Michael Biribauer vs. Eyewitness News


Wed, Aug 2, 2017

Ruling by the Press Ombud

2 August 2017

This ruling is based on the written submissions of Mr Michael Biribauer and those of Katy Katopodis, editor-in-chief of Eyewitness News (EWN).

Biribauer is complaining about a column on EWN’s website of 18 July 2017, headlined Opinion: Looking at life through a white frame.

Complaint                                            

Biribauer complains the column was biased as it implied that:

·         white people liked to live like the people they “suppressed” as though it was a genetic code that made them want to experience the oppressed version – a seriously flawed racial stereotyping which has defamed the entire white race;

·         people of other races did not enjoy such activities, meaning the industry is catering for people on a racial basis; and

·         Dawjee has “debased” her “white” partner as a thoughtless piece of human garbage, which has publicly humiliated her friend and has amounted to mental abuse towards her partner.

He adds that this column has sought to further the agenda of a certain (undisclosed) political party, and that the author did not seek comment from anybody.

Biribauer requests this office to investigate whether there is any “further psychological abuse within her relationship” with her partner.

The column

The introductory sentence to the column, written by Haji Mohamed Dawjee, said, “The lack of an all-encompassing slur has left us with poking fun or asking rhetorical questions to imply insult.”

She then gave examples of some stereotypes about white people in an attempt to explain the concept of white privilege.

Wrapping up her arguments, Dawjee summarized the gist of her column as follows: “Privilege to white people is so natural that it has become unrecognizable to them.”

EWN responds

Katopodis points out that it was an opinion piece, the intention of which was to give an account of white privilege from the perspective of a person of colour.

She dismisses the complaint of any psychological and mental abuse of Dawjee’s partner as “totally ludicrous”, adding that there was no evidence to support such a “ridiculous claim”.

Analysis

Section 7 of the Press Code states that the media shall be entitled to comment upon or criticise any actions or events of public interest. It adds, “Comment or criticism is protected even if extreme, unjust, unbalanced, exaggerated and prejudiced, as long as it expresses an honestly-held opinion, is without malice, is on a matter of public interest; has taken fair account of all material facts that are substantially true; and is presented in such manner that it appears clearly to be comment.”

I fully accept that Biribauer finds the column distasteful and insulting, or “extreme, unjust, unbalanced, exaggerated and prejudiced” – but such is the nature of freedom of speech. Text is not unethical just because someone disagrees with it.

Defamation is the malicious, unfair, significant lowering of one’s public image, and I fail to see how anybody’s public image could have been lowered by this piece. I do not for one moment believe that the column has defamed anybody, let alone the entire white race. Instead, I have found this column extremely interesting, well-written – and profoundly thought-provoking.

As Biribauer has no standing to complain on behalf of Dawjee’s partner, I am not entertaining this part of his complaint.

Because the piece was a column, the author was under no obligation to seek comment from anybody.

With respect, Biribauer’s request for this office to investigate whether there is any “further psychological abuse within her relationship” with her partner reflects inter alia a deep lack of understanding as to what the purpose and mandate of this office is.

Rather than upholding the complaint, I am instead commending Dawjee on an excellent piece and am looking forward to reading more of the same.

Finding

The complaint is dismissed.

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