University of Pretoria vs. The Citizen


Mon, Aug 7, 2017

Ruling by the Press Ombud

7 August 2017

This ruling is based on the written submissions of Mr Cyprian Khumalo, legal advisor of EOH Legal Services, on behalf of the University of Pretoria (UP), and those of Martin Czernowalow, news editor of The Citizen newspaper.

The UP is complaining about a story in The Citizen of 17 May 2017, headlined Shockingly derogatory placards insulting women cause outrage at Tuks.

Complaint                                            

The UP complains that the comments it provided in response to the journalist’s enquiries were not reported, while one comment was incorrectly quoted.

UP spokesperson Rikus Delport concludes that this “deceptive and misinformed” reporting deliberately portrayed the university in a negative manner.

In later correspondence, Khumalo indicates that the university does not want a follow-up story to rectify this matter; instead, he asks for an apology that its response was not published.

The text

The story, written by Virginia Keppler, said that UP students were stunned and outraged at derogatory and insulting placards that had been showcased during the previous night’s Serrie 2017 Finals, hours after a group of woman students protested topless against rape and sexual harassment on campus.

About a hundred students reportedly complained that several students had been raped in the past nine months, and that another had been sexually harassed over the weekend.

The journalist also quoted Delport as saying that the UP was not aware that a memorandum had been handed over to it, but stated that management had engaged with students last year to improve awareness as part of a campaign against sexual violence. The campaign would be repeated this year.

The Citizen responds

Referring to stories published after the one in dispute, Czernowalow denies that the reporter ignored relevant comments from the UP. He argues, “Virginia … feels she has reported professionally, and I see no reason to disagree with her.”

Analysis

Responses adequately reflected?

To ascertain the extent to which the reportage adequately reflected the UP’s response, I am presenting each question with its response (both unedited), followed by what was reported in the articles published on May 17 (headlined, Shockingly derogatory placards insulting women cause outrage at Tuks), and in a follow-up story the next day (headlined, UP to take disciplinary measures against picketers who displayed ‘insulting’ messages).

I motivate below why I am including the second story in this exercise.

Q: “Students complained that the university is doing nothing about the rapes and sexual harassment on campus; they claim: 7 females has been raped in the past 9 months.”

R: “The University has provided support to all students who have reported rape. We are aware of about three cases. However, in some instances the survivors have declined to involve the police.”

May 18: “The university has provided support to all students who have reported rape. We are aware of about three cases, however, [where] in some instances, the survivors have declined to involve the police.”

Q: “According to Lolla Ngobeni, a woman standing against women abuse in campus said last year they had symposium after their “Are We Safe” campaign and that there was a memorandum which they agreed to sign and said they would redraft the sexual harassment policy and rape policy but nothing was done.”

R: “The policy is currently under review and inputs received from the #SpeakOutUP campaign have been included. We did engage with students last year to improve awareness as part of our ongoing campaign against sexual violence which is being repeated this year. Students can report any incident of sexual violence to any UP staff member. In addition, the University has also implemented changes to the reporting procedure which include: the introduction of three sexual harassment officials; and the establishment of the UP Careline which offers students support in instances of trauma associated with sexual violence, sexual harassment and rape. The Careline number is 0800 747 747.”

May 17: UP spokesperson Rikus Delport said they were not aware a memorandum had been handed over to the university, but that management had engaged with students last year to improve awareness as part of a campaign against sexual violence, and it would be repeated this year.”

and

May 18: “Delport said the university’s sexual harassment and rape policy was currently under review and inputs received from the #SpeakOutUP campaign have been included.We did engage with students last year to improve awareness as part of our ongoing campaign against sexual violence, which is being repeated this year.He said students could report incidents of sexual violence to any UP staff member. The university has introduced three sexual harassment officials and established the UP Careline, 0800-747-747, which offers students support in instances of trauma associated with rape and sexual violence.”

Q: “Students said sometimes they do not report cases because they are scared to go to the admin building which is always heavily guarded.”

R: “Campus Security is employed to ensure the safety of all students, however, students can also call the Careline for assistance and support. We want to encourage students to come forward so that we can offer them support and deal with incidents appropriately.”

May 18: “He said students could report incidents of sexual violence to any UP staff member. ‘The university has introduced three sexual harassment officials and established the UP Careline, 0800-747-747, which offers students support in instances of trauma associated with rape and sexual violence’.”

Q: “Second, there is a huge outcry from students, both male and female, at the University of Pretoria regarding “derogatory” and “insulting” placards yesterday during the Serrie 2017 event (Serrie 2017 Finals 18:30 - 23:45 Rembrandt Hall, UP Sports Campus). My understanding is that the Serrie is an annual cultural event and any student can take part in it. Please help me with the correct information if I am wrong about Serrie. I have attached the pictures that was taken yesterday during the vent to this email. I also send you an WhatsApp message this morning with a link about what transpired last night. Students said they find it highly degrading, insulting to all the victims of rape and sexual offences. Students said they have already met with a representative to take the matter to management and they also requested a meeting to have a discussion on the way forward on how to deal with sensitive issues and not have other students make a mockery out of it.”

R: “The University is very disappointed in the behaviour of a few students. We will institute disciplinary procedures against those who participated. We condemn any and all derogatory and offensive behaviour against women in the strongest possible terms. The university is currently looking into the matter and will act against anyone found guilty of offensive behaviour against women.”

 

May 18: “UP spokesperson said they condemned any and all derogatory and offensive behaviour against women. The University of Pretoria will institute disciplinary procedures against students who held up placards with ‘derogatory’ and ‘insulting’ messages aimed at women during the Serrie 2017 singing and dancing finals on Tuesday night. UP spokesperson Rikus Delport said: ‘We condemn any and all derogatory and offensive behaviour against women in the strongest possible terms. The university is currently looking into the matter and will act against anyone found guilty of offensive behaviour against women’.”

Conclusions

The story of May 17, which this complaint is about, did not fully reflect the university’s responses to Keppler’s questions – in fact, it contained only one reference to those. This shows that the journalist did receive the UP’s response in time, prior to her deadline.

This sketchy coverage is hard to understand – the story was published online, and if there still was a problem with space, the newspaper could easily have linked the UP’s full response to the story. If this story recorded that the university’s response would be published the next day, I would have made out an argument that it was not in breach of the Code for not adequately reflecting its responses.

I could find no such reference.

I have looked at the May 18 story as well because it is important not to read stories in isolation. In a similar finding, also involving the UP and The Citizen, I have explained why. I am repeating that argument here, for the sake of convenience:

In this regard, Constitutional Court Judge Edwin Cameron stated as follows in the case of The Citizen 1978 (Pty) Ltd and Others v Robert John McBride, Case No CCT 23/10 (judgment on 8 April 2011):

Par 94: “[it] seems to me to be wrong to assume that newspaper readers read articles in isolation. This is particularly so when they read editorial comment or columnists commenting on current affairs. It is likely that, in assessing comment, readers will bring to mind recent news coverage of the events in issue. Here, the articles attacking Mr McBride’s candidacy were closely linked in time (seven weeks), and theme (police chief of big metro) to a current controversy (Mr McBride’s suitability for appointment). It would be unrealistic to conclude that readers who read the first Williams article (18 September), or the front page report (22 September), or the Kenny article (21 October), or the second Williams article (22 October), would not have known, and held in mind, that he had committed the bombing as part of the struggle against apartheid, and that he received amnesty for it.”

and

Par 95: “This conclusion accords with decisions of the European Court of Human Rights to the effect that a publication alleged to be defamatory must be assessed in relation to the coverage as a whole. Considering the Citizen’s coverage as a whole also accords with the decision of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom in Spiller. There the Court loosened the requirements for including facts underlying comment. The Court held that the comment need only “explicitly or implicitly indicate, at least in general terms, the facts on which it is based.”

The importance of context, indeed.

However, there is one big difference between this verdict and the complaint at hand – the Court dealt with text on matters previously reported, while this complaint is about text which was supplemented at a later stage.

Still, context is the common denominator in the two cases.

While this difference, and similarity, will be reflected both in my finding and sanction, or in the lack thereof, let me clarify upfront: Text referring to previously published news reports may be interpreted in that light (and therefore may satisfy the Code of Ethics and Conduct – depending, of course, on other relevant factors); while text which was (first) in breach of the Code, but was supplemented at a later stage, still remains in breach of the Code – even though the later text(s) may have rectified matters.


From all of the above, I am concluding that The Citizen did not include the UP’s comments in the story which is in dispute – but that it had done so adequately and fairly in the follow-up article which appeared the next day.

Finding

The story of May 17 was in breach of the following sections of the Code of Ethics and Conduct:

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

·         1.8: “The media shall seek the views of the subject of critical reportage in advance of publication …”; and

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

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 Code of Ethics and Conduct as indicated above are all Tier 2 offences.

Sanction

Because The Citizen has already effectively corrected the matter, and there is a reasonable expectation that readers would have interpreted the follow-up story on May 11 (and others) in the same context, there is no sanction.

I leave it to the editor to take the matter of Keppler’s story further, if necessary.

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