Pakistan South Africa Association vs. Lowvelder


Wed, May 23, 2018

Ruling by the Press Ombud

23 May 2018

PARTICULARS

 

Complainants

 

 

Pakistan South Africa Association (PSA)

 

 

Lodged by

 

 

Mr Bilal Khan, head of social and welfare affairs: PSA

 

Date of article

 

 

13 April 2018

 

Headline

 

 

Terror groups in SA – the shocking facts (Part 3)

 

 

Page

 

 

4, 5

 

Online

 

 

Yes

 

Author of article

 

 

De Wet Potgieter, editor

 

Respondent

 

 

Helene Eloff

Complaint                                            

PSA complains that the:

·         article contained isolated incidents involving different individuals, timelines and locations which were gathered and used to build up a case against Pakistan and the PSA – and in this process painted the whole Pakistani community and the Muslim community with the same brush to create hysteria and hateful sentiments (it says the reportage targeted a whole community for the crimes of a few individuals);

·         reportage may cause hateful sentiments towards the South African Pakistani and Muslim communities, inviting xenophobic attacks in an already politically charged society;

·         organisation Sipah-e-Sahaba does not exist in Pakistan, and most probably also not in South Africa;

·         newspaper’s source might be a criminal “disguised in religious garb” and should be prosecuted; and

·         idea of an Islamic state in South African is the “joke of the century”.

Khan concludes that the article has deeply hurt Muslim and Pakistani communities, and demands an apology from the newspaper.

The text

The article is about an intelligence document on Sipah-e-Sahaba that had been handed to the office of an MEC in Gauteng during a meeting in September last year. This document was titled, Pakistani terrorist groups operating in South Africa.

According to this report more than 20 terrorist groups from Pakistan and Bangladesh are operating in South Africa, with their head office in Lenasia.

Regarding Sipah-e-Sahava, the report says:

·         its main “actor” has obtained his SA identity fraudulently;

·         it falsely promises people a form of protection from ordinary criminals;

·         it is deeply embedded in various political and social formations throughout the country; and

·         it is coordinating fund-raising for the PSA, with the SA Muslim community its prime funder.

Its primary goals reportedly are to:

·         train children in terrorist activities, with India as the main target;

·         deploy members wherever necessary;

·         turn India into an Islamic state;

·         continue to use South Africa as an fund-raising and operational base until they can turn this country into an Islamic State as well; and

·         eventually turn the whole of Africa into an Islamic continent.

Because South Africa has been very relaxed and/or has possibly colluded with certain Muslim organisations, this money laundering and fund-raising have reportedly been going on for approximately 15 to 20 years. A certain male who lives and operates from Fordsburg 8th Street, allegedly is one of the main Pakistani money launderers who has infiltrated the Police in Gauteng.

According to the report, fully functional crime syndicates began to infiltrate government departments in South Africa, including Home Affairs, Health, Human Settlements, Housing at Local Government, as well as the SAPS, Crime Intelligence, the Hawks, the Metropolitan Police in Johannesburg, Tshwane and Ethekwini, and the State Security Agency.

The arguments

As background, Khan inter alia says PSA is a social and welfare organisation that is accredited by the Pakistan High Commission, and is a non-political and non-religious association of volunteers. It does dispute resolution and facilitation of Pakistanis in distant cities, and provides free funeral services free for deceased Pakistanis whose family members are not in South Africa.

He says PSA’s continual cooperation with the South African law enforcement departments on a number of matters of importance speaks volume of its efforts in creating a harmonious relationship with the local community and the South African state.

Khan asserts that the PSA cannot be held responsible for the actions of individual.

He says that Pakistan, since its existence, has condemned oppression. It has actively participated in the UN, and has tabled resolutions in support of the oppressed and the innocent in different corners of the world.

Eloff submits that Potgieter has been investigating extremist activities in South Africa for years. During this time, he has shed light on obscure activities by people of all races, colours and political affiliations - from the National Party’s ways of keeping the masters of apartheid in power in the 1980s, to more recently researching the presence of Al Qaeda (and now Isis) in South Africa.

In this process, she asserts, the editor has formed relationships with reliable sources involved in intelligence operations conducted for different authorities.

She says one of these sources was formerly involved in counter-intelligence espionage for uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) outside South African borders. This source who studied in Pakistan and speaks Urdu, is referred to by the pseudonym Mark Naraine in the reportage complained of.

Eloff says Naraine approached Potgieter a month prior to publication. According to the former, he had visited an MEC in Gauteng seven months earlier. During this visit, he stated that Isis was targeting South African children for paramilitary training. He handed the MEC a report to corroborate his allegation, titled Pakistani terrorist groups operating in South Africa (the “source report”).

When Naraine had not received any feedback, he approached Potgieter with this (and other) information.

Eloff says that Potgieter, who has seen the report (which elaborated on activities and infiltration methods of “terrorists” from Pakistan and Bangladesh) is satisfied that an aptly qualified expert, who has done extensive research, has compiled the document with great care and expertise.

She says the editor cannot make the source report available to anyone, as doing so may endanger the lives of Naraine’s informants. She adds, though, that the newspaper will ask the source whether he would be willing to reveal his identity to this office, or to elaborate on his investigations.

In the meantime, Eloff says, Naraine has confirmed that, prior to compiling his report, he has:

·         interviewed several Pakistani’s in South Africa on the topic, who had in-depth knowledge about the activities of Isis affiliates;

·         conducted the interviews in the presence of a second Urdu speaking person; and

·         written down the information given at those meetings, which was sworn to before a third party commissioner of oaths from the SAPS.

Potgieter adds that he has sought to corroborate the contents of the report by liaising with other sources with experience in the fields of intelligence, counter-intelligence and espionage and with specific knowledge on the presence of Isis in South Africa and Mozambique.

He says he has ample reason to believe that Sipha-e-Sahaba is present in South Africa, adding that he has also witnessed first-hand counter-terrorism raids and attended court cases of Sipha-e-Sahaba affiliates.

Eloff submits that, after having spoken to Naraine and discussed his research procedure with him, she came to the same conclusion as Potgieter did – the report reflects the findings of suitable qualified and experienced investigators and other sources have corroborated that information, she says.

She also denies the PSA’s allegations that the contents of the report was generated to “build up a case against the Pakistani community in South Africa”.

Giving some examples, Eloff says other journalists have also reported recently on Isis infiltrating South Africa.

Eloff says subsequent to Potgieter’s reportage, intelligence agents (including sources from within the Department of Home Affairs) have confirmed his information, as did Mozambican foreign affairs officials at a meeting in Maputo on April 23.

In conclusion, Eloff says that the report complained of contains extracts from the source report, and that it featured no comment by the editor.

She acknowledges that the report made general references to categories of activities performed by South African Pakistan organisations, but adds that no reference targeted the PSA.

Eloff concludes, “Because Lowvelder maintains that it has reason to believe that the contents of the report is substantially true and in the public interest, the publication is not inclined to retract the report complained of or issue an apology. Lowvelder will, however, gladly offer the Pakistan South Africa Association in Mpumalanga the opportunity to comment on the reportage complained of.”

Khan says malicious campaigns of such misleading, distorted, inflammatory and objectionable articles or reports have disturbing consequences, which the whole community has to face.

He says that, while the report was presented to the MEC in Gauteng, the latter did not respond to it – which puts the report’s legitimacy and credibility in question.

He says Potgieter was conveniently putting the responsibility on the fictitious character (Naraine). “The mysterious and questionable profile of the said character, itself discredits the report. His response not only justifies my point that the article/report is based on false information, but the editor’s lack of knowledge on the matters of a geopolitical nature of South Asia is evident from the fact that he chose to publish such a flawed and preposterous report,” he asserts.

Khan also asserts that the report makes more than general statements – he says that, under the heading of Terrorist activities in South Africa, it specifically implicates the PSA in terrorist activities.

He asks for evidence of any such funding to PSA.

Analysis

Meeting

After having studied all the documentation at my disposal, I needed to understand what the status of the Naraine document was, why it was written in the first place (was it solicited, or not?), and why Potgieter thought the information contained in it was essentially true (otherwise he surely would not have published it in the first place).

In order to determine how reasonable it was for Potgieter to have trusted the information coming from Naraine, I was also interested in what the nature of the relationship between him and his source was – for example, was this a once-off situation, or have they worked together before? In other words, did the editor have reason to trust his source, based on past experiences?

I have therefore met with the editor, on May 22, to discuss these and other related issues with him.

During that meeting, I expressed my concern that Naraine might have had an agenda of which the editor was not aware. The obvious danger was that the source might have used Potgieter for purposes of his own (whatever that might have been), and that the editor could have been misled in that process.

Potgieter told me that he and Naraine had met almost a decade ago, and that the two of them had interacted with each other on several occasions. He confirmed that he trusted his source, given the latter’s background, intimate knowledge and expertise in the field, and added that Naraine has never given him false information before.

The editor attributed Naraine’s involvement in this matter to the latter’s “honest concern” about children being used or misused by Sipha-e-Sahaba.

I told him I found this to be a flimsy reason, and I am still uneasy with this explanation.

Be that as it may, I was in no position to judge Naraine’s motives, and I had to proceed with caution – shifting my attention away from the source and directing it towards Potgieter. My central question was why the editor believed Naraine so explicitly, so much so that he believed it to be reasonable to publish information coming from that source.

In the end, I was satisfied that Potgieter’s decision to publish was reasonable because:

·         the relationship between the editor and his source was not a fly-by-night affair, but came about nearly a decade ago;

·         during this time, the two intermittently interacted with each other;

·         the editor believed that Naraine has never given him false information, and could find no reason why he would do so in the first place; and

·         Potgieter himself had extensive knowledge and experience in the relevant field (having reported on related matters for many years, and having published several books on related topics).

However, this statement needs immediate qualification.

By accepting that the article was in the public interest, and therefore worthy of publication, I am not saying that everything contained in Naraine’s report is necessarily true. In this regard I am mindful of the well-known Bogoshi ruling, in which Justice J.A. Hefer inter alia stated the following:

“ … the publication in the press of false defamatory allegations of fact will not be regarded as unlawful if, upon a consideration of all the circumstances of the case, it is found to have been reasonable to publish the particular facts in the particular way and at the particular time.

“In considering the reasonableness of the publication account must obviously be taken of the nature, extent and tone of the allegations. We know, for instance, that greater latitude is usually allowed in respect of political discussion …, and that the tone in which a newspaper article is written, or the way in which it is presented, sometimes provides additional, and perhaps unnecessary, sting.

“What will also figure prominently, is the nature of the information on which the allegations were based and the reliability of their source, as well as the steps taken to verify the information.

“Ultimately there can be no justification for the publication of untruths, and members of the press should not be left with the impression that they have a licence to lower the standards of care which must be observed before defamatory matter is published in a newspaper.

“ … a high degree of circumspection must be expected of editors and their editorial staff on account of the nature of their occupation; particularly … in light of the powerful position of the press and the credibility which it enjoys amongst large sections of the community.”

Let me be very clear on this point: I am not mandated to establish the truth of Naraine’s information, neither am I capable of doing so. My task is to establish if the journalist was reasonable in believing that his information was reasonably or essentially true, and therefore was justified in publishing it.

I am convinced that that is the case.

I now turn to the particulars of the complaint.

‘Pakistan South Africa Associations’

The article and Naraine’s report, as well as Potgieter’s notes, all referred to “Pakistan South Africa Associations”.

The use of the plural (“Associations”) was problematic and posed some questions, as that was not the PSA’s official name.

Potgieter asserted that he previously had never heard of the PSA – he contended that he understood Naraine to refer to (several) Pakistani associations in this country, and not to a particular one – which was therefore his intention as well.

Having said that, the capital letter “A” in the word “Associations” then became problematic, because if the intention was to point to associations rather than to a specific one, that word should not have been capitalised.

The editor:

·          admitted that this matter could have been misleading, and specifically that it was understandable that the PSA would believe that the finger pointed at itself – which was not the intention; and

·         agreed to clarify this matter and to apologise to the PSA for any inconvenience caused.

‘Pakistan’; ‘the Muslim community’

One sentence in dispute reads, “Infiltrating and coordinating the Muslim community in South Africa who are the prime funders outside of their criminal activities.” (My underlining.)

I stressed that this statement was a generalisation, which had the potential to cause great harm (as Khan has correctly pointed out) – as clearly, all Pakistanis, or Muslims, could not be lumped together.

Potgieter immediately agreed and admitted that this was a mistake on his part – he said he should have been more careful and should have referred to “some radical sections in some Muslim and/or Pakistani communities”, or something to this effect.

He also assured me that he understood how sensitive the situation was and why the PSA was upset by the statement.

Again, the editor assured me that that was not his intention, which I have accepted – not only based on his word, but also on other parts of his reportage where he referred to “certain” Muslim organisations as well as to “certain” Pakistani groups.

Still, the reportage could have created false the impression that all Muslims and Pakistanis in South Africa were in on Sipah-e-Sahaba’s alleged activities in this country.

He accepted that an apology would be appropriate.

Sipah-e-Sahaba; Islamic state

I am not in a position to pronounce on the veracity of these allegations. Suffice to say that I accept that the editor was justified to report these matters, as I have already indicated above.

The headline

The headline is problematic, to say the least.

While Potgieter was justified to publish the content of Naraine’s report, as I have argued above, he did so without any comment – he left it up to the reader to decide for him- or herself - if the source’s statements were true or not.

The writer of the headline, though, took it upon him- or herself -  to declare that the content was in fact true. I do not believe for one moment that that journalist had verified Naraine’s statements before making such a declaration – which has left it without any basis or substance, and which undoubtedly has unduly influenced at least some readers.

As such the headline did not reasonably reflect the content of the reportage (which, unlike the reportage, did not pronounce on the veracity of Naraine’s claims), and it contributed in no uncertain terms to the harm caused by the reportage.

Even though Potgieter did not write the headline, he was the editor at the time and therefore has to take responsibility for that as well.

Hurtful

I can fully understand why the PSA is aggrieved by the reportage. However, while this was hurtful to them, I do not believe that there was any xenophobic intention behind the writing of the article.

Even so, this office should do everything in its power to diminish and even eradicate any such suggestions and perceptions.

Finding

The reference to “Pakistan South Africa Associations” was misleading, even though that was not the intention; the same goes for the generalisations with regard to the Muslim and Pakistani communities in South Africa.

These were in breach of the following sections of the Press Code:

·         1.1: “The media shall take care to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly”; and

·         3.3: “The media shall exercise care and consideration in matters involving dignity and reputation…”

The headline did not reasonably reflect the content of the article, and it unnecessarily contributed to the harm caused by it. As such it was in breach of the following sections of the Code:

·         3.3; and

·         10.1: “Headlines … shall give a reasonable reflection of the contents of the report … in question.”

The rest of the complaint is dismissed.

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 breaches of the Press Code as indicated above are all Tier 2 offences.

Sanction

Lowverlder is directed to apologise to the:

·         PSA for:

o   stating that terrorist groups were coordinating fund-raising for “Pakistan South Africa Associations” – which misleadingly pointed to the PSA (while that was not the intention);

o   declaring in its headline that this was a factual statement; and

o   not exercising care and consideration regarding its dignity and reputation; and

·         Muslim and Pakistani communities in South Africa for:

o   implying that they were involved in fundraising for “terrorist” groups;

o   declaring in its headline that this was a factual statement; and

o   not exercising care and consideration regarding their dignity and reputation.

The newspaper is directed to publish these apologies:

·         at the top of page 5, with a headline containing the words “apology” or “apologises”, and “PSA”; and

·         online (at the top of the page that carries the reportage).

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.

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