Request for Adjudicatoion: DA and John Oosthuisen vs EWN


Fri, Dec 3, 2021

Complaint: 9340

Request for adjudication

Date of publication: October 27 2021

Headline: Steenhuisen, DA want to continue legacy of apartheid: independent analyst

Author: Tshidi Madia

Particulars

Ms Elzanne Jonker of Minde, Shapiro & Smith Inc submitted a complaint on behalf of the Democratic Alliance (DA) and its leader, Mr John Steenhuisen, regarding an online article published by Eyewitness News (EWN). It argued that the article was in violation of Clause 1.8 of the Press Code.

1. Summary of text

1.1. The article was based on a debate during which Gareth Cliff reportedly “dismisses racism struggles as unimportant”.

1.2. According to the article, Steenhuisen nodded and smirked during the discussion, which took place a few days before the local government elections on 1 November 2021.

1.3. It further stated that some DA leaders were angered by Steenhuisen’s response, and that the possible damage he caused to the DA’s election campaign would be reviewed after the elections.

1.4. The article quoted independent analyst Asanda Ngoasheng as follows: “John Steenhuisen has shown himself to be somebody who subscribes to right wing thinking if we’re being kind, but just plain old racist thinking if we are being honest.”

1.5. She also said that the DA wanted to perpetuate the legacy of apartheid – “a system wherein white people in South Africa get the best of everything and black people get the worst of everything”.

2. Complaint

2.1. The complainants submitted that EWN was in breach of Clause 1.8 of the Press Code by failing to request comment from the DA and Steenhuisen.

2.2. They argued that, as they were the subject of critical reportage, the journalist was expected to put the “allegation” to them for comment.

2.3. They further submitted that the article caused “severe prejudice” to them in view of the fact that it was published before the local government elections without any comment from them.

2.4. The complainants called on the Press Ombuds office to reprimand EWN and, in addition, requested a retraction of the article and an apology.

3. Public Advocate

3.1. The Public Advocate responded that the Press Code must be read in the context of generally accepted journalistic practices – that there is a difference between a hard news report and a political report.

3.2. He further stated that the views of politicians who are criticised in political reports are not necessarily sought in such reports.

3.3. The Public Advocate stressed that this does not mean that factual errors are condoned. He added, however, that the complainants do not refer to any inaccuracies in the article.

3.4. He also stated that, while he fully appreciated the discomfort of the complainants with the opinions of the analyst, he noted that they remain opinions – “and were reported as such”.

3.5. Accordingly, in his view there was no prima facie breach of the Press Code.

3.6. The Public Advocate therefore declined to accept the complaint.

3.7. In response to this decision, the complainants reiterated their contention that the article was in breach of Clause 1.8 of the Press Code.

3.8. Furthermore, they argued that the journalist presented various statements as facts rather than as her opinions or those of the analyst, and said that she made no attempt to contact Steenhuisen or any other DA official for comment.

3.9. In light of points 3.7 and 3.8, the complainants submitted a request for adjudication.

4. Analysis

4.1. The initial complaint lodged by the complainants concern Clause 1.8 of the Press Code, which requires that comment must be sought from the subject of critical reportage before publication.

4.1.1. When the Public Advocate declined to accept the complaint on 16 November, the complainants acknowledged in their response that “political opinions can be expressed without obtaining comment”.

4.1.2. This acknowledgement concedes – intentionally or otherwise – that the article is not in breach of Clause 1.8 in view of the fact that a response from the complainants is not required in these circumstances.

4.2. However, in their response to the Public Advocate’s decision to decline to accept their complaint, the complainants – for the first time – raised objections to certain statements in the article on the grounds that these are presented as facts and not as opinions, and that the complainants were not approached for their response to these statements.

4.2.1. It should be noted that the Press Code must be read within the broader context of the generally accepted norms and practices of journalism.

4.2.2. While the Press Code requires opinions to be clearly distinguished from facts, this obligation cannot apply equally, and inflexibly, to every possible genre or form of journalism.

4.2.3. Sports reporting, for example, tends to allow journalists far more latitude to incorporate interpretation and comment in their writing.

4.2.4. Political reporting, similarly, lends itself to a more interpretive form of writing.

4.3. The article with which the complainants take issue clearly falls into this category: the statements which the complainants identify are the interpretations of the writer of the article, who is clearly identified in the byline.

4.3.1. Seeking to eliminate interpretation from political reporting would be to attempt to hold journalists and publications technically accountable to the letter – but not necessarily to the spirit – of the Press Code.

4.3.2. This does not mean that the complainants do not have any recourse to register their disagreement or displeasure with interpretive statements. They can employ other measures to do so such as issuing a media statement or submitting a letter to the editor for publication.

Decision

For the reasons outlined above, I therefore decline to adjudicate this complaint.

Appeals procedure

The Complaints Procedure stipulates 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

Tyrone August

Deputy Press Ombudsman

December 3 2021