake’s comments led to an immediate public outcry and various calls for boycotts of the station and its staff.

In particular, the constituent parts of the Solidarity Movement immediately reacted as follows:

·         Hermann told Netwerk24 on September 13 that Solidarity had laid a complaint with Jacaranda FM in which they accused Morake of racism. Depending on the reaction they would consider proceeding to the BCCSA;

·         On the same day, Hermann also wrote an editorial in which he referred to Morake as a “race bully”;

·         AfriForum published a post about the matter on its Facebook page, where its members and supporters accused Morake of racism;

·         Kriel wrote an editorial, was a guest on Jacaranda FM, was interviewed on RSG and was the subject of a Rapport story on the Morake matter – in all these interviews he strongly denounced Morake’s statements;

·         On 13 September 2017 Kriel appeared on Jacaranda FM to explain AfriForum’s position with regards to their opposition to Morake’s comments. In the interview he made the following comments with reference to another incident: “Nou gebeur daar ’n rassevoorval soos die KFC-voorval . . . AfriForum, Solidariteit, ons veroordeel dit . . . ons wil ons nie daarmee assosieer nie” thereby, by his own admission, conjoining Solidarity and AfriForum;

·         In an interview with Rapport on 17 September 2017 Kriel is asked why AfriForum decided to complain about Morake’s “racism”, to which Kriel responds that Afrikaners are tired of being portrayed as bullies. He was also asked whether AfriForum “still intends to lay a complaint with the BCCSA”, to which he answered: “Dit is voortydig om te sê. ’n Klag beteken nie daar is nie ruimte vir gesprek nie.” This confirms that Kriel and AfriForum, days after the editorial, still contemplated lodging a complaint with the BCCSA and believed the comments to be racist;

·         Solidarity launched a social media campaign with the hashtag #TooFarTumi and #TattaTumi; this was also reflected on their Facebook page and in various social media posts by Hermann. The Afrikaans hashtag was seized upon by Solidarity and AfriForum’s supporters with the implication that she should lose her job. It has subsequently been altered to read #TeVerTumi; and

·         Solidarity subsequently laid a complaint with the BCCSA after a meeting between Hermann and Morake.

Spur and the ATKV

Du Toit says various Spur restaurants became victims of a boycott earlier this year after a racist incident in one of its restaurants. Spur decided to ban one of the role-players in the incident, a white male.

Solidarity and AfriForum objected to this and both Hermann and Kriel engaged in the public debate around the issue. Hermann wrote an open letter explaining why he “lost his appetite for Spur” while Kriel refused to engage an independent panel to investigate matters. Both Hermann and Kriel’s letters opined that their taste for Spur will only return once the company changes course.

The letters and correspondence were published by Maroela Media, the Movement’s media organisation. Hermann’s, Kriel’s Solidarity’s and AfriForum’s involvement in the public discourse and disputes around Spur is a matter of public record.

Spur’s denouncement of Hermann’s approach to the matter is also a matter of public record.

The ATKV is an independent Afrikaans cultural organisation, similar to the FAK. The FAK is part of the Movement and is in direct competition with the ATKV. Ms Deidre le Hanie,  ATKV managing director, earlier this year launched a campaign called “Afrikaans Plus”, which aims to build bridges between Afrikaans and other language groups. The FAK and Maroela Media criticised the ATKV for its initiative, including launching its own campaign (“Moenie Afrikaans met ’n plus blus”) and news reports which criticised the organisation.

The ATKV has, as a direct result of Maroela Media’s inaccurate reporting on the campaign and the subsequent fallout, lost more than 100 members, Le Hanie confirmed to Media24.

Le Hanie had to request a meeting with Buys in order to explain to him the purposes of the ATKV’s new campaign because of the negative public reaction, driven by the Movement’s FAK and Maroela Media. Buys criticised Le Hanie on Facebook and warned in an opinion piece of the threats her new course held for Afrikaans.

General remarks about the complaint

Du Toit says Roets never attempted to engage with him about the editorial. He also denies that he knew in advance of his editorial that AfriForum did not intend pursuing a complaint, as Roets alleges. He says HuffPost published a news story the day after his editorial that AfriForum was not to pursue a complaint.

Conclusion

Du Toit says Solidarity and AfriForum have established themselves as activist organisations in defence of Afrikaner rights and culture. The Movement has intertwined, shared and complicated structures, leadership cohorts and campaigns.

He submits that when the editorial was published, references to Solidarity and AfriForum jointly (in as far as campaigns and complaints went) were accurate.

He adds that references to “campaigns” by Solidarity and AfriForum denote both formal campaigns, including #TooFarTumi/#TattaTumi, as well as informal campaigns, including consistent pressure from their office bearers and their members.

The editor says he trusts he has illustrated that:

·         Solidarity and AfriForum acted in partnership with each other and have done so historically, that they share business premises, leadership structures and ideologies;

·         his editorial was penned reasonably, with the best knowledge available at the time; and

·         why he grouped Solidarity and AfriForum together when writing the editorial.

He concludes, “Their ‘complaint’, which consists mainly of splitting hairs about their Movement’s convoluted structure, is not in the public interest nor in the interest of the truth. Its only interest is driving the gripes they hold against HuffPost for taking a critical stance on their campaigns and ideologies… I submit this complaint is an abuse of process and an attempt to stifle criticism and should be dismissed.”

AfriForum again

Roets’s main responses are:

·         “Claims by Dr. Dirk Hermann regarding Morake is irrelevant, as he was not speaking on AfriForum’s behalf. To claim that his membership on AfriForum’s board is sufficient to conclude that he was speaking on AfriForum’s behalf is extremely far-fetched, as he serves on the boards of a variety of organizations, none of which are represented by him when he is quoted in his capacity as the head of Solidarity”; and

·         “AfriForum is a civil rights organization. Solidarity is a trade union. There is a fairly small overlap in members between these organizations. While AfriForum and Solidarity agree on many issues, the focus of these two organizations are distinctly different in nature.”

He adds that the reference to alleged “various media platforms managed by Solidarity and AfriForum” is misleading. He says Maroela Media is a news outlet in its own right, while Forum Nuus is managed by AfriForum.

He also denies that:

·         the Solidarity Movement is an “umbrella organization” and argues that AfriForum is a distinct organization;

·         the website “Solidarity World” is AfriForum’s site;

·         AfriForum and Solidarity share addresses;

·         AfriForum has ever threatened to file charges against Morake with the BCCSA; and

·         AfriForum boycotted Spur – criticizing the decision of the restaurant chain’s management or engaging in public debate is in no way equal to initiating or fuelling a boycott.

He adds that Du Toit’s reference to Kriel’s history in Solidarity and to his history with Solidarity Youth, as well as the claim that leaders within AfriForum and Solidarity “regularly appear on the same public platforms” are irrelevant.

He adds that, to claim that AfriForum’s supporters (or even members) accused Morake of racism is not sufficient to justify a claim that AfriForum as such was accusing her of racism. Denouncing Morake’s statements is not the same as accusing her of racism or of encouraging a boycott against Jacaranda FM, he adds.

Analysis

After I have read the complaint and prior to Du Toit having responded to it, I sent the following message to the Public Advocate:

“Sections 6 and 7 of the Press Code give the media a wide range of freedom when expressing their views. Such opinions can even be “extreme, unjust, unbalanced, exaggerated and prejudiced”. However, there are a few conditions – the important one in this case being the stipulation that facts should not be distorted or misrepresented.

“The editorial made several statements of fact. I would appreciate it if the Huffington Post could provide me with examples or proof that AfriForum has:

1.      threatened to take Morake to the BCCSA;

2.      launched a campaign against her on social media;

3.      penned a nasty editorial on one of their various websites;

4.      attacked and vilified Morake for her views, and called her a “racist”;

5.      fanned the Spur boycott; and

6.      launched a campaign against the new director of the ATKV.

“You will note that I am not asking about statements such as that AfriForum is using racially divisive tactics to get their message across, that it harks back to apartheid, that it thrives on ethnic mobilisation, etc. Those are value judgments. The issues I am interested in, are the ones that can be verified.”

The responses I got back from Du Toit notably refer to Solidarity, and not to AfriForum – hence his attempt to equate the two organisations.

I am not contesting that those institutions agree on many, and probably most, issues, that they share the same ideologies, that their memberships overlap, etc. However, while they may be twins, even identical or Siamese twins, this does not mean that they are clones of each other. What the one does or says, does not necessarily mean that it acts or speaks on the other’s behalf. While they are akin, they are also different organisations, with different agendas.

There is not a single instance where a statement (of fact) in the editorial, or in the editor’s response to the complaint, can be relayed to AfriForum – they all pertain to Solidarity.

If one takes such an equation to its logical conclusion, it would (for example) mean that AfriForum could be accused of stealing money if such an accusation is levelled at Solidarity.

Such an equation would roughly be the same as ascribing actions and views by the SA Communist Party to Cosatu.

The editor needs not be afraid that this office will stifle freedom of speech or criticism. Both the Constitution of the country and the SA Press Code give Huffington Post the freedom to criticise AfriForum as much as it wants to.

However, the Press Code does list a few conditions to such speech. The one in question is whether any facts were distorted – which the editorial did in ascribing Solidarity’s opinions and actions to AfriForum.

Concern

I am deeply concerned about the bad blood that clearly exists between the two parties in this complaint.

Tension between the media and an organisation is often a good thing, as it ensures a healthy distance between the two which, in turn, creates space for the media to effectively exercise its role as a watchdog in society. Sometimes, though, this tension turns to hostility, which can only be unhealthy to both sides – which explains why I have bypassed most of the statements which have dropped to a personal level.

I am not sure if this office could play a role to turn things around, but it certainly would be in the public interest if the “unhealthy” in the relationship between the two parties is removed from the “tension”.

Finding

The editorial wrongly ascribed Solidarity’s alleged actions and views to AfriForum, which was in breach of the following sections of the Press Code:

·         6.1.2 and 6.1.3: “Members are justified in strongly advocating their own views on controversial topics, provided that they treat their constituencies fairly by not misrepresenting or suppressing relevant facts; and (by) not distorting the facts”; and

·         7.2.4: “The media shall be entitled to comment upon or criticise any actions or events of public interest. Comment or criticism is protected even if extreme, unjust, unbalanced, exaggerated and prejudiced, as long as it … has taken fair account of all material facts that are substantially true…” 

Seriousness of breaches                                              

Under the headline Hierarchy of sanctions, Section 8 of the Complaints Procedures distinguishes between minor breaches (Tier 1 – minor errors which do not change the thrust of the story), serious breaches (Tier 2), and serious misconduct (Tier 3).                                         

The breach of the Press Code as indicated above is a Tier 2 offence.

Sanction

Huffington Post is directed to:

·         apologise to AfriForum for wrongly attributing Solidarity’s alleged views and actions to the former organisation; and

·         give AfriForum a right of reply of not more than 800 words, if indeed Afriforum wishes to reply.

The publication is requested to publish:

·         the apology at the top of the page where the editorial appears, with a headline containing the words “apology” or “apologises”, and “AfriForum”; and

·         AfriForum’s reply (if this materialises) with the apology.

The text should:

·         be published at the earliest opportunity after the time for an application for leave to appeal has lapsed or, in the event of such an application, after that ruling;

·     refer to the complaint that was lodged with this office;

·     end with the sentence, “Visit www.presscouncil.org.za for the full finding”; and

·     be prepared by the publication and be approved by me.

In the event of a reply, that text should also be approved by me.

Appeal

The 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 Appeals Panel, Judge Bernard Ngoepe, fully setting out the grounds of appeal. He can be contacted at Khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.

Johan Retief

Press Ombud