Tue, Oct 14, 2014

Ruling by the Press Ombudsman

14 October 2014

This ruling is based on the written submissions of Mr Abdul Khalek Mia and Ms Abigail Oliver, legal counsel for Independent Newspapers.

Complaint

Mia is complaining about an article published on page 2 in The Star newspaper of 21 July 2014, headlined Fake designer clothes factory raided in CBD – R30m worth of goods seized by cops.

He says the sentence, “there is a mosque on the 10th floor” is biased towards Muslims and an insult to their integrity.

Analysis

The story, written by Angelique Serrao, said that a multimillion-rand counterfeit clothing factory was uncovered in an 11-storey building in the Johannesburg CBD. During a raid, police reportedly found more than 1 000 hawkers who buy and sell the goods. Serrao wrote that the factories and storerooms for fake goods were concentrated “from the seventh to the 11th floor. There is a mosque on the 10th floor”.

Mia asks why the newspaper deemed it necessary to mention the mosque when the article dealt with fake goods found by the police – any reader “cannot be blamed for believing that it must be Muslims…who were the possessors of the fake goods”.

In his view the mosque should not have been mentioned, even if the goods were found in the possession of Muslims.

Mia concludes: “The reference to the mosque is a subliminally gratuitous highlighting of the criminality and/or criminal disposition of Muslims and the message from the reference to the mosque is clear: these Muslims have mosques or frequent mosques but are [instead] criminals hypocritically observing and following the demands of their faith namely honesty and integrity when they are no more than criminals. The report is clearly biased against Muslims and their integrity.”

Oliver says the statement in question is descriptive of the locale of the illegal clothing factory and the fact that there is a mosque on the tenth floor merely means that the factory does not run all the way from the seventh to the eleventh floor. She argues that the story does not mention the mosque again, neither is it mentioned in the headline, subheading or caption – “which points toward the paper’s contention that there was no malice involved”.

She apologises if Mia received the “wrong impression” of the line; “however if read in context the meaning will become clearer”. She emphasizes that The Star does not support any sort of hate speech against religions or race. She also offers Mia a chance to have a “constructive discussion” about this issue.

Mia rejected this offer.

My considerations

Firstly, the fact that a statement is accurate does not in itself guarantee adherence to the Press Code. Several publications have argued of late that they adhered to the Code on the mere basis that the statement in question was correct.

That is not the case by default, though, as I have decided on several occasions – the Code also requires that the correct context (which is as important as text) should be portrayed, as well as that the reportage should be fair.

For example:

A certain councilor had been implicated in a case of corruption. Following an enquiry, a commission largely exonerated this man. A few months later, a similar case emerged. The newspaper then referred to the first instance, stating that the same man had previously been implicated in a corruption scandal.

Now, that statement in itself was correct/accurate. However, by raking up only this fact, but neglecting to also state that he had been found not guilty, an entirely different (and inaccurate/unfair) context – and therefore impression – was created.

I found in this instance that since the newspaper had mentioned the history, it should also have published the outcome of that matter (read: not guilty). Having not done so, this resulted in the wrong context (in the second story), which resulted in unfair reportage.

Applying this principle to the case at hand, I note the fact that the mosque was on the 10th floor is not in dispute, neither is the fact that the counterfeit operation was uncovered between floors 7 and 11. The issue, therefore, is not whether the statement was accurate (because it was). The real question is whether the context was correct – if not, it inevitably would result in misleading and unfair reporting.

Secondly, if Muslims were involved in the scam, the public indeed had the right to know about it – every religion on earth (no matter which one) lays claim to some sort of morality, normally including honesty and integrity.  So, if Muslims did transgress their own morality, the newspaper had a duty to expose them in the public interest. In this matter I therefore disagree with Mia.

However, by The Star’s own argument it was not the reporter’s intention to put the blame for the scam on Muslims.

That being the case, then, the question is why the reference to a mosque was necessary in the context of the story. The crux of the matter is whether or not it is reasonable to conclude that the sentence in dispute might have created the impression that Muslims were involved in the scam (an impression that The Star did not want to create).

 

Section 5.1 of the Code is relevant in this case. It reads: “Except where it is strictly relevant to the matter reported and it is in the public interest to do so, the press shall avoid discriminatory or denigratory references to people’s…religion…”

So, here are the issues:

  • Oliver’s argument (the statement in question merely portrayed the fact that the factory did not run all the way from the seventh to the eleventh floor) is not convincing – if that was the intention, Serrao could and should have stated it as such;
  • This omission opened up the suggestion that Muslims might have been involved, and even that the mosque might have been used for purposes other than for religion; and
  • The particular way in which the reporter worded the phrase in dispute reinforces the above. She wrote that the concentration of factories and storerooms for fake goods were found “from the seventh to the 11th floor” (my emphasis). To the ordinary reader this could probably have meant only one thing – the factory involved floors seven, eight, nine, ten and eleven…

This leaves me with the conclusion that the reference to the mosque was denigratory (even though the newspaper denies that this was its intention), that the reference in question was not “strictly relevant” to the crux of the story (it was uncalled for and unnecessary), and that it was not in the public interest to report the fact that there was a mosque on the 10th floor.

In other words: Even though the reference to the mosque was accurate, the wrong context was created – which could reasonably have led to a wrong impression. To my mind, this was unfair and has caused the Muslim community some unnecessary harm.

This means Oliver’s statement that, when read in context “the meaning will become clearer” in fact should be reversed – when read in context, the suggestion that Muslims were involved in the scam, and even that the mosque was used for the purpose of unlawful conduct, hangs in the air.

Lastly, Oliver denies that the story amounted to hate speech. However, Mia did not complain about hate speech – and neither do I think that the story came anywhere close to that. Both Section 16 of South Africa’s Bill of Rights and the Press Code define hate speech as propaganda for war, incitement to imminent violence and advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion, and that constitutes incitement to cause harm.

I also fully accept that The Star does not support any sort of hate speech – if it did, it would have exceeded the boundaries of freedom of expression as set out in Section 16 of the Bill of Rights, as well as in the Press Code.

Finding

The sentence is in breach of Section 5.1 of the Press Code.

Sanction

The Star is directed to apologise on page 2 to Mia in particular and to the Muslim community in general for creating a context that could unfairly imply that Muslims, using a mosque, may have been involved in a scheme to sell counterfeit goods, and for the unnecessary harm this has caused this particular Muslim community.

The text should be forwarded to this office prior to publication, and should conclude with the words: “Visit www.presscouncil.org.za for the full finding.”

Appeal

Our 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 Adjudication Panel, Judge Bernard Ngoepe, fully setting out the grounds of appeal. He can be contacted at Khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.

Johan Retief

Press Ombudsman

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