Ashin Singh vs The Witness


Fri, Jan 24, 2020

Finding: Complaint 4361:

Date of article: 15 March, 2019

Headline: “Rowdy Racism Ruckus.”

Page: 1

Author: Clive Ndou

Online: Yes

Particulars

This ruling is based on a written complaint by Mr Ashin Singh against the Witness, the newspaper’s response, and further arguments by Mr Singh. It is also based on further consultations with both Mr Singh and the editor of the Witness, Mr Yves Vanderhaeghen, as well listening to recordings of the disputed meeting, provided by both the Witness and Mr Singh.

Complaint

Mr Singh, a senior magistrate in Pietermaritzburg and a member/supporter of the SA Minority Rights Equality Movement (SAMREM)  complains that an article in the Witness, headlined “Rowdy Racism Ruckus”, a report on a gathering convened by SAMREM) was:

  • Factually incorrect, “malicious and dishonest” and a “deliberately calculated attempt to insult and attack” him by the editor
  • A “gross misrepresentation of the truth”
  • Sensational and “either deliberately or unknowingly creates false and wrong impressions in the mind of the average reader.”
  • Misleading “and leaves the average reader with the distinct impression that Singh and SAMREM are racist”, and that he “acted in his official capacity as a Senior Magistrate which was never the case.”
  • Failed to “correctly set out the true issues raised at the debate”
  • Accused him of “causing mayhem at the gathering and spreading racial discord.”
  • Failed to “correctly portray: the “uncouth” behaviour of a councillor, Mehmoud Oumar, who was asked to leave the meeting. “It also fails to mention anything about the numerous defamatory allegations raised by Oumar publicly about Singh.” A journalist who is “objective” should have “balanced his story giving both sides and…report(ing) fairly and accurately”

Although he does not state the specific clauses in the Press Code that he alleges have been transgressed, from the complaint these would be the following:

  1. The media shall take care to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly
  2. News shall be presented in context and in a balanced manner, without any intentional or negligent departure from the facts whether by distortion, exaggeration or misrepresentation, material omissions, or summarisation

2.1 The media shall not allow commercial, political, personal or other non-professional considerations to influence or slant reporting.

  1. The text

1.1 The article, headlined “Rowdy Racism Ruckus”, covered what was described as a “public meeting convened by SAMREM” to “protest against ‘African racism’ against Indians, whites and coloureds.”

1.2 The intro says it degenerated into “ a mud-slinging match amid criticism of a senior magistrate’s attack on blacks.”

1.3 The meeting, held in Raisethorpe, “started off with about 100 people” and “later degenerated into chaos, with most of the crowd storming out in the middle of the event.”

1.4 “Senior magistrate, Ashin Singh, who is also the convenor of the SA Minority Rights Equality Movement (SAMREM), which believes that black Africans are more racist than Afrikaners, told the crowd that Indians, whites and coloureds were being oppressed by the ‘racist’ ANC government.”

It paraphrases Mr Singh saying that Indians, whites and coloured were “targeted” because they were hard-working and intelligent. It then has a direct quote: “The only black Africans who are at the same level as Indians, whites and coloureds in terms of work ethic are Zimbabweans.”

1.5 Singh “lashed out” at black Africans who live in informal settlements within Indian communities, saying they were part of an ANC plan to influence voting patterns. “When they are not happy with government they throw shit at us.”

Referring to “homeless black Africans” on the streets of Northdale, he said “all they do is shit and pee on our streets – it’s stinking.”

 

1.6 The article quotes Mr Singh saying that government granted access to universities only to black students “blocking ‘intelligent’ Indians.”

It also says he “created drama” at Aryan Hall where the meeting was held “when he ordered security guards to remove some people from the venue.” One of these was a policeman, whom Mr Singh described as a “spy”; another was ANC Msunduzi councillor Mehmoud Omar, who was “kicked out” after he questioned the removal of the policeman.

The article quotes Mr Oumar as shouting “You are dividing the community”, as security guards led him to the exit door. It reports that Mr Singh was backed up by SAMREM chair Daleep Lutchman in removing the men.

1.7 It also quotes a speaker (presumably from the floor), Mr Njabulo Mtolo: “I’m sorry to say this to you – you are a magistrate but also a racist.”

It reports that when ANC member Mzi Thebolla “attempted to speak” after being invited to the podium he was “heckled”. He is reported as saying that the ANC government’s policies of economic redress were not racist; “If you look at the policies…you will realise they favour black Africans, Indians, coloureds, and white females..”

1.8 It quoted a ‘community leader”, Jay Jugwanth, describing the behaviour of SAMREM leaders as ‘shocking” and saying the majority of Indians did not share these views. “Speakers who held views different from that of SAMREM leaders were humiliated and heckled – this kind of behaviour has no place in our democracy.”

 

1.9 The article then goes on to say “Singh is no stranger to controversy”. It recounts an incident from the previous year in which he had “reluctantly” recused himself from a case involving six men, including an ANC councillor accused of murdering an ANC activist after the State “claimed the magistrate had an ‘interest’ in the matter after he allegedly held a ‘private’ meeting with a family member of two of the accused.”

It then quotes Mr Singh, who denied he was a racist and said he was being persecuted for telling “the truth”.

1.10 It adds: “Despite Luchtman confirming Singh is SAMREM’s convenor, the magistrate denied holding any official position in the organisation saying he was invited only to deliver a speech.”

1.11 Mr Singh is quoted as saying he would soon be lodging a complaint with the United Nations about South Africa’s treatment of minority groups.”

1.12 The last paragraph quotes the SA Human Rights Commission saying it was “investigating Singh’s speech.”

 

 

  1. The arguments

Mr Ashin Singh

2.1 Mr Singh contested most of the points in the report.

2.2. He said the gathering was not a “meeting” but a “debate” and advertised as such.

The word “protesting:” was also “incorrectly used.” “It was not a protest. It was an allegation, which required elucidation and clarification.”

2.3 He did not act in his capacity as a senior magistrate.

2.4 There was no attack “on Blacks as alleged.” This was a false allegation in a “racially charged country” and has had serious repercussions for himself and SAMREM . He said this was “intended” by the Witness and its editor, Mr Yves Vanderhaeghen.

2.5 He contested the number of attendees reported. About 220 people signed the register and some, who used a side entrance, did not sign, meaning the number was in excess of 200.

2.6 The meeting did not “degenerate into chaos”. Only about 10 “disgruntled ANC” members left the meeting when Councillor Oumar was ordered out.

2.7 He accuses the Witness of “deliberately overlooking” the behaviour of Mr Oumar, saying he was disruptive, insulted SAMREM, defamed Mr Singh, “distributed copies of his own agenda” to members and “behaved like a law unto himself. It is not true that he was “kicked out”. He objected when a police officer, who refused to sign the attendance register, was asked to leave, and he “was merely ordered to behave or leave the meeting.”

2.8 Mr Singh is not the convenor of SAMREM; he was invited to present SAMREM’s views at a public debate.

Moreover SAMREM has never said it believed “Black Africans are more racist than Afrikaners. This was a point for debate”. It was raised in the light of Julius Malema’s statement [the EFF leader) that “Indians were more racist than Afrikaners” and a statement by the leader of Black First Land First.

2.9 Mr Singh also disputes the paraphrase: “Indians, whites and coloureds were being targeted because they are hardworking and intelligent.” He says this is “patently false and dishonest and the reporter who recorded the debate is well aware thereof. He argues the recording of the debate proves “conclusively that the allegations made are patently false.”

 

2.10 He also disputes the quote: “The only Black Africans who are at the same level as Indians, White and Coloured in terms of work ethic are Zimbabweans.” He calls this ‘deliberately malicious and out of context”  The recording states: “And look at Zimbabwe, (if any of you think I am racist). The cleverest African children in Africa from a bankrupt country who will outdo every Indian, Coloured and White in this country academically and their work ethic.” (emphasis in original)

The Witness has “deliberately and maliciously” quoted him incorrectly, made false allegations and “falsely alleged that he stated that Black South Africans are not on the same level as Indians, Whites and Coloureds.”

This quote was highlighted [as a pull-quote] “in dark black italics” with “big red inverted commas” and was done “to humiliate and embarrass Singh and lead to a public outcry and litany of complaints”.

2.11 He accuses the Witness of “malicious conduct” which has exposed him and SAMREM to “serious consequences”, among them:

  • Maliciously and falsely portraying him as a racist
  • Carrying out a ‘personal vendetta” against him using the newspaper
  • Undermining race relations

 

2.12 Other newspapers followed this article, including the community newspapers Echo and FEVER, which “printed the false, malicious articles” without [him] being given an opportunity to respond.[1]

It was “deliberate false reporting” designed to harass him.

2.13 Mr Singh also argues he never referred to “homeless black Africans” but to “whoonga addicts”. He says he said they were “being dumped in the streets of Raisethorpe and…urinate and defecate in the middle of Raisethorpe.”

In fact, SAMREM and he had said “proper housing should be given to squatters.”

2.14 He also disputed the Witness quote saying the government was granting access to universities only to black students “while blocking ‘intelligent’ Indians.”

He says he referred to the “quota system which rejects minority students despite their results.” As a result, “large numbers of Indian medical graduates” who qualified overseas “are denied work in our country.” They are “forced” to study overseas because of a quota system that allows only 2% of Indians to attend universities, with quotas for whites and coloureds too.

He said he stressed in his speech that “our fight is not against people’s race” but for equal opportunities for minorities.

2.15 It is also false to have reported that “Singh had taken to the podium…shortly after creating drama when he ordered security guards to remove some people from the venue.”

He says it was a Mr Anesh Singh “who reported to the chairman about a police officer there, who had refused to sign the attendance register. …The person was asked to sign or leave the meeting. He chose to leave. The Witness failed to report that other policemen who signed the register remained.”

 

2.16 He also objects to a reference to his “past encounters’. “It failed to mention that the Witness has made complaints about Singh and opened criminal charges to no avail. What reference did Singh’s ‘past encounters’ have to do with this SAMREM debate? The reference to a bail application is also malicious as Singh in his official capacity made a court order that the Political Task Team and Prosecutors be investigated and charged for misconduct. The case is subjudice.” He said “further action” cannot be disclosed for “official reasons” and adds this should “have been published in the interests of fairness and balance.”

2.17 He objects to the description of the speaker Mr Mzi Thebolla as being “heckled”. “The truth is that the crowd became incensed when Thebolla was evasive and dishonest on stage. He failed to explain the need for racist quotas placed on minorities.”

He also mentions Mrs S Rajbansi (who is not mentioned in the article) who “confirmed” at the event that quotas and affirmative action were “inconsistent with the constitutional rights of minorities.”

2.18 He accuses the Witness of failing to publish a response to previous articles on behalf of SAMREM which he says shows its “malicious conduct”.

The response, which he attached to his argument, is a background to the organisation, SAMREM. Among its key points are that its members include all race groups and representatives of various political parties, including “the ANC, DA, EFF and MF”. Local informal settlements are also included

“SAMREM is a unique organisation where all races and all political parties meet on an equal footing, this is because SAMREM is apolitical.” [emphasis in original]

He goes on to note the various outreach programmes “for the poor and indigent” SAMREM has undertaken, as well as “co-sponsoring the ANC Xmas party in the northern areas.”

The statement adds that SAMREM “rescued” many foreigners when the xenophobic violence broke out a few years ago.

It also brought criminal charges against an “Indian male who racially abused our President Cyril Ramaphosa.”

2.19 Mr Singh and SAMREM demanded an apology and retraction from the Witness for its report on the event. He notes that the Sunday Tribune used a similar story and based a column on it and this was retracted.

Background

2.20 When Mr Singh originally filed this complaint, he also complained about similar stories in the Witness’s sister papers, which run out of the same office, the Maritzburg Fever and the Maritzburg Echo.

The stories in those newspapers cover the same event and are both written by the reporter Byrone Athman. The headlines are the same: “Samrem meeting marred by controversy,”  as are the stories. The main difference with the Witness report, in regards to the complaint, are they refer to SAMREM’s “call for a public debate/meeting.” They also do not mention that the HRC is “investigating” Mr Singh’s speech.

2.21 George Claassen, the ombudsman for Media 24, replied on behalf of both and eventually it was suggested by the Public Advocate, Mr Joe Latakgomo, that only the complaint against the Witness be pursued as it dealt with substantially the same issue. This Mr Singh assented to. His detailed point-by-point complaint dealt only with the Witness story. However, I will indicate those parts of this finding that may be applicable to the Fever and Echo .

2.22 The Sunday Tribune, although it is part of Independent Newspapers and not part of the Press Council, did withdraw and apologise for its story but it is important to record that in its apology it stated that the reporter who wrote the story, Mr Lungani Zungu, was not actually present at the meeting but wrote his story “based on other media reports and did not speak to Mr Singh…Given that our reporter was not present at the meeting, we are unable to independently verify what was said.”

Arguments: The Witness

2.23 The editor of the Witness, Mr Yves Vanderhaeghen, replied to Mr Singh’s complaint on behalf of the newspaper.

2.24 In terms of the specific quotes challenged he provided the reporter’s transcribed notes:

The only black Africans who are at the same level as Indians, whites and coloured in terms of work ethic are Zimbabweans”.

The reporter’s transcribed notes say: “Zimbabweans are clever. Best education system. Are like Indians coloured and whites in terms of work ethic. This despite bankrupt country.

2.25 On “homeless Black Africans”: “all they do is shit and pee on our streets – its stinking

From the reporter’s transcribed notes: “Tell me something, why are these people being dumped in Phoenix, Chatsworth and Northdale?  How are they assisting the Indian community because all they do is to shit and pee on our streets.” AND “Look at how they took whoonga addicts from the Ematsheni beer hall [in the city centre] and dumped them in Raisethorpe [an Indian suburb].” AND “They urinate and defecate on our streets”.

2.26 The government grants only black students access to universities while denying “intelligent” Indians access.

From the reporter’s transcribed notes: “They are specific quotas based on race.  Government only grants black students access to university education.  Intelligent Indian students are not being granted access.”

2.27 On whether there was heckling or applause, Mr Vanderhaeghen said:
“Mr Singh’s comments were not unanimously well received. It’s clear from the recordings that he was heckled and applauded at various times.”

2.28 He also answered the following points:  

2.28.1 On the charge that he (the editor) has “publicly stated that he would destroy Singh using his newspaper”:

Mr Vanderhaeghen replies this is “untrue and defamatory” In a lawyers letter on behalf of Mr Singh to the newspaper (before this process began), this was not even stated.

2.28.2 That he (the editor) has previously reported Mr Singh to the Department of Justice, “laid false criminal charges and made false allegations to SANEF which were publicly reported on without giving Singh a chance to respond”. [the complaints were laid as a result of removing a Witness court reporter from a particular place in the court – see “Analysis section for more details)

Mr Vanderhaeghen replies: Criminal charges of harassment and threatening behaviour were laid against Mr Singh by reporter Sharika Regchand. Pursuant to this the Editor referred the matter to the South African National Editors Forum (Sanef) which monitors the harassment and abuse of reporters. It issued a statement of condemnation, which the Witness published, together with Mr Singh’s response on August 2, 2018. The Editor further referred the matter to the Magistrates’ Commission and to the Chief Magistrate in Pietermaritzburg because Mr Singh’s intimidatory conduct was impeding our reporters in their work. ..”

 

2.28.3 On the complaint that the event was a “debate” not a “meeting” and that the report failed to “correctly portray the uncouth behaviour of Oumar” and failed to “mention anything about the numerous defamatory allegations raised by Oumar [about] Singh..”

The editor replies: A meeting is any gathering of people to discuss a matter, so this complaint is one of spurious semantics. According to video evidence, the Samrem member (green shirt and glasses) who was first to speak at the podium and opened the event, welcomed people and thanked them “for sacrificing their time to be at today’s meeting”. He later also referred to the event as a meeting.  If Samrem is content to refer to the meeting as such, why would it find it objectionable for The Witness to do so? Furthermore, Mr Singh’s original letter to The Witness via Surendra Singh & Associates refers to “the meeting” which in his letter to the Press Council has been amended to “debate”.

A debate is a formal discussion. The event took the form of Samrem officials and Ashin Singh addressing the crowd for the majority of the time – this included a lengthy oration from Mr Singh - from a raised stage behind a lectern using a microphone. There was no opportunity for those in the audience to respond while he or other Samrem members spoke. In fact, when councillor Mehmood Oumar tried to do so he was ejected from the hall.

He also pointed out that the focal point of the article was not Mr Oumar but the meeting/debate.

Mr Vanderhaeghen also provided the poster for the event which says: AFRICAN RACISM in large font, highlighted in red. The sub-heading reads: “Black Africans more racist than white Afrikaners!”. Under that is text in a red block that reads: “Urgent wake up call for Indians, Coloureds and Whites.” [2]

Samrem’s name is carried next to these comments on the poster. The message is clearly indicating that it is Samrem’s viewpoint. There are no question marks indicating an interrogative mood for the statement. It is presented as an indicative, a statement of fact…. In fact an exclamation mark adds emphasis to the statement “Black Africans more racist than white Afrikaners!”

 

 

2.28.4 On the complaint that the word “protesting” was incorrect as it was “not a protest”. Mr Vanderhaeghen writes:

 The word protesting was written in the sense of expressing disapproval of or objection to something. It is very clear that the discussion led by Ashin Singh at the event expressed strong disapproval of, or objection to, numerous policies and actions of the government and others. It is clear it was not written in the sense of an active public demonstration like a protest march.

2.28.5 On the point that Mr Singh did not act in his capacity as a Senior Magistrate and this was never mentioned by him or Samrem, the editor replies

…Ashin Singh is a senior magistrate [and that] is in the public domain. ..

The fact that his profession was not mentioned by him or by Samrem does not mean that we were not at liberty to mention that he is a magistrate. He also did not ask the reporter not to mention this. We contend that Mr Singh does not wish this to be mentioned because of constraints on magistrates acting in a political capacity, which it is clear that he was.

2.28.6 On the argument that it was a “false allegation in a racially charged country” that there was an “attack” on black people, the editor replies:
The poster advertising the meeting was widely distributed and attached to lampposts around town. Grammatically, it does not pose a question. It makes a categorical assertion, in clarion red, that ‘Black Africans [are] more racist than white Afrikaners!’, with an exclamation mark for emphasis… It is common cause that in the historical context of apartheid, white Afrikaners are seen as racist. The graphic presentation, the emphatic use of ‘African Racism’ as a headline, the assertive phrasing (minus a question mark) allow for only one reading, and that is that Black Africans are not only racist, but that indeed they should be viewed as more racist that white Afrikaners…

The term “African Racism” was never debated. Neither did the poster advertise... that “the issues for discussion were inter alia but not limited to a) the behaviour of the ruling party towards Indians Coloureds and Whites, specifically the quota system and affirmative action. The poster advertised race and racism, not politics and policy, and constitutes dogwhistle politics.

2.28.7 On the number of attendees: the Witness reported that the meeting “started off with about 100 people”. (my emphasis) The editor points out that the reporter estimated the crowd “at a point where there were around 100 people in the hall.”

2.28.8 On the complaint that it was incorrect that the “meeting degenerated into chaos” and that only about 10 “disgruntled ANC members” left the meeting when Councillor Oumar was ordered to leave the hall, the editor responds:

A perusal of the video indeed shows a good deal of chaos when councillor Oumar was escorted out of the hall. There was lots of loud shouting, security guards grabbing at people, people being moved out of their chairs and disorder in that section of the hall. It is obvious that the meeting was disrupted.”

2.28.9 On whether the Witness “deliberately overlooked” the “disruptive” behaviour of Mr Oumar: the editor responds there is clear footage of Mehmoud Oumar being ordered out of the meeting. He referred the Ombudsman to a YouTube video of the incident. [3]

In it a man identified by the editor as Anesh Singh “shouts at Oumar, “Outside, Out!” the same footage shows a security guard grabbing Mr Oumar’s arm. There is also a voice saying “Get out”. This is evidence that he was indeed “kicked out” – an informal phrase meaning to force someone to leave a place.”

2.28.10 On whether Mr Singh is the convenor of SAMREM.  For this the newspaper quotes Daleep San, the chair of SAMREM who confirms Mr Singh is the convenor. This Mr Sing disputes, saying he was a founder member. The editor replies:
Ashin Singh confirms that Daleep San is the “Chairperson of SAMREM”. It is in this capacity that he was approached by the reporter to clarify what Singh’s role was at SAMREM, to which he replied that Singh was its convenor.

Furthermore, we have previously, on several occasions, referred to Singh as the convenor of SAMREM and have never been corrected on this.

He also refers to several articles that call him the convenor.

2.28.11 On the quotes that Mr Singh disputes, the editor says these were from the reporter’s notes, albeit “reworked to make it grammatical”. The “pull quote” saying: “The only black Africans who are at the same level as Indians, whites and coloureds in terms of work ethic are Zimbabweans”,  was not done to “humiliate and embarrass Mr Singh as claimed but “is a common journalistic practise to highlight a specific quote in a story.”

It is not true that Mr Singh was “maliciously and falsely portrayed” as a racist nor that “false statements” were attributed to him, nor that this was part of a “personal vendetta”.

  1. We merely reported on the events that played out at the ‘debate’. Readers will draw their own conclusions. We never referred to Singh as a racist. A speaker did accuse him of being racist, and we carried Singh’s response, denying that he is a racist, in the article
  2. We deny that there were false statements in our report
  3. We deny this. This aspect exists only in Mr Ashin Singh’s mind.

 

2.29 It is also untrue that the Witness “encouraged” the Echo and the Fever to print the “false, malicious article” without an opportunity for Mr Singh to respond. Mr Vanderhaeghen says the Echo and Fever are separate publications.

2.30 On Mr Singh’s denial that he spoke about “homeless Black Africans” but instead about “whoonga addicts…who urinate and defecate in the middle of Raisethorpe.”

Mr Vanderhaeghen responds: “The whoonga addicts to whom Mr Singh refers are Black Africans. Given that the meeting in its totality pitched ‘whites, coloureds and Indians’ against ‘Black Africans’, it is not unreasonable that they were cited to illustrate the point about race, and not about drugs, which were not the topic of discussion.

2.31 On the paraphrased quote about the “quota system: which blocks “intelligent” Indians from access to universities’, Mr Vanderhaeghen cites the “direct quotes” from Mr Singh’s speech:

  1. “You (meaning government) go to India as a guest but you don’t allow Indian children to study at university because it doesn’t suit you and they’re too clever.”
  2. “Which country will succeed if it chases away your most intelligent and hardworking Indian people? Which? None.”

We believe the quotes speak for themselves here. Singh is clearly referencing Indian students as being “clever” and the “most intelligent”.

 

2.31 He also contests Mr Singh’s charge that the statement that he had created “drama” by ordering the security guards to remove some people from the meeting is “false”. (I note that in the introduction to his complaint, Mr Singh says the Witness accused him of causing “mayhem”, but this word is not in the report)

“In the footage Ashin Singh interrupts the man giving the welcome (green shirt and glasses) and whispers to him for a while. This man then immediately addresses the crowd saying, “Before we continue, it has been brought to my notice that there’s a certain Captain Moola that is present here and you were not officially invited to attend. So we’d appreciate it if you would kindly leave the hall. Captain Moola, it’s directed at you. … (silence) … Thank you, he’s acceded to our request.”

It is clear that Ashin Singh brought this to the speaker’s attention, and not Anesh Singh. A voice can then be heard asking why Capt Moola should leave if he is a member of the minority group. Then Ashin Singh is seen striding over to where Mehmood Oumar is sitting accompanied by security guards. He gestures to ask two elderly men in the row Mehmood is sitting to vacate their seats to allow better access to Oumar. With the path to Oumar clear he then gestures to Anesh Singh to approach Oumar. He is accompanied by three security guards. He follows Oumar out of the hall. “

2.32 There is no reference to “past encounters” as Mr Singh says. The article says Mr Singh is “no stranger to controversy”. Mr Vanderhaeghen lists a number of “cases and disputes” Mr Singh has been involved in over the years, dating from 2007 to October 2018.

2.33 On whether Mzi Thebolla was “heckled” when he attempted to speak, or as Mr Singh put it: “the crowd became incensed when Thebolla was evasive and dishonest.”

Mr Vanderhaeghen replies: Mzi Thebolla was heckled. That is what occurred. It is a matter of opinion that he was “evasive and dishonest” or that he “failed to explain the need for racist quotas placed on minorities”. We cannot editorialise and say this…”

2.34 On the right to respond: Mr Vanderhaeghen says there has been no denial of the right to respond. However the only response they got from him was “an unsigned letter presented under a local attorney’s letterhead”, threatening legal action.

2.35 On whether the Human Rights Commission was investigating Mr Singh’s speech. Mr Singh says this is not true:

Mr Vanderhaeghen writes: “In the story we said: The SA Human Rights Commission is investigating Singh’s speech. That is correct. While writing the story, Clive Ndou called HRC national spokesperson, Gail Smith to find out if anyone had lodged a racism complaint against Singh following the magistrate’s speech at the Samrem event. An email to this effect was sent on March 14 at 12.53. Ms Smith said she was not aware of anyone who had complained but asked for details of what had transpired.”

Mr Ndou then emailed her a brief report of the speech, and she then said she would “forward the matter to the commission’s lawyers for assessment which we understood as meaning they were investigating the matter.”

 

2.36 In conclusion, Mr Vanderhaeghen writes: “We are satisfied that our report was an accurate representation of events and that no retraction is warranted. Neither was there any malicious intent in any of the instances averred by the complainant, and thus we do not deem an apology to be warranted….

Samrem’s claim to be ‘apolitical’ does not withstand scrutiny given the support and campaigning it did on behalf of the Minority Front during the election, or given the nature of the meeting in question which took place during a strongly electioneering period.

Samrem’s claim that it was “founded on non-racial principles” may be true, and its constitution may demand that it “promote harmonious race relations”. Its attack on “African Racism”, however, was an exercise in race essentialism which can in no way be construed as “non-racial”, which would by definition not define people by race or attribute pejorative qualities to entire groups. It follows that such a typification of people cannot promote harmonious race relations. Singh’s original lawyer’s letter to the Witness did not boast of “non-racialism”, of which there was no mention. This has been inserted only in the complaint to the Press Council. None of this means of course that Samrem has not been involved in good deeds, as it asserts.”

Further arguments

2.37 In his response to the Witness reply, Mr Singh reasserts his main points but also argues that the Witness bears him “malice” and has a “vendetta” against him.

He cites various points to support his claim:

  • That the editor reported him to SANEF for asking a reporter to move her seat in the courtroom
  • He disputes the quotes about Zimbabweans and about “homeless black Africans” He says the video of the event will show that a “rates boycott was mooted in order to use the funds to provide proper housing for informal settlers”, who are “by and large members of SAMREM..”
  • He also says the video recording of the meeting “proves the loud applause for Singh. There can be no doubt about it. It will prove African and Coloured members of SAMREM attended.”

2.38 He also goes into a series of incidents, which, he argues, prove a vendetta. These include:

  • An incident at the Lakeside Café where Mr Vanderhaeghen allegedly said he would “destroy Singh”
  • The lack of an opportunity to respond to a report about a “male friend”  (a magistrate) of Witness reporter, Sharika Regchand, who was moved from the seat she occupied in the court room, whom the newspaper reported “was intimidated and reported corruption on the part of Singh and the Chief Magistrate.”
  • He then goes on to make other allegations about this magistrate allegedly not reported by the Witness (I am not reporting these allegations in this ruling as they are not relevant to the case).
  • He argues the “removal” of Councillor Oumar from the debate/meeting was “properly done”.
  • He alleges that the photograph on the front page was “photoshopped…It is a well-known malicious act to use a particular photograph to portray a person negatively.”
  • That Mr Vanderhaeghen “forwarded’ the article to “various contacts in the print industry” as he has “close relations and controls these miniscule papers including Noseweek” [which has also written critical articles about Mr Singh].

2.39 The “whoonga addicts” include people of all race groups and were “dumped in Raisethorpe” with no homes or toilet facilities.

2.40 He also disputes articles in Noseweek and previous articles in the Witness at some length but as these are not the subject of the article in dispute I will not go into them here.

 

2.41 He responds to the description of him as “controversial” saying that Mr Vanderhaeghen is “part of a gay, white liberal group…is malicious and the last choice for editor of the Witness in the view of many.”

The Witness has laid criminal charges against him and reported him to SANEF and to the Magistrates Commission and Chief Magistrate. “This speaks volumes about the abuse I am expected to tolerate in the guise of freedom of the press.”

2.42 He also provides a letter from the SAHRC confirming there is no complaint to it against him.

2.43 On the video footage of Mr Oumar being removed from the meeting he responds: “The video was recorded by corrupt ANC officials..”

2.44 On describing him in the article as a “Senior Magistrate”, he responds: “The Witness admits I never spoke in my official capacity…it was deliberate and malicious and further indicates The Witness manipulation of news for its own personal attack on myself in both my private and official capacity.” [emphasis in original]

He says the debate was in response to Julius Malema calling Indians “coolies” and stating they “are worse than Afrikaners.”

He says SAMREM is not “an Indian organisation. This is a gross distortion and a typical White superiority mentality assertion.” It includes members of the DA, the EFF and the ANC. “The stupidity of the Witness submission is that it fails to understand the Race issue included Race Quotas – something superior Whites who control White Monopoly Capital won’t understand despite having a bigger quota than Indians and Coloureds.”

 

2.45 He refers the Ombud to “video footage’ and says “the failure by the Witness to provide same to the ombudsman is proof of its attempts to mislead.”[4]

  1. Analysis

3.1 This complaint was essentially about an article about a public event organised by the SA Minority Rights Equality Movement.

However, the arguments ranged far beyond the event itself and showed marked acrimony between Mr Singh and the Witness.

3.2 Mr Singh in his complaint referenced several stories, covered or not covered, that he claimed showed this “malice”

The Witness denied this, pointing to other articles that showed he had been involved in “controversial” incidents.

Most recent was the apparent removal of the Witness court reporter, Sharika Regchand, from a seat in the court that the Witness says she had occupied “for a long time”, but which Mr Singh says was in “front of bullet-proof glass” which is reserved for lawyers.

The fact that the Witness reported this to SANEF, which then released a statement, condemning it, has not made relations easier.

3.3 However, although evidence of this acrimony and past events was prolific in the argument and I have tried to summarize this to reflect the views fairly, the focus must be on the article complained about. Mr Singh alleges “malice” in the article is predicated on an acrimonious relationship. However, I can deal with this allegation only insofar as it pertains to the contested article.

3.4 Many of the complaints were about the accuracy of the quotes. Both Mr Singh and the Witness sent me recordings of the event. Mr Singh’s recording was inaudible at certain points. The Witness recording, obtained via FEVER reporter, Byrone Athman, was much clearer but not complete.

In spite of Mr Singh telling the Public Advocate, Mr Joe Latakgomo  that he has a transcript of the event that was “99% complete”, when I asked him for it, he told me it was “not reliable”.

My findings on the accuracy of the quotes are thus based on two (partial) sound recordings and the arguments of the two parties.

3.5 On the specific complaints:

3.5.1 Whether it was fair to refer to the event as a “meeting”: The poster advertising it calls it a debate but Mr Vanderhaeghen points out the text on the poster under the headline AFRICAN RACISM, poses a statement rather than a question: “Black Africans more racist than white Afrikaners!” It then advertises the debate in the “Aryan Hall”. The organisation hosting it is SAMREM.

The point about whether it was a “debate” or a “meeting” is somewhat pedantic. It was a gathering of people to discuss a controversial and sensitive topic. The Witness reporter did not err by calling it “a public meeting”. And in Mr Singh’s speech, which I listened to, he certainly “protested” against perceived aspects of government policy.

It was reasonable for the newspaper to use these two words in describing the event.

3.5.2 On the numbers attending the meeting: Mr Singh complains that the Witness put it at “100” whereas he says those who signed the register numbered at least 220. He sent us the register when asked. I counted 133 people on the register we received. In any event, the report stated that the meeting “started off” with about 100 people, which appears to be a reasonable estimate, and which the register we received confirms.

3.5.3 On the complaint that the meeting “degenerated into chaos”: the recordings I heard indicated some shouting, and the video footage of Mr Oumar’s removal shows considerable disruption. “Degenerated” implies it ended in chaos and I cannot tell this from either the recordings or the video footage. However the reporter describes “lots of loud shouting, security guards grabbing at people, people being moved out of their chairs and disorder in that section of the hall.” The word “disruption” or “punctuated by chaos” may have been a better way to describe it. The Witness did not use the word “mayhem” as indicated in Mr Singh’s introduction to his complaint. The Fever/Echo reports describe it as turning into ‘complete chaos with numerous people being turned away while others openly left before the meeting was over.” So while “degenerated’ may have been an inapposite word, there was clearly significant disruption of the meeting.

 

3.5.4 On the complaint that the report said “Mr Oumar was kicked out”: Mr Singh says he was “merely ordered to behave or leave the meeting”. In the footage I saw of this incident, a speaker is at the podium when a man in a check shirt (possibly Mr Anesh Singh,) with Mr Ashin Singh close behind him approaches a row in the hall, asks people to get up, walks past the chairs and tells Mr Oumar to “get out”. Mr Oumar (who is at that point standing) shouts something to Mr Singh to the effect of: “You are a criminal, look at your past”. At that point a security guard grabs his arm. Mr Oumar shouts “don’t hold me”. The man in the check shirt walks towards him and says “Out, Get Out!”. With security guards or police officers standing in the row behind, it seems he had no choice but to leave. In other words, he was “ejected”, a word meaning “thrown out”. “Kicked out” seems a reasonable summation of the incident.

As for Mr Singh’s other complaint that Mr Oumar was “disruptive” and that this was ignored by the Witness, the report describes him as “shouting’ “You are dividing the community”. This describes the specifics, in my view better journalism than using a vague, value-laden word such as “disruptive”.  

  1. On whether Mr Singh is a “convenor of SAMREM:  this was confirmed to the reporter by Mr Daleep San, the chairperson of SAMREM. Although Mr Singh says he is a founder, the reporter’s source – the chairperson – is a legitimate one and it is perfectly reasonable for him to have reported this.

3.5.6 On the quotes:

  1. Indians, whites and coloureds were being targeted because they are hard-working and intelligent.” This is a paraphrase rather than a direct quote. Yet it is critical to get paraphrasing right. I could not find, in either recording, a statement identical to this.

However, Mr Singh did mention the following:

  • “Indians were too clever” in relation to what he described as “quotas” in employment at municipalities
  • At hospitals, Indians were not employed
  • He asked why Indian children could not access universities on merit
  • He stressed, in relation to several institutions – public employment, universities, and promotions in the police - that government had a “quota system” that excluded Indians, white and coloureds.
  • In relation to universities, he mentioned that this was “the only country in the world where people were discriminated against on the level of intelligence.”
  • He also asked: “Which country will succeed if chase away the most intelligent and hard-working people?”

 

 Thus the paraphrase is not quite accurate. In the case of the Echo and the Fever, it was used as a direct quote: “We, the Indian, White and Coloured people are being targeted because we are hardworking and intelligent.”

  1.  “The only black Africans who are at the same level as Indians, whites and coloured in terms of work ethic are Zimbabweans.” This was also a pull quote giving it greater prominence.

In the recording provided by Mr Singh, I heard: “Look at Zimbabwe – the cleverest children in Africa and  they come from a bankrupt country… but they work harder than white, colored or Indian or African children in SA.”

This puts a slightly different complexion on the sentiment in that it does not come across as a derogatory remark about black people in South Africa. The way he reports his own quote (in the complaint) is also slightly different from this: “Look at Zimbabwe the cleverest African children in Africa from a bankrupt country who will outdo every Indian, coloured and white in this country academically and with their work ethic.”

I cannot explain the discrepancy, but I have to trust the recording. In any event, the reporter misquoted Mr Singh on this point. This is perhaps because, as the editor explained, he had notes which he relied on rather than notes backed up by a recording.

However, there is no evidence that the misquote was “malicious” as Mr Singh asserts, nor part of a “personal vendetta”.

(It should be noted that the Echo and Fever had a slightly different version of this quote: “Black Zimbabweans are the only others who are at the same level as us in terms of work ethic.” This is also not quite the same as what I heard on the recording)

  1. The quote about “homeless black Africans”:  Mr Singh says he never referred to “homeless black Africans [on the streets of Northdale] who shit and pee on our streets.”

There were a few points he made in regard to both “homeless black Africans” and urinating and defecating on the streets. I should also note that this part of the recording Mr Singh sent me is inaudible.

In that recording, he refers to people from informal settlements who are “flooding” the Indian areas in a way that will “change voting patterns” This is correctly reported in the Witness piece (as well as in the Echo and Fever).

Later (according to the recording provided by the reporter), he speaks of “Over 200…whoonga addicts here in PMB…urinating and defecating in the streets”.

Earlier, in his speech, he complains that the streets of an area (the newspaper says Northdale) “smell of shit, let’s not say faeces, it smells of shit. See the ANC people aren’t clapping for me, maybe they don’t smell it… (but now) it smells of pee and faeces. It stinks. The whole world has seen it. The President came here and apologized for this mess – the President of this country…”

The parts of his speech referring to “shit and pee” were not in the recording he sent me or were inaudible but I heard this in the newspaper’s recording.

He mentioned “whoonga addicts” soon after he mentioned homeless people, so perhaps it’s not surprising that the reporters may have got it wrong. But where he refers to the sullying of the streets it is clear on the recording that he is referring to “whoonga addicts”. In any event, this is not a direct quote; still the reporters should have double-checked the recording to ascertain such a controversial quote.

  1. On the quote that the government was granting only black students access to university education while blocking “intelligent” Indians”: This is partly a paraphrase with only the word “intelligent” in inverted commas. According to the recordings, he goes on at some length about Indian, white and coloured children being “excluded” from universities – he makes a particular example of medical schools – because of “quotas”. In this context he says  “this is the only country in the world where people are discriminated against on their level of intelligence…they can’t go to university when they get 90% in matric but a child of a Minister who got 60% can go; this is because of legislation passed by the ANC.”

He also said: “Nowhere in the world are the most intelligent people excluded because of racism from university …or jobs.”

His point in his complaint where he says he referred to the “large number” of Indian medical graduates…forced to study overseas because of the quota system” – and are denied work in this country – is correct – that is, it is correct that he said this. However, the paraphrase and the word “intelligent” in inverted commas used by the reporter is in no way misleading nor does it distort his remarks.

 

3.5.7 His complaint that the Witness reported that he took to the podium “shortly after creating drama when he ordered security guards to remove some people from the venue”: Mr Singh says it was Mr Anesh Sing who “reported to the chairman about a police officer being present and refusing to sign the attendance register.” This may be so but the newspaper is not incorrect. According to Mr Vanderhaeghen he whispered to the person speaking at the time. The YouTube footage then clearly shows the confrontation with Mr Oumar. This involved shouting, arm-grabbing and pushing.  Mr Singh is nearby at the end of the row. The newspaper did not say Mr Singh himself was involved in this, but it nonetheless injected some “drama” into the meeting. Whether he ordered their removal or someone else did is not material: the footage indicates him supporting it.

3.5.8 On his complaint that the newspaper reported that Mzi Thebolla was “heckled” but that it failed to report that he was “evasive and dishonest”. The newspaper reported truthfully that Mr Thebolla was “heckled”. I agree with Mr Vanderhaeghen that it is not the reporter’s job to “editorialize” and describe any speaker of being “evasive and dishonest”. This is an opinion which has no place in news reporting.

3.6 In his response to the Witness reply, Mr Singh also complains about the paragraph that reports that the Human Rights Commission is “investigating his speech.” To this end, he provides a letter signed by Mr Lloyd Lotz of the Human Rights Commission confirming that there has been no complaint lodged “at our KZN office” against him or SAMREM.

This paragraph in the Witness story is problematic. A reporter should not create the news. One cannot contact an official body, ask it for comment on a matter, send it the information, get a reply that they will forward the matter for “assessment” (whatever that means), and then report that that body is “investigating” it. It seemed the only report to the HRC on the speech came from the reporter himself. The Witness stated: “The SA Human Rights Commission is investigating Singh’s speech”. There appears to be no truth in this.

In fact, the other two newspapers (Fever and Echo) reported only on what Mr Singh himself had said at the meeting/debate, which is that SAMREM was planning to lodge a complaint with the United Nations about South Africa’s “treatment of minorities.”

3.7 Mr Singh also, in his response to the Witness, charged that the photograph on the front page was “photoshopped”. There are two photographs on the page: one is of Mr Singh himself at the podium etched against the headline “Rowdy Racism Ruckus” with the sub-head ‘Black-racism’ meeting ends in chaos’. The other shows Mr Oumar (who was being ejected from the meeting) standing with the man in the checked shirt in the video footage (possibly Mr Anesh Singh) and a police officer with the words “Tactical Unit” on his sleeve.

There is no reason why these pictures should have been photoshopped and Mr Vanderhaeghen told me it was strictly against newspaper policy to do this.

3.8 Mr Singh complained about the lack of the right to reply. This was a report on a meeting. His speech was quoted in some detail. Moreover, the reporter checked with him whether he was the “convener” of SAMREM or not even though the organisation’s chair had said this was the case. His denial was recorded.

  1. Finding

4.1 This case was overshadowed by marked acrimony between Mr Singh and the Witness newspaper in particular.

This meant that the papers filed were lengthy and referred to numerous past cases where each party accused the other of bad faith. These accusations were particularly strong from Mr Singh’s side.

4.2 Mr Vanderhaeghen strenuously denied the allegation that he and the paper wanted to “destroy” Mr Singh. “Indeed [he] made [this] statement … at the Lake Side Café in Pietermartizburg,” Mr Singh alleged.

But Mr Vanderhaeghen recalls the incident differently. He says he went to greet Mr Singh, put out his hand to shake his, and was rebuffed.

I cannot judge the truth of this, nor is it in my purview, but it does colour some of Mr Singh’s complaint. It took on a very personal, almost pejorative tone. He describes the editor as being “part of a gay, white liberal group..”, “lacking ethics”, “malicious” and the “last choice as editor of the Witness.”

4.3 It is also not relevant that the Sunday Tribune withdrew its story: in its apology it stated clearly that its reporter was not present at the meeting and could not substantiate his report.

 

4.4 However, there are some key quotes and paraphrases that are incorrect. These are:

  • Indians, whites and coloured were being targeted because they are hard-working and intelligent.”
  • The only black Africans who are at the same level as Indians, whites and coloured in terms of work ethic are Zimbabweans.” This was also a pull quote. The recordings do not reflect this.

4.5 It was also misleading to report that the Human Rights Commission was “investigating” his speech when the reporter himself had effectively prompted the Commission do this.

The Witness is to apologise for misquoting Mr Singh in relation to the above two quotes, and to apologise for using a prominent pull quote incorrectly.

It should also apologise for misleading readers about a HRC “investigation” into his speech.

The Echo and the Fever should also apologise for the two quotes incorrectly rendered. On the Zimbabwean quote, these two newspapers said: “Black Zimbabweans are the only others who are at the same level as us in terms of work ethic”; and on the other, it said: “We, the Indian, White and Coloured people are being targeted because we are hardworking and intelligent.”

 

The rest of the complaint is dismissed

The newspaper’s correction and apology should be published on the same page as the original print story and be approved by the Ombudsman. The Press Council logo and a link to this finding should also be published.

It should also be published as a link to the original online story.

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.

 

Pippa Green

Press Ombudsman

January 24, 2020



[1] See “Background” section on this matter.

[2] See Appendix for copy of the poster.

[4] In fact, the Witness did refer me to YouTube footage of the incident involving Mr Oumar as well as an audio recording obtained via its sister newspaper the FEVER. Mr Singh did not provide me with any footage.