The Media Monitoring Project (MMP) and Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa (CorMSA) vs Daily Sun


Wed, Feb 29, 2012

Ruling by Press Ombudsman Joe Thloloe

August 8, 2008
 
This complaint was endorsed by Lawyers for Human Rights, the Agency for Refugee Education, Skills Training and Advocacy (ARESTA) and the Jesuit Refugee Service.
 
Complaint
 
The thrust of the complaint was that Daily Sun:
· Consistently presented foreign nationals in South Africa as “aliens” and as the primary source of all problems;
· Presented government as the institution that has enabled the “aliens” to unfairly take advantage of South Africans and South African resources; and
· Portrayed violence as an understandable and legitimate reaction to this
state of affairs.
 
The complainants argued that by constantly using the term alien and its negative connotations and associations, the Daily Sun was clearly perpetuating negative stereotypes that were racially based and discriminatory.
 
In its written response to the complaint, Daily Sun refuted and rejected the allegations against it “in the strongest possible terms as unfounded”.
 
“To even attempt to apportion any blame to Daily Sun as contributing to the terrible things that happened would have the effect of papering over the real reasons that led to ‘Alien Terror’ and ‘War on aliens’,” the newspaper argued.
 
Analysis
 
The MMP submitted that the stories violated the following clauses in the South African Press Code:
1.1 The press shall be obliged to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly.
1.2 News shall be presented in context and in a balanced manner, without any intentional or negligent departure from the facts whether by:
1.2.1 Distortion, exaggeration or misrepresentation; 
2.1 The press should avoid discriminatory or denigratory references to
people's race, colour, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation or preference, physical or mental disability or illness, or age.
2.2 The press should not refer to a person's race, colour, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation or preference, physical or mental illness in a prejudicial or pejorative context except where it is strictly relevant to the matter reported or adds significantly to readers' understanding of that
matter.
 
3.4 A publication is justified in strongly advocating its own views on controversial topics provided that it treated its readers fairly by…not distorting the facts in text or headlines.
 
The weight of the complaint rests on the use of the word alien in the newspaper’s stories, headlines and graphics.
 
The complainants and the newspaper gave us dictionary meanings of alien. The MMP submitted the following definitions:
 
“In the Oxford English Dictionary, the world “alien” is defined as follows:
“Alien: adj. 1) belonging to a foreign country. 2) unfamiliar or
unacceptable 3) relating to beings from other worlds. N. 1) a foreigner. 2)
a being from another world.”
 
“The online source WordNet (r) 1.7, defines alien as: 
“adj 1: not contained in or deriving from the essential nature of something;
"an economic theory alien to the spirit of capitalism"; "the mysticism so
foreign to the French mind and temper"; "jealousy is foreign to her nature"
[syn: foreign]
2: being or from or characteristic of another place or part of the world;
"alien customs"; "exotic plants in a greenhouse"; "moved to a strange
country" [syn: exotic, strange]
n 1: a person who comes from a foreign country; someone who does not
owe allegiance to your country [syn: foreigner, noncitizen, outlander] [ant:
citizen]
2: anyone who does not belong in the environment in which they are
found [syn: stranger, unknown]
3: a form of life assumed to exist outside the Earth or its atmosphere [syn:
extraterrestrial being, extraterrestrial]
v : arouse hostility or indifference in where there had formerly been love,
affection, or friendliness [syn: estrange, alienate, disaffect]”
 
The MMP argued: “What is clear from the definitions is that the term ‘alien’ is used to refer to something or somebody outside of the centre, something or somebody different to ‘us’. The use of the term on a very basic level serves to locate those who it is applied to as not belonging in South Africa?”
 
The MMP however gets tangled up in a logical knot when it refers at various points in its submission to non-nationals, foreign nationals, non-South Africans, foreigners, non-South African residents, and non-national people.
 
By its own logic it is just as guilty as Daily Sun in creating an “Other”, who does not belong in South Africa.
 
This argument that Daily Sun creates an Other cannot hold.
 
Deon du Plessis, publisher of Daily Sun, argued: “Alien is brief and strong. It fits a newspaper headline. Even foreigner (which has the same meaning) has nine letters to the five letters of alien.
 
“Phrases such as non-national – 11 letters, displaced foreign national – 24 letters, economic migrant – 15 letters are not found in Daily Sun
 
“By the same token township terms such as Makwerekwere and other negative words to describe foreigners are not found in Daily Sun either.”
 
A casual reading of some of the articles that were submitted by MMP shows that the newspaper does use foreigner and alien as synonyms. In the story headlined War Against Aliens! for example, the opening paragraph reads: “A third man has been killed in the war against foreigners in Alexandra…”
 
There is no doubt about which of the meanings of aliens the MMP has advanced applies in the case of the Daily Sun. Alien means foreign.
 
The MMP argued that in Daily Sun the word alien was also weighted with further negative connotations as it was almost always attached to stories about criminality, theft, and most recently the xenophobic attacks: “The
continual reference to ‘aliens’ and their link with some negative, often illegal, act would clearly create sub-conscious concerns if not acrimonious feelings regarding foreign peoples.”  
 
The complainants gave a list of headlines in the newspaper in April and May 2008 as examples of the negative connotations.
 
The MMP conceded that not all the stories were negative but argued: “Even in those cases where the content may be positive, the use of ‘alien’ in titles,
or in the content, undermines or minimises the effect, precisely because it
necessarily shapes and distorts the reading of the articles.”
 
The organisation gave the example of a story headlined SA is hell for alien kids, about the challenges experienced by refugee children. 
 
“It is positive that it was covered, but the use of alien in the headline immediately draws empathy and understanding away from the children who are not ‘us’. “
 
The MMP did not show how this use of alien draws empathy and understanding away. I assume if a person held the same subjective interpretation of the word alien that the MMP has, that person would have as jaundiced a view of the children as the complainants.
 
This argument against the use of alien will also not hold.
 
The foundation of the complaint having collapsed, so must the rest of it. The two other issues raised – that Daily Sun presented government as the institution that has enabled the ‘aliens’ to unfairly take advantage of South Africans and South African resources, and that it portrayed violence as an understandable and legitimate reaction to this state of affairs – have also not been substantiated by the complainants.
 
The newspaper referred us to other publications and the Human Sciences Research Council’s report on the causes of the xenophobia, which all confirm what Daily Sun had been reporting.
 
Finding
 
This office will not entertain the complaint.
 
Leave to appeal
 
Within seven days of receipt of this decision, the complainants may apply for leave to appeal to the chairperson of the Press Appeals Panel, Judge Ralph Zulman, setting out in full the grounds of appeal.
 
Joe Thloloe
August 8, 2008