Marlon Goss vs. News24


Mon, Mar 1, 2021

WARNING: The content of this adjudication may offend sensitive readers

Particulars

Complaint number: 8524

Date of article: 5 February 2021

Headline: Jesus Thesis and Other Critical Fabulations’: The sins Lot’s daughters saved from the ash

Author of text: Akhona Mjwara

Respondent: Prof George Claassen, Internal Ombud: News24

  1. Complaint                                            

1.1 Mr Marlon Goss complains that the author called Jesus “a princely bottom, face serving, cum slut”, which was “offensive” and “directed at Christians”. He says that this was “unnecessary”, adding that the statement in dispute was malicious and that it amounted to hate speech.

1.2 The Public Advocate has indicated that I could ignore the complaint about malice and hate speech as there was no incitement to cause harm. I concur.

  1. Sections of the Press Code

2.1 The Preamble to the Press Code quotes Section 16 of the Bill of Rights in the South African Constitution states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, which includes… freedom of artistic creativity…”; it also commits journalists to “… exhibit sensitivity to the cultural customs of their readers…

2.2 The following sections of the Press Code also need consideration:

  • 5.1: “The media shall avoid discriminatory or denigratory references to people’s … religion … and not refer to such status in a prejudicial or pejorative context – and shall refer to the above only where it is strictly relevant to the matter reported, and if it is in the public interest”; and
  • 7.2: “Comment or criticism is protected even if it is extreme, unjust, unbalanced, exaggerated and prejudiced, as long as it is without malice, is on a matter of public interest … and is presented in a manner that it appears clearly to be comment.”
  1. The text

The text in question is a review by Akhona Mjwara of Kopano Maroga’s book, Jesus Thesis and Other Critical Fabulations.

At the top of the article, immediately below the headline, the following was printed in bold:

  • WARNING: This article contains adult content, strong language and depictions of nudity and acts of sex.
  • Jesus Thesis and Other Critical Fabulations is a provocative debut from performance artist, writer and cultural worker Kopano Maroga.
  • The author immerses themself (sic) in Christian myth, penetrating pews and queering the choir.
  • In this collection, we are invited to make space for the god-loving queer who has been in attendance but has been redacted from the record.

The part of the review which is the subject of this complaint, reads in full: “In The Simpsons, Homer Simpson could barely utter the word Jesus, opting for a move in character ‘Jebus’, lest he be mistaken for a serious Christian. Yet within this ode to queer lives celebrated and mourned, Jesus is named and appears prominently not only as a ‘princely bottom, face serving, cum slut’, but [also] as a recurring author, confidant, and queer affirming mascot.”

  1. The arguments

4.1 News24

4.1.1 Firstly, Prof George Claassen bases his reply to the complaint on the response of the editor of Arts24, Lindokuhle Nkosi (with which, he says, he fully agrees), after which he submits his own interpretation of the review.

4.1.2 He says context is in both instances of critical importance.

4.1.3 Claassen quotes Nkosi as follows (unedited):

“For some time now, queer people have existed as some kind of imagined oppositional force to the Church. This position of course, automatically presumes that for one to live outside of a heternormative lifestyle, must also mean that one lives outside of the faith, doomed to the follies of their own hedonism. This is bigotry.

“One way of quantifying the quality of any produced work is to measure its ability to spark robust debate and conversation. I have noted the complaints forwarded to us with the seriousness and sobriety required. I also note the outpouring of support on social media from Christian Queer people who found themselves affirmed in this work.

“For many years, Queer Theology has provided opportunities for marginalised groups of people to find in the church; spaces to be safe, loved and held by God. Was the church not built, after all, to allow for us to come to God as we are?

“The academic book Kenyan. Christian. Queer, produced by Adriaan van Klinken (Penn State University) details examples showing how LGBTI peoples reclaim visibility and engage Christian beliefs, texts and symbols. Part of this is the transformation and reclamation of words that have been used to demean them.

Jesus Thesis and other critical fabulations imagines Jesus as an ally of the queer community. (Claassen’s emphasis). The Jesus that exists in this work is subject to the joys and harsh realities that queer people face, including the slurs that have been tagged onto them. If you are offended by what you read, it is because you should be. There are people who are forced to live and labour under these tags every day. Perhaps projecting the societal violences imposed upon them onto Jesus can allow for a Christianity imbued with a more radical empathy. 

“It is also to be noted, that it is not difficult to parse from its context that the term ‘cum slut’ (a direct quote from the book Jesus Thesis) is not used as an insult. It is preceded by the words “Princely bottom, face serving”, which are praise words. We can deduce from this that the term was not intended as a slur, in the same way that the word ‘bitch’ can also be used by groups of women in a convivial, friendly manner.

“A careful, unbigoted reading of the review shows that the work is in no way an attack on Christianity, unless the reader were of the opinion that being queer is itself an affront, or a perversion. That is homophobic.

“The words used are strong, controversial and provocative, but do not in themselves amount to hate speech. Nor do they impede on anyone’s right to practise their faith. In fact, the work does the exact opposite, in allowing for queer safety in spaces normally deemed to be violently homophobic.

“Jesus has been imagined as everything conceivable thing under the sun. A popular song in the 90’s asked how we would react if he were ‘a slob like one of us’. Jesus, of Middle Eastern origins, is also routinely depicted as white man with blue eyes and blonde hair.”

4.1.4 Claassen says a clear distinction should always be made between hard news and factual reporting on the one side, and opinion pieces on the other – in line with the Press Code.

4.1.5 He says a review of a work of art such as Maroga’s book of poems should be categorised as an opinion piece. Reviewers of a work of art see the subject of their reviews through different sensual interpretations, mostly influenced by their own background and history, as well as the parameters and definitions of what can be regarded as art (and what not, such as mere popular culture and kitsch), he adds.

4.1.6 “Akhona Mjwara’s review is an opinion piece and the complaint should be evaluated in light of the requirements of the Press Code regarding Protected Comment (section 7)”, Claassen submits.

4.1.7 He submits the words in question should be seen in context – he says they are a direct quote by Mjawara from the book of poems and gives background to Maroga’s theme of being gay in a religiously unfriendly and even hostile world who … even attack and kill people from the LGBTQ community. And where Jesus is the greatest campaigner or prince for all sinners, “waving a contract confirming that all our future sinful acts are absolved”.

4.1.8 He also argues that this work of art of Maroga, and its review, are in light of the denigration of the LGBTQ community – of which there is a host of examples of this happening in South Africa – relevant and in the public interest. “The quote is totally in context and should be judged as such and not in isolation. The Press Code and various judgments of the Press Ombud emphasise that context is important when presenting news. The review does exactly that,” he adds.

4.1.9 Claassen points out that the review was not published for all readers, but only for subscribers (therefore had limited access), and it also came with a clear warning to readers.

4.1.10  He concludes, “To censure a review quoting from a work of art because specific parts of the review are not seen in context of, firstly, the work of art, and, secondly, the review itself, would in my view seriously encroach upon freedom of expression and the protected comment clause of the Press Code. The review was without malice, was in the public interest regarding the position and often hostility from religious communities towards the LGBTQ environment in South Africa and was presented clearly in a manner that it appears to be clearly comment.”

4.2 Goss

4.2.1 Goss replies that the “media in general” have adopted an anti-Christian position.

4.2.2 He says News24, in particular, has on more than one occasion published content by gay authors which attack Christian beliefs while promoting alternate interpretations of what Christians believe is Biblical truth. He argues this is not balanced and fair.

4.2.3 Goss adds that Christianity has become “fair game” and can be attacked without being offered the opportunity to speak the truth.

4.2.4 He labels the “art argument” as “a veil of protection to push an agenda”.

4.2.5 Goss adds:

  • The Bible is clear about its position on homosexuality; and
  • News24 financed “this [one-sided] narrative which … is … designed to only push the LGBTQ agenda. No other opinions or perspectives are needed or invited. The straight Christian community is the majority in South Africa. We should be given the opportunity to respond on matters central to our belief system and paying customers like me deserve to be heard when we take issue with content.”
  1. Analysis

5.1 Firstly, I do not interpret the words “cultural customs” in the Preamble to the Press Code to include religion. That was done in the old South Africa, where the mingling of culture and religion was so intense that it was used to keep people apart – even on “religious” grounds, at that. This is exactly why we now have a secular state.

5.2 If the Press Code wants to specify that journalists have to “… exhibit sensitivity to the religion of their readers… it should say so. Until such time, I prefer to keep the two apart as much as I can.

5.3 My second consideration is that a review of a book is not hard news – it is comment.

5.4 This distinction is significant, as it inter alia means that:

  • Goss’s argument that the text was in breach of Section 5.1 of the Press Code (quoted above) cannot hold water. That section deals with hard news, not with comment. One cannot judge the quality of a cup of coffee by using criterions for a quality cup of tea; and
  • Section 7.2 of the Code is the real relevant one in this instance. It reads, “Comment or criticism is protected even if it is extreme, unjust, unbalanced, exaggerated and prejudiced, as long as it is without malice, is on a matter of public interest … and is presented in a manner that it appears clearly to be comment.”

5.5 Regarding the notion that the reference to Jesus was “not necessary”: Perhaps it was, but even so, this cannot be in breach of the Press Code – there is no provision in the Code that forbids “unnecessary” comment.

5.6 I cannot respond to Goss’s allegation that the “media in general” have adopted an anti-Christian position – I have not conducted a scientific study to come to any such a conclusion. The same goes for his statement that News24 is pushing the LGBTQ agenda.

5.7 It is not true that News24 does not offer Christians the opportunity to speak “the truth”, as Goss alleges – it gives all its readers ample opportunity to have their say. In this instance, some nine comments from readers were published at the bottom of the article – all of which were critical of News24 for publishing the review.

5.8 With regards to what the Bible says about homosexuality: Goss may be clear about what it says, but there are others who interpret those texts differently.

5.9 In conclusion, I fully concur with Claassen’s argument as documented above under Sub-section 4.1.10.

5.10 Ultimately, Section 16 of the Bill of Rights, as quoted in the Preamble to the Press Code, must hold: “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, which includes… freedom of artistic creativity…

5.11 This does not mean that I do not understand Goss’s resentment (if that is the right word) of the use of the words in question. Moreover, I have little doubt that many will share the offence that he has taken so deeply to the words in question. In the end, though, this cannot outweigh the freedom of speech that this country has fought so hard and so long for to achieve.

  1. Finding

The complaint is dismissed.

  1. 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

Acting Press Ombud