Sindiswa Mashiloane vs TimesLive


Fri, Jun 3, 2022

Finding: Complaint 9492

Date of publication:  15 April 2022

Headline: I was taught God exists. That is a lie – Here’s why.

Author: Eusebius McKaiser

Particulars

This finding is based on a written complaint by Ms Sindiswa Mashiloane; a written response by Ms Susan Smuts on behalf of TimesLive; and a written reply to TimesLive’s response by Ms Mashiloane as well as 10 screenshots of comments by other readers.

Complaint

Although the complainant only referred explicitly to Section 7 of the Press Code in her complaint, the Public Advocate indicated to the respondent that, by implication, the complainant was also referring to a section of the Preamble quoted below and Section 5 of the Press Code:

“Preamble.

“This means always striving for truth, avoiding unnecessary harm, reflecting a multiplicity of voices in our coverage of events, showing a special concern for children and other vulnerable groups, and exhibiting sensitivity to the cultural customs of their readers and the subjects of their reportage, and acting independently.”

“5. Discrimination and hate speech.

“The media shall:

“5.1. avoid discriminatory or denigratory references to people’s race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth or other status, 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

“5.2 balance their right and duty to report and comment on all matters of legitimate public interest against the obligation not to publish material that amounts to propaganda for war, incitement of imminent violence or hate speech – that is, advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion, and that constitutes incitement to cause harm.”

“7. Protected Comment

“7.1 The media shall be entitled to comment upon or criticise any actions or events of 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, has taken fair account of all material facts that are either true or reasonably true, and is presented in a manner that it appears clearly to be comment.”

I also add Clause 10.1:

“Headlines, captions to pictures and posters shall not mislead the public and shall give a reasonable reflection of the contents of the report or picture in question.”

  1. Summary of article

1.1. The article is an opinion piece which raises various questions about God, with specific reference to Christianity.

1.1.1. It refers to the recent floods in KwaZulu-Natal which caused the deaths of hundreds of people and resulted in “untold suffering”.

1.1.2. Furthermore, on the eve of the Easter weekend, the writer wonders whether his decision to abandon his Catholic faith after high school was indeed correct.

1.1.3. He states that, in view of “the misery around us”, his decision was justified.

1.2. The writer recalls his upbringing in a staunch Catholic family and attending a Catholic primary school. A key tenet of the belief system instilled in him during that time is the notion of a loving God with infinite powers.

1.2.1. However, he states that it does not occur to some adults that children should be taught to think for themselves, and refers to a relative who was distressed when she saw a poster for a previous column which declared that he does not believe that God is special.

1.2.2. He contends that “there is no such thing as a Catholic child, only a child raised by Catholic adults”.

1.3. The writer then returns to the subject of the KwaZulu-Natal floods, and argues that it is logically impossible for these to have occurred if God is indeed “all-loving, all-powerful and all-knowing”.

1.3.1. Over and above the floods, he adds that there is enough evidence in the world to prove that a belief in God is wishful thinking and not based on any evidence.

1.3.2. He dismisses the notion that “free will” causes disasters; he says this may explain “morals evils” such as murder and theft, but not natural disasters.

1.3.3. He goes on to challenge other “defences” offered by believers.

1.4. The writer acknowledges that religious communities can provide important support.

1.4.1. However, he restates his belief that there is insufficient evidence that God exists, and urges readers to think for themselves.

1.4.2. He concludes by stating that a belief in God is not a precondition for being a decent human being.

  1. Arguments

Sindiswa Mashiloane

2.1. The complainant objects to the contents of the article, and submits that it is based on the following premise: “[The Christian] God is responsible for the floods in KZN because [the Christian] God didn’t stop the floods from occurring.”

2.1.1. She says the writer is correct in saying that the floods led to hundreds of people losing their lives. However, she adds, he is the only writer and TimesLive the only publication to publish an article that implies that God is basically responsible for the tragedy and that God is essentially a heartless murderer.

2.1.2. She also questions the timing of the publication of the article – during a religious holiday to celebrate God’s resurrection – and describes it as discriminatory and as amounting to hate speech. She refers to tweets on @TimesLIVE and @Eusebius in support of this contention.

2.2. The complainant objects to the headline, too, and describes it as highly inflammatory.

2.2.1. She further submits that its main purpose was to cause controversy at the beginning of Easter in order to gain online clicks.

2.2.2. In addition, she submits that the headline was “a soft micro aggression against Christians and/or Christianity” during a time when the people of KwaZulu-Natal were in mourning and when Christians were set to begin gathering for Easter.

2.3. The complainant submits that the writer’s description of his Catholic upbringing is merely “a smoke screen” to enable him to express the view that he thinks Christians are delusional.

2.3.1. She goes on to argue that opinions on the LGBTQ+ and Muslim communities are “hyper monitored” and that, if these communities had been the targets of the article in question, it would not have been accepted by TimesLive, society at large or the Press Council.

2.3.2. Why then, she asks, is it acceptable for the writer and TimesLive “to posit that Jesus is the epitome of evil” because there were floods in KwaZulu-Natal. And why, she asks, is it acceptable for the writer and TimesLive to blame the floods on Jesus.

2.4. The complainant denies that the article and the headline are protected by Section 7 of the Press Code, which deals with Protected Comment.

2.4.1. She submits that the headline is inflammatory as well as the comment that “... there is reason to believe God is no more alive than your garden gnome”, especially on a day when Christians were celebrating God’s life.

2.4.2. She further submits that the KwaZulu-Natal floods were of public interest, and argues that the writer and TimesLive used this tragedy as a smokescreen (“costume”) to justify the views contained in it.

2.4.3. She argues that religion may be of public interest, but not a comment in the article such as the following: “It takes a pretty vicious God to stand by and do nothing to intervene in KwaZulu-Natal.”

2.4.4. She also submits that the writer and the publication did not take fair account of all material facts that are either true or reasonably true. In support of her argument, she questions whether the following statement in the article is indeed a fact: “There is insufficient evidence that the God of my Catholic upbringing exists.”

2.5. The respondent further states that there is no notice on the TimesLive “platform” to discourage the posting of prohibited content and that TimesLive does not inform the public that these comments do not necessarily reflect the views of the publication.

2.5.1. She also points out that TimesLive does not encourage users to report content which may violate the provisions of its policy.

2.6. In view of these alleged breaches of the Press Code, the complainant informed the Public Advocate in an email on 19 April that she wants the article to be removed from the TimesLive website.

TimesLive

2.7. The respondent submits that the complaint should be dismissed on the grounds that the column is protected comment. 

2.7.1. TimesLive states that it is unfortunate that the complainant is offended by the content of the article. However, it argues, this is not the yardstick by which fair comment should be measured.

2.8. The respondent further states that the writer is “a well-known columnist who regularly engages on matters of public interest, logic and ethic” and is well known “for taking unambiguous positions on developments in the public domain”.

2.8.1. It adds that the writer serves the public interest well because he provokes “thought and debate around current affairs”.

2.8.2. It believes his column is neither pejorative nor disdainful of the beliefs of others, even though it concedes that the article can certainly be construed as challenging. And while it acknowledges that some of the views are stridently expressed, it does not believe these exceed the limits set by the Press Code.

2.8.3. It submits that the same applies to the headline: it is provocative, but is within the limits set by the Press Code.

2.9. The respondent further contends that the column is a careful explanation of the writer’s reasoning “regarding the existence or otherwise of god, seen through the lens of the tragedy in KwaZulu-Natal”.

2.9.1. It denies that the column claims that God is responsible for the floods in KwaZulu-Natal, and notes that the writer describes them as a natural disaster.

2.9.2. It submits that the purpose in examining God’s role in the suffering that unfolded was not to assign blame for what happened, but to illustrate the writer’s reasoning in arriving at his position of agnosticism.

2.10. Regarding the timing of the publication of the article, the respondent submits that Easter is an appropriate time to reflect on matters of faith, including decisions to question or abandon it.

2.10.1. It therefore does not follow, it says, that either the writer or TimesLive is guilty of micro aggressions or malice against Christians. 

2.10.2. It argues that it is only through robust debate and discussion that thoughts and ideas can be tested. This is one of the main reasons, it submits, why freedom of expression is cherished and comment is protected.

2.10.3. It contends that the column should be seen in this light.

Further arguments

Sindiswa Mashiloane

2.11. The complainant submits that TimesLive’s response does not take into consideration the Preamble of the Press Code.

2.11.1. In particular, she says, the response does not take into account the Preamble’s reference to “exhibiting sensitivity to the cultural customs of their readers” (complainant’s emphasis).

2.12. The complainant also takes issue with the reference to her as essentially being an offended complainant and describes this as “derisive and/or dishonest at best”.

2.12.1. She notes that she read both the article in question and the Press Code, and argues that she refers to the relevant sections in the Press Code in her complaint (in other words,  that she used the Press Code to assess the article).

2.12.2. And she submits that, in terms of the Press Code, an article that implies that religious people are delusional drug users cannot be considered as an exhibition of sensitivity, especially right at the beginning of Easter and right after a natural disaster.

2.12.3. The complainant further asks: “Amongst whom is the article meant to provoke thought and debate, and am I not a part of that very same demographic?”

2.13. The complainant states that TimesLive’s response erroneously presents her complaint as “a censure of thought, debate, ‘challenging’ ideas, and freedom of expression”.

2.13.1. She notes that she fully supports the right of TimesLive and its representatives to debate current affairs by reflecting on matters of faith and testing thoughts and ideas.

2.13.2. However, she argues, there are responsibilities that go along with this right – hence the existence of the Press Code.

2.13.3. She further reiterates her contention that such “reasoning” is only considered protected comment when it involves “inflammatory comments directed (with or without reasonable justification) toward a single demographic in society” (see point 2.3.1. above).

2.13.4. She contends that it appears that, according to TimesLive, the writer’s reasoning in coming to his position of agnosticism through the lens of a recent natural disaster takes precedence over exhibiting sensitivity to the customs of its readers.

2.14. The complainant adds that the content of the tweets of some readers cannot be regarded as “expressions of thought-provoking, robust debate coming from the public as a result of reading this article”.

2.14.1. Based on these tweets, she contends that comments in the article such as “… you should not have swallowed that Ecstasy tablet that night that occasioned the God illusion and delusion” and “… there is reason to believe God is no more alive than your garden gnome” did not lead to “any kind of observable thought and idea testing”.

2.14.2. She adds that the article failed to advance robust debate and discussion, and cites the @TimesLIVE Twitter account as a reflection of “public reader-publication engagement”. She says many readers publicly expressed their “[dis]interest as it relates to the article”.

2.15. In conclusion, she refers to the distress of the writer’s aunt a few years ago when she saw a poster relating to a previous column on a similar topic. She asks why readers are expected not to be similarly distressed by a “stridently expressed” article during Easter and at the height of a tragedy such as the floods in KwaZulu-Natal.

  1. Analysis

3.1. The complainant contends that the TimesLive article is in breach of the Preamble of the Press Code in that it fails to exhibit “sensitivity to the cultural customs of their readers” (her emphasis).

3.1.1. As confirmed by the Press Council’s Appeal Panel in Goss Marlon vs News24 (11 June 2021), these cultural customs include religion: “Culture is a wide concept; religion is an element of culture.”[1]

3.1.2. At the risk of stating the obvious, it should be noted that a preamble is a set of foundational principles. And, more specifically, the Preamble of the Press Code identifies the key ethical principles which inform and guide the work of the Press Council and its Ombuds.

3.1.3. The clauses that follow the Preamble set out, in more precise detail, how these broad principles should be interpreted and applied in practice. The Preamble must therefore be read in conjunction with the relevant clauses in the Press Code.

3.2. The complainant specifically objects to two comments in the article which, she submits, breach the obligation stipulated in the Preamble to be sensitive to the cultural customs of readers.

3.2.1. The first comment to which she objects is the following: “…you should not have swallowed that Ecstasy tablet that night that occasioned the God illusion and delusion”.

3.2.2. The second comment which she cites in this regard is the following sentence: “It doesn’t make sense to hold on to the idea of an all-loving, all-powerful, and all-knowing God if natural disasters, like the KwaZulu-Natal floods, cause such untold suffering.”

3.3. For the reason outlined in point 3.1.3 above, these two sentences will now be discussed in relation to the relevant clauses in Sections 5 and 7 of the Press Code.

3.3.1. Firstly, Clause 5.1 enjoins the media, among other things, to avoid “discriminatory or denigratory references” to people’s religion and, in addition, not to refer to it “in a prejudicial or pejorative context”.

3.3.2. As quoted by the complainant, the partial sentence in point 3.2.1 above comes across as a statement of fact: in other words, it appears to state unambiguously that those who believe in God used a certain drug which led them to draw an incorrect conclusion.

3.3.3. However, the partial quote omits certain preceding words as well as a punctuation mark, and reads as follows in the original: “…how do we rule out the possibility that you should not have swallowed that Ecstasy tablet that night that occasioned the God illusion and delusion?” (my italics)

3. 3.4. The inclusion of the omitted words and the question mark make it clear that the writer is posing a question rather than stating as fact that the use of Ecstasy led to a false belief in God.

3.3.5. While such a question may still be hurtful to the complainant, it nonetheless conveys a far more nuanced and measured meaning than that contained in the partial quote. As such, it is not in breach of Clause 5.1.

3.3.6. And secondly, even though the extended quotation in point 3.3.3 may still cause distress to the complainant, it does not breach Clause 5.2: it does not advocate, implicitly or otherwise, hatred towards Christians nor does it in any way constitute incitement to cause harm.

3.4. The complainant also raises objections to the second comment quoted in point 3.2.2 above.

3.4.1. Whether the view expressed in this sentence is correct or not is immaterial: the writer is entitled to his opinion.[2]

3.4.2. It cannot be characterised as denigatory or pejorative merely because it expresses a view which differs fundamentally from that held by the complainant. Accordingly, it is not in breach of Clause 5.1.

3.4.3. It is also important to note that the writer does not blame God for the KwaZulu-Natal floods (as erroneously claimed by the complainant). He explicitly describes the floods as a natural disaster (see 3.2.2 above).

3.4.4. Secondly, even though the sentence in question may cause distress to members of the Christian community, this in itself does not necessarily prove that the comment is motivated by a desire to inflict harm or advocate hatred.

3.4.5. The writer is, once again, entitled to express his opinion, whether or not it is correct.

3.4.6. As such, the comment cannot be deemed to be in breach of Clause 5.2.

3.5. The complainant objects to the headline on the grounds that it is inflammatory and controversial.

3.5.1. TimesLive acknowledges that the headline is provocative. However, it does not advocate hatred towards any member of the Christian community nor does it contain any incitement to cause harm to any member of that community.

3.5.2. Moreover, the only obligation specifically imposed on headlines by the Press Code is that it must not be misleading and that it must give “a reasonable reflection of the contents of the report …. in question” (my emphasis).

3.5.3. In this regard, the headline complies with the requirement stated in Clause 10.1.

4. The complainant further contends that a number of aspects of the TimesLive article are not protected by Section 7 of the Press Code.

4.1. There are several grounds on which comment or criticism is protected by this Section. These will now each be addressed in turn.

4.2. One of the requirements of both Clauses 7.1 and 7.2 is that the comment in question must involve a matter of public interest.

4.2.1. The complainant acknowledges that the KwaZulu-Natal floods are of public interest (even though she submits that the writer and TimesLive use this event as a smokescreen to justify the views expressed in the article).

4.2.2. She further concedes that religion may also be a matter of public interest (even though she objects to a number of comments in the article on this aspect).

4.2.3. On balance therefore, by the complainant’s own admissions, it is recognised that the article raises matters of legitimate public interest.

4.3. A second requirement of Clause 7.2 is that the comment must be without malice, which is generally understood to be a desire to cause harm (Collins English Dictionary: Millennium Edition).

4.3.1. In this regard, the complainant specifically complains about the comment that “... there is reason to believe God is no more alive than your garden gnome”.

4.3.2. In fact, the full sentence reads: “I suspect, on balance, there is reason to believe God is no more alive than your garden gnome.” This is a far more measured statement than suggested by the partial quotation.

4.3.3. And while this comment may nevertheless be hurtful to members of the Christian community, whether in full or partial, this is insufficient reason to conclude that it is motivated by malice. It is a statement of the writer’s own belief, to which – like the complainant – he is entitled.

4.3.4. And even though the tone in which it is expressed may offend members of the Christian community, this is still not conclusive proof that the comment is motivated by a desire to cause harm.

4.3.5. As the respondent argues, the writer may well have been motivated by no more than a desire to provoke critical thinking about certain beliefs held by members of the Christian community.

4.4. A third requirement of Clause 7.2 is that the comment must take account of “all material facts that are either true or reasonably true”.

4.4.1. The complainant objects, in particular, to the following comment in the article, “There is insufficient evidence that the God of my Catholic upbringing exists,” and asks: “Is that a fact, Press Council?”

4.4.2. The writer and the complainant obviously approach this aspect from two different world-views.

4.4.2.1. On the one hand, the writer relies on logic (in his own words, “reasoned engagement”): he attempts to construct a coherent argument to support his conclusion.

4.4.2.2. On the other hand, the complainant’s world-view is based on her faith, which is defined in the Collins English Dictionary: Millennium Edition as a “strong and unshakeable belief in something, esp. without proof or evidence”.

4.4.2.3. The writer’s views and the complainant’s beliefs are therefore irreconcilable on this aspect: the writer is guided by a belief system which requires evidence; the complainant is guided by a belief system which does not necessarily require independent verification.

4.4.2.4. It is not for the Press Council to make a pronouncement on which belief system is more valid.

4.4.2.5. It is sufficient to restate that the writer is entitled to his opinion – regardless of whether or not it is correct.

4.5. A fourth requirement of Clause 7.2 is that the comment in question must appear in such a way that it is clearly presented as comment.

4.5.1. The complainant does not dispute that the article is clearly presented as comment.

4.5.2. The article features the explanatory label “Ideas” above the headline and the writer is identified as an “analyst” below his byline and picture.

4.6. The article therefore meets all four requirements specified in Clause 7.2 to qualify as Protected Comment.

5. The complainant questions the timing of the publication of the article and views it as insensitive and hence, by implication, in breach of the Preamble of the Press Code.

5.1. On the other hand, the respondent argues that Easter is an appropriate time to reflect on matters of faith.

5.1.1. There is merit in this argument. It is for this very reason, for example, that the weekly newspaper Mail & Guardian publishes “The God edition” each year on the day before Good Friday, which features articles on various aspects of faith.[3]

5.1.2. And it is surely not the intention of the drafters of the Preamble to prescribe to publications when comment on certain subjects is suitable for publication.

5.1.3. Such decisions are best left to the discretion of the publication. To do otherwise would be to intrude on the independence of editorial decision making in the media and, more generally, on the freedom of the media.

5.2. The complainant also questions the timing of the publication of the article in the wake of the KwaZulu-Natal floods.

5.2.1. Here, too, the same considerations apply as stated above in points 5.1.2 and 5.1.3.

  1. Finding

The complaint that the timing of the publication of the article is in breach of the Preamble is dismissed for the reasons identified in points 5.1 to 5.2.1.

The complaint that the article is in breach of the Preamble is discussed in relation to the relevant clauses of the Press Code:

  • The complaint that the article is in breach of Clause 5.1 is dismissed for the reasons identified in points 3.3.2 to 3.3.5 and points 3.4.1 to 3.4.3 of my Analysis.
  • The complaint that the article is in breach of Clause 5.2 is dismissed for the reasons identified in points 3.3.6, 3.4.4 and 3.4.5 of my Analysis.
  • The complaint that the headline is in breach of Clause 10.1 is dismissed for the reasons identified in points 3.5.1 to 3.5.3 of my Analysis.

Over and above this, the article meets all four requirements of Protected Comment in Section 7 of the Press Code.

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

 

Tyrone August

Deputy Press Ombudsman

3 June 2022


[1] See https://presscouncil.org.za/Ruling/View/appeal-hearing-decision-goss-marlon-vs-news24-4555

[2] Deputy Press Ombud Herman Scholtz makes a similar point in another context in Prof Shabir Moosa v SA Jewish Report (7 October 2021): “There is nothing that indicates that [the writer Prof Howard] Sackstein did not express his honestly held opinion, whether it is correct or not.” (See https://presscouncil.org.za/Ruling/View/prof-shabir-moosa-v-sa-jewish-report-sajr-4588)

[3] This year’s edition, subtitled “Searching for Meaning”, was published on 14 April 2022.