Skip to content

SAJR vs the Press Council: When in doubt, blame the victim

Hassen Lorgat says if anything the publication was treated extremely leniently
When in doubt, blame the victim

There has been an unprecedented, seemingly mobilised, assault on the decision of the Press Council of South Africa to expel the South African Jewish Report (SAJR). This assault has come from various people who hold influence in some circles in our society. The arguments, in the main, go like this:

  1. Those who complained are racists, were and have always been;
  2. The cartoon was racist and they will never apologise for this. The editor Ms Peta Krost says that it is an “apology they could never make” (interesting to note, that the grounds for labelling us was the dissemination of the cartoon);
  3. Those who wanted us to apologise, the Press Council, are racist; and
  4. In addition, the Press Council are incompetent (adjudicators and also a bad process).

To justify their attacks, they have put forward as “proof” – not in the hearing but afterwards – racist cartoons, caricatures and have generally shared images that denigrate Jewish people. They hoped, by association, to place the critics of Israel and Zionism in the same basket. As a “last gasp”, they argue that they had indeed resigned whilst all of us were not looking.

I will be dealing with these concerns and conclude that, at all times, these show disdain for the struggle of Palestinians for national liberation and freedom. Since most of the commentators present themselves as those concerned about the universal values of press freedom, communication and human rights, I will end with some reflections on these.

Let me deal with the attacks on the Palestine Solidarity Movement in point form as they appear:

When in doubt – Blame the victims

The main claim of the SAJR is that BDS was antisemitic, racist because of a cartoon shared on the BDS Facebook page. This offensive article was published on the 6 Nov 2020 article by Tali Feinberg entitled: Antisemitic Clover cartoon is BDS’s sour “last gasp.”

I, as a human being and a member of the PSA (a member of the BDS), and the union GIWUSA complained to the Press Council about the contents of the article. We believe that the cartoon was not racist and that, by sharing it, we were not complicit in racism. We argued in the court that the cartoon was shared by a BDS affiliate but was drawn by GIWUSA (not by the BDS, Mr Sackstein).

In “researching” her story, Feinberg sent “questions” to many in the Palestinian solidarity movement, including Ronnie Kasrils and the BNC Omar Barghouti. Barghouti castigated the writer for her biassed assumption, thus:

From the publication of the article in the newspaper, the BDS movement was clear that it was not racist and that indeed it was the SAJR themselves that was guilty of the charge of antisemitism (as argued above by Barghouti). In addition, the BDS argues further, as quoted by Tali, that: “The fact that Clover is majority owned by an Israeli company doesn’t exonerate the company from attacks by the workers’ union. Clover has been accused by GIWUSA of placing the financial burden of COVID-19 on its workers. The SA BDS Coalition and the BDS National Committee [BNC] have a strong stance against any forms of racism and prejudice, and we don’t tolerate any form of antisemitism.”

Similarly, in the article where expert from the South African Jewish Board of Deputies’ David Saks was asked about the cartoon, he was clear that:

“The cartoon itself doesn’t have stereotypical antisemitic features, but the juxtaposing of classic hard leftist, anti-capitalist rhetoric with swipes at ‘apartheid Israel’ is unlikely to have been accidental. It helps confirm suspicions that stereotypes of greedy, exploitative Jews are being used to fuel the radical anti-Israel positions held by the various trade unions.”

In the original complaint, I pointed out that the cartoon is available on the SAJR website, that it was a Giwusa cartoon and it was not racist. I also shared another cartoon drawn and posted on the Giwusa Nelspruit branch:

As I stated then, cartoons have been used by the union movement for decades and it was not the first time that GIWUSA has used cartoons to educate and inform members, concluding that “the Giwusa Nelspruit branch ran this cartoon in 2019, July 9. No one complained about the image, which mocked black bosses.”

Let us move on and analyse a bit further the claim of guilt by dissemination. In the original complaint, I challenged this assertion by using other examples. What remains uncontested is this: if the cartoon is racist and antisemitic, why is it that the SAJR keeps sharing it? They shared it in November 2020 and again on 2 June when the editor wrote her never never ever editorial.

All that could be said here is that our constitutional court in an historic matter ruled, amongst other points, that anti-Zionism is not antisemitic. The human rights organisation Palestine Solidarity Campaign, in their statement entitled “Constitutional Court: Anti-Zionism Is Not Anti-Semitism,” emphasied in their header how the court rule. It can be found here:

All that remains is to tackle the scurrilous attacks against the Press Council by a privileged few. This is not to say that the Press Council is beyond criticism, as we have voiced our displeasure at their ruling against us in the Prof Moosa matter which the SAJR won – the SAJR participated in the matter and replied to our arguments right until the matter was “finalised”. See “Professor of Propaganda” – Author: Howard Sackstein (so called Opinion Article dated 03/06/2021)

When Prof Moosa wrote the reply to the SAJR’s response to his original complaint (Complaint 8974 dated 23 August 2021), through their participation in the process, the SAJR were members of the organisation. As late as October 28, 2021, the SAJR editor was in conversation with the Press Council office on this matter, sending their replies to our complaint until eventually Prof Moosa lost the case. This, I believed, was an incorrect decision, but that is the story for another day. What is clear is that the SAJR were active members as late as this!

The SAJR has been a member of the Press Council of South Africa for 4 years and the rules, the constitution was and remained operational during all that time. They take the victories and diss the sanctions. Sounds familiar?

The rules of the Press Council apply to all members equally without fear or favour. The complaint that the hearing was not in person is dealt within the rules, thus:

Rule 6.4 and its sub points clearly spell out that:

  1. The Press Ombud adjudicates complaints about journalistic ethics and conduct… that cannot be resolved at the earlier level of mediation.
  2. The Press Ombud may decide matters as per the Complaints Procedures on the written representations and submissions of both parties, without hearing evidence.
  3. The Press Ombud may also conduct a hearing, at which he or she may be joined by one press representative and up to two public representatives from the Panel of Adjudicators.

When the dispute arose at no time the SAJR requested or insisted that they preferred – during the height of the Covid pandemic – an in-person or Zoom meeting. But, all things said, the ombud was spot on and adhered to the rules.

All that is left for me to deal with, is the supposed date for lapsing their membership or resignation from the Press Council. The rules are clear from the time they joined and have not been changed for anyone. The editor of the SAJR said she did not know of the rule and I guess the board chairperson either.

The editor in the SAJR Ms Peta Krost wrote last week:

“So, after much consultation and discussion on the part of the SA Jewish Report board, lawyers, and our team, we did the only thing we believed we could do, and that was to resign. This was done at least six months ago.

However, apparently, there’s a clause in the Constitution of the Press Council that I hadn’t read when we signed up that said we had to give at least three year’s notice of our intention to resign from this voluntary organisation. How voluntary is it if you’re locked in for at least three years when you don’t feel you can trust its judgement?”

Can the SAJR have it both ways? It wants to belong to a club only when it is winning and when it has a draw or loses… NO! Change the League! Or we are out!

It was as simple as reading the constitution section 4.c which reads thus:

Subscriber Publications and Subscriber Members

c. Subscriber Publications must give the PCSA at least three years’ notice of their intention to withdraw from the jurisdiction of the PCSA.

If this was done for only the SAJR, that will be discrimination! If one were to treat the SAJR as an equal, the logic goes, it is also discrimination. The rules for joining and resigning too are clearly spelt out. Why did the SAJR board fail to read these obligations when they signed on? Because of this, they failed the SAJR readers and the public.

We are also concerned to learn that the Press Council has been bending over backwards begging the SAJR to apologise for a case that was long ruled upon.

Why this exceptionalism as it relates to the SAJR? When the SAJR threatened to take the ruling on review but did not do so, they should have been expelled there and then. But the Press Council literally had to beg the SAJR to comply with the decision as confirmed in the Council’s aide memoire:

“We made several representations to urge them to comply. We informed them that we were prepared to meet them, but only after they had published the rulings against them. We discussed the issue at our November 2021 and February 2022 Press Council meetings. They were put on terms to publish the rulings within 14 days or face expulsion. Our last letter was sent in March this year and they only responded to us in May, shortly before our Council meeting. It was at this meeting that the Press Council decided to expel them.

We cannot have members refusing to comply with rulings against them. This is not fair to complainants and undermines the integrity of the regulatory processes of the Press Council.”

We have been wronged. If the Jewish Report is a member of an association, they must play by the rules and not be treated differently. We agree with the latest decision of the Press Council, but I think they were very lenient to wait so long. Was the Press Council afraid that by asserting the rules as they have eventually done, they would be accused as antisemitic or racist?

I recall a Harold Wolpe Memorial Trust forum meeting on 18 November 2003 where the issues now on the table were debated. It was entitled Anti-Zionism or anti-Semitism? and featured Jonathon Shapiro (Zapiro) and Milton Shain amongst others. In response to the allegation of double standards and Israel, Zapiro reportedly answered as follows: “With reference to Milton’s argument on “double standards”. Israel may have the distinction of having the highest number of UN resolutions against it, but it is also unique in having never implemented any one of them.”

I hope the SAJR, whether in the Press Council or outside, will have the courage to say SORRY when they are wrong as they are wrong in this case.

Someone will have to write about how long the apology and those who support the rights of Palestinians and one democratic state had to wait for the Labia theatre ruling to be enforced. Nine years?

Concluding remarks:

Many of our detractors that have taken to the media over the past week were well-known journalists or those involved in the printed press and media in general. I am talking here of the likes of Anton Harber, Jeremy Gordan and of course the SAJR’s board chairperson Howard Sackstein, and editor Peta Krost Maunder. I must not exclude the chairperson of the Board and broadcaster at ChaiFM Mr Howard Feldman.

On the Palestinians right to exist in the face of the silence by many, in particular the academics and many intellectuals inside Israel – and I want to add South Africa today, the late Palestinian Intellectual Edward Said wrote:

“Israel is frequently referred to as a democracy. If so, then it is a democracy without a conscience, a country whose soul has been captured by a mania for punishing the weak, a democracy that faithfully mirrors the psychopathic mentality of its ruler, General Sharon, whose sole idea – if that is the right word for it – is to kill, reduce, maim, drive away Palestinians until ‘they break’.

He provides nothing more concrete as a goal for his campaigns, now or in the past, beyond that, and like the garrulous official in Kafka’s story he is most proud of his machine for abusing defenceless Palestinian civilians, all the while monstrously abetted in his grotesque lies by his court advisers and philosophers and generals, as well as by his chorus of faithful American servants.

There is no Palestinian army of occupation, no Palestinian tanks, no soldiers, no helicopter gunships, no artillery, no government to speak of. But there are the ‘terrorists’ and the ‘violence’ that Israel has invented so that its own neuroses can be inscribed on the bodies of Palestinians, without effective protest from the overwhelming majority of Israel’s laggard philosophers, intellectuals, artists, peace activists.

Palestinian schools, libraries and universities have ceased normal functioning for months now: and we still wait for the Western freedom-to-write-groups and the vociferous defenders of academic freedom in America to raise their voices in protest. I have yet to see one academic organisation either in Israel or in the West make a declaration about this profound abrogation of the Palestinian right to knowledge, to learning, to attend school.” (quoted in Pilger J, 2004:600 Tell me No Lies)

What Said wrote about Ariel Sharon (1997-2002), is as applicable to Netanyahu or Naftali Bennet and his ilk today as he posed it then.

The international outcry to the assasination of a Palestinian journalist Shereen Abu Akleh (whom I only learnt recently was a Christian of US-Palestinian nationality) has revealed the nature of the Israeli democracy. She was murdered in early May by an Israel Defence Force sniper under the leadership of the only democracy in the Middle East, when the IDF went on a raid in the West Bank towns including Jenin.

Dena Takruri wrote a tweet on 11 May 2022 thus: “Shireen Abu Akleh’s colleague & eyewitness who was standing right by her described how an Israeli sniper directly targeted her. They were both wearing press jackets & helmets. Shireen was shot near her ear, where the helmet didn’t cover. This was a shot of extreme precision.”

The witnesses and other journalists with the exception of the Israeli prime minister were clear who the real killers were. Naftali Bennet blamed armed Palestinian resistance groups but this could not be sustained and universal condemnation started to grown from the flood into a torrent.

The question I have to these freedom-of-the-press-loving journalists who love the state of Israel, is this: Did you condemn the killing of this journalist? If so, how loudly did you do this and where?

Also, as I write, the number of children and teenagers killed by the IDF since January 2022 sits at 17. Many have been killed by sniper gun attacks. Did any of you condemn such actions to the public? Did you call on the government to stop the killings of journalists and children?

The names and ages of the children who have been killed since January 2022 to 6 May 2022 are the following:

Muhammad Akram Ali Taher Salah (17 years old), Jenin

Nihad Amin Barghouti (19 years old), Ramallah

Muhammad Rizq Shehadeh Salah (14 years old), Bethlehem

Shadi Khaled Negm (18 years old), Jenin

Yamen Nafez Jafal (16 years old), Jerusalem

Karim Jamal Al-Qawasmi (19 years old), Hebron

Nader Haitham Fathi Rayan (17 years old), Nablus

Sanad Muhammad Khalil Abu Attia (17 years), Jenin

Muhammad Hussein Zakarneh (17 years old), Jenin

Qusay Fouad Hamamra (13 years old), Bethlehem

Shawkat Kamal Abed (17 years), Jenin

Hanan Mahmoud Khaddour (18 years old), Jenin

Ahmad Muhammad Lotfi Massad (18 years), Jenin

Mutasem Muhammad Talib Atallah al-Zeer (18 years old), Bethlehem

Thaer Khalil Muslat Al-Yazuri (18 years), Ramallah

Amjad Walid Al-Fayed (17 years old), Jenin

Ghaith Rafiq Yamin (16 years old), Nablus

If you have not spoken out of their killings or remained silent, you must take stock of yourself. The Russian dissident writer and poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko has advice for those who remain silent in the face of such atrocities: “When truth is replaced by silence, the silence is a lie.”

You have chosen your side.

Hassen Lorgat

Hassen Lorgat has worked in trade union movement, civic associations, and anti apartheid sports movement led by the South African Council on Sports (SACOS) as well as NGOs for the past while. He is active with the SA BDS Coalition. He is currently the manager of Policy and Advocacy for the Bench Marks Foundation and writes here in his personal capacity.

Courtesy Politicsweb

Hassen Lorgat