ANC’s Mantashe suggests the Press Ombudsman is biased. In fact, he’s been rather kind to the government.

July 7, 2010

African National Congress (ANC) secretary-general Gwede Mantashe has resurrected the idea of a statutory tribunal to police the media. According to a report in Business Day, he accused the media of “negativity” in their coverage of the ANC government and said the Press Ombudsman is unable to deal effectively with unethical journalism, which he claimed was “very prevalent”.

I don’t think we have to worry too much about this; a statutory media council would be too gross an infringement of media freeom to pass constitutional muster. Be that as it may, Mantashe should be called to account. What exactly does he mean by “negativity”? Reports about failures of service delivery? About corruption? And can he give examples to support his blanket statement that “self-regulation does not work”? Mantashe states that the current Ombudsman cannot fairly adjudicate complaints against the press because he is a former journalist, making him inherently biased. But is that the case? In fact, the evidence suggests the opposite.

I did a quick analysis of Press Ombudsman rulings over the past three years, and found only five cases in which the ANC, the government or a senior government official submitted a complaint to the Ombudsman. Two of those were upheld, two were partially upheld, and one was dismissed on appeal. Hardly evidence of pro-press bias!

If Mantashe and his party have genuine grievances about press coverage, perhaps they should make use of the Press Ombudsman’s complaints mechanism before declaring that it doesn’t work. They may just be surprised.


Not a great day for freedom of speech…

May 21, 2010

This from Die Burger (via Legalbrief):

Freedom of speech is central to a stand-off between a Cape Town art gallery and a national company which has demanded that one of the artworks be removed. According to a report in Die Burger, Pam Golding Properties has demanded the removal of the artwork ‘Hated Communities’ by Richard Mason. Pam Golding has also sought an undertaking that the Association for Visual Arts gallery will not attempt to sell the piece. The gallery’s director, Kirsty Cockerill, said they will not be censored. The artwork was removed, but replaced with Pam Golding’s letter on the wall. The report says the artwork depicts a notice board resembling some of the attributes in Pam Golding’s logo. It is made out of perspex with a light shining from within. Mason has similar ‘satirical’ artworks focusing on Pick n Pay, BP, Woolworths and Walt Disney. An art reviewer described the work as satire with ‘commercial, political and religious propaganda’. ‘Artists don’t have the time or money to get involved in bitter legal battles with big companies. The companies can bully artists into silence,’ Cockerill said.

Shame on Pam Golding. And shame on the art gellery too,  for caving in after saying they won’t accept censorship. They have the law on their side – remember Justin Nurse and SAB? – so why not take a stand?

More trouble. This from IoL (also via Legalbrief):

An interdict was served late last night against the Mail & Guardian and its editor Nic Dawes after publishing a cartoon by Jonathan Shapiro (Zapiro) depicting Prophet Muhammad, says a report on the IoL site. Dawes said the cartoon depicted Prophet Muhammad lying on a couch speaking to his psychiatrist. ’The cartoon picks up on the Facebook group which encouraged people to send pictures of the Prophet.’ He said when the first newspapers were distributed, he received a call from attorney Yusuf Ismail, stating that further distributions should be halted. ‘At that time I could not stop further distributions, and I would not have,’ said Dawes, according to a report in The Mercury. He said an interdict was then served and handled by Judge Mayat at the Johannesburg High Court last night.

Come on, I thought we were over this! At least I got my M&G in the post box this morning. The Eastern Cape batch must have been on the plane before the interdict was granted.

PS. Mmm. The cartoon is still on the website too. Good on you Nick.

cartoon


McBride defamation judgment is a step backward for press freedom

March 2, 2010

Harvey Tyson, a former editor of The Star, memorably remarked that editing a newspaper during the dark days of the emergency legislation was like “walking blindfold through a minefield”. The job may be slightly easier these days, but the Supreme Court of Appeal’s judgment in Robert McBride’s defamation case against the Citizen illustrates that some of those landmines are still out there. News media had better tread carefully.

McBride, the former Ekurhuleni police chief, won R150 000 in damages, plus most of his legal costs, from the Citizen for calling him a murderer, a criminal and unfit to be appointed as police chief. The ruling sets off alarm bells for several reasons. For one, it is one of the largest-ever damages awards for defamation in South Africa, and together with legal costs would prove crippling to many a news organisation (if not for the Citizen). It is sure to have a chilling effect on future news reporting and commentary. Secondly, in rejecting the Citizen’s appeal against a High Court ruling, the SCA in effect ruled that it is defamatory to refer negatively to the past actions of someone who has been granted amnesty for those actions by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. That could make it very difficult to report and comment on the activities of people who were involved in human rights abuses during apartheid, and received amnesty.

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Improving journalists’ understanding of international criminal justice

February 22, 2010

Should former President Thabo Mbeki be charged with genocide for denying HIV-Aids sufferers access to anti-retroviral drugs?

When Young Communist League leader Buti Manamela made such a call in November last year, it led to weeks of debate in the media, much if it, unfortunately, ill-informed. If journalists understood the law relating to genocide, and the international criminal justice process involved, we would have been spared an ultimately distracting debate: the real question is around accountability for political actions, but that got lost in the emotive war-of-words ignited by the term “genocide”.

Any journalist who looked at the definition of the crime of genocide, as stated in the Rome Statute, which established the International Criminal Court, would have realised immediately that Mbeki’s HIV-Aids policies could not constitute genocide, however much we want to hold him (and his cabinet colleagues) accountable (see below). But how many South African journalists had heard of the Rome Statute, let alone bothered to look it up?

A group of journalists, academics and activists met in Salzburg last week to draft a model curriculum for reporting on international criminal justice issues. The project, supported by the Salzburg Global Seminar, the Open Society Initiative and the International Center for Media and the Public Agenda at the University of Maryland, is aimed at giving journalism students a better understanding of international criminal law, and to help them identify stories and analyze events.

The fruits of their labours – a draft curriculum outline – is available on the group’s website, together with other useful resources. The curriculum is flexible – it can be adapted and fleshed out for different countries and levels of study. Participant academics will devise detailed syllabi and teaching resources, which may be shared on the website and, perhaps, a follow-up meeting later this year.

Genocide, by the way, is defined in the Rome Statute, Article 6, as:

“…any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

a) Killing members of the group;
b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”


What’s with Business Day and the “internet thing”?

February 12, 2010

Business Day is a great newspaper and a must-read for me every day. Strong on news, great on opinion and analysis – but boy, when is it going to move into the digital age?

More than three months ago, editor Peter Bruce announced the newspaper’s new online strategy. But nothing has changed: the website remains a mess. Still having Monday’s column by your editor as the headline piece on your opinion and analysis page on Friday is no good. And if you are going to blog, then the least you should do is post from time to time. After promising readers a daily blog, Bruce last posted on December 13, and some other staff writers seemed to have thrown in the towel after just one attempt. What’s more, there is no information about the writers on their blogs, and the blogs are in now way mainstreamed as part of the newspaper’s offering to readers. It is as if someone decided to tack on staff blogs, and then forgot about them. Shoddy.

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Newspaper bungled story of police ‘incompetence’

February 5, 2010

On Wednesday, Beeld  ran a story about a police reservist who was shot three times by a robber at his Pretoria home, and claimed he had phoned the 10111 police emergency number three times without getting help. Turned out the real reason why the man couldn’t get help was that his girlfriend had phoned the wrong number – not once, but three times, as Beeld somewhat lamely revealed in its follow-up story today. Instead of dialling 10111, she dialled 082 911 and got through to the emergency call centre of her cell phone company.

The initial story made the police look very bad indeed:

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Why President Zuma’s love child is a public issue

February 2, 2010

President Jacob Zuma, married to four wives, has an adulterous affair (not his first), out of which a child is born. Is this a “personal matter”, as the the ANC and the presidency insist, or is it a matter of public interest on which the media have a right – indeed, a duty – to report?

Our common law recognises the public interest as a justification for invasion of privacy, but the concept is notoriously difficult to define.  A distinction is often made between the public interest and that which merely titillates the interest of the public: the public interest is NOT the same as “that which interests the public”. A public interest implies that the public can derive some meaningful benefit from the information published. As a famous jurist stated in an oft-quoted judgment: “Whenever a matter is such as to affect people at large so that they may be legitimately interested in, or concerned at, what is going on; or what may happen to them and others; then it is a matter of public interest.”

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