Mail & Guardian wins victory for press freedom

May 21, 2010

Mr Justice Mayat turned down an application for an interdict to muzzle the Mail & Guardian. The application was brought late last night by a Muslim organisation when it learnt the newspaper was publishing a cartoon depicting the Prophet Muhammad (see my previous post on this). As a judge and Muslim, Judge Mayat said, he was bound by the Constitution (see M&G editor Nick Dawes’  Twitter feed). Good decision by a principled judge.


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.


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.

Read the rest of this entry »

E-tv manufactured, not reported, the news in World Cup crime story

January 19, 2010

Back in the apartheid era, it was not uncommon for journalists to be subpoenaed to reveal the identity of confidential sources. This was usually done at the behest of the security police, who wanted to get their hands on the identities and whereabouts of political activists. Several journalists, to their eternal credit, served time in jail for refusing to comply with a dreaded “Section 205” subpoena. Since 1994, however, “Section 205” subpoenas against journalists – so called because they are served in terms of Section 205 of the Criminal Procedure Act – have become rare. It came as a surprise, therefore, when two e-tv journalists were subpoenaed this week to reveal the identity of two thugs they had interviewed for a programme on crime and the Soccer World Cup.

According to Business Day, reporter Mpho Lakaje’s story, aired last Friday, featured interviews with two criminals. One said he would rob tourists during the World Cup. Another said he would shoot his way out of a standoff with police if he felt his life was in danger. Lakaje and news editor Ben Said have been subpoenaed to appear in court next week unless they voluntarily surrender the identity and contact details of the interviewees, original footage, and details regarding the firearms featured in the story.

Legally, e-tv doesn’t have a leg to stand on. Section 205 gives a judge or magistrate, upon the request of the prosecuting authority, the power to order any person who may have Read the rest of this entry »

Fewer people are dying in South Africa. Why is that not front page news?

November 16, 2009

The media are missing the real story behind South Africa’s death statistics.

The Sunday Times reported yesterday that the Health Ministry was rechecking its figures after announcing that South Africa suffered a death toll last year of 756 000, a third more than the previous year. The sudden increase in deaths was, predictably, attributed to Aids.

Academics and scientists have since questioned the figure, saying such surge in deaths – equivalent to the destruction wreaked by the atomic bomb in Hiroshima – was highly unlikely. Someone, it seems, may have transposed the 5 and the 7. Kudos to the Sunday Times for exposing the error.

But buried deep inside the Sunday Times’ story are figures which, to my mind, represent a much more important story: South Africa’s death rate is actually declining. According to Read the rest of this entry »

The Times’ flip-flop on Jonathan Jansen

October 26, 2009

When Jonathan Jansen, newly appointed Vice-Chancellor at the University of the Free State, announced that he was dropping disciplinary charges against four students who had made a racist and demeaning video of university cleaners, his decision was hailed by The Times as “breathtakingly brave”. In an editorial published on October 19, the newspaper went on to say that the gesture “might be just the tonic needed by the still-divided university”.

Exactly one week later – a week in which Jansen faced a torrent of criticism from student organisations, trade unions and the government, forcing him to reconsider – The Times has changed its tune. The newspaper’s editorial today labels the decision a “mistake”, and criticises Jansen for not consulting widely enough or insisting thast the perpetrators apologise to their victims. Jansen’s decision to reopen discussions on the pardon, The Times opines, is a “positive step”, which “might lead to the kind of dialogue at the university that would result in genuine reconciliation.”

Why the about-turn? How did a decision that was lauded one week as  a “tonic” suddenly become a “mistake”, incapable of producing “genuine” reconciliation at the racially divided university? Was The Times simply bowing to the winds of public opinion?

The Times’ sister newspaper, the Sunday Times, didn’t do much better.

In an editorial headlined “Jansen needs to admit his error“, the newspaper on Sunday described the decision to drop disciplinary charges against the students as akin to “sprinkl(ing) chilli into the wounds of the women who had fallen victim to racist boys who dehumanised them by making them consume foodstuffs that they had urinated into”. Fair enough. The Sunday Times has the right to take a stance on this issue, and express it in the strongest possible terms. But it goes on to say:

It is hard to fathom what was going on in Jansen’s mind when he unilaterally decided to drop charges against the four students who meted out racist and shameful treatment that shook the country. It is even more difficult to figure out why he chose the occasion of his inauguration to announce this ill-informed decision.

We would have expected Jansen to know better that any true reconciliation should be preceded by an expression of remorse on the part of the perpetrator. That ethos is the blue print of our much-vaunted Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

There is so much that is wrong with those three paragraphs that I hardly know where to start. Difficult to fathom what Jansen was thinking? Not if you bothered to read his inaugural lecture, in which he went to great lengths to explain his motivations. You may disagree with his nuanced argument that racism should not be reduced to “individual pathologies” – that kicking the four students off campus won’t change the institutional culture – but simply ignoring it does not serve the debate.

And since when is remorse a precondition for “true” reconciliation? Not only did the Sunday Times’s leader writer not read Jansen’s address, he also hadn’t read what he calls the “blue print” for our Truth and Reconciliation Commission (the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Act). If he had, he would have known that remorse was not a requirement for amnesty in the Truth And Reconciliation process. Full disclosure was the only requirement. 

In the Free State University case, disclosure has been made and the students have apologised to the university. They are facing criminal charges – which Jansen hasn’t squashed, and cannot even if he wanted to – and apologising publicly to the victims at this stage would amount to an admission of guilt, which, according to their legal representatives, is why they aren’t prepared to do so at this stage. Again, you may disagree with the reasoning, but it should at least be explained to your readers. The editorial makes no effort to plumb the complexities of the issue.

Newspapers are in the business of printing news. But that is only part of what they do. They also provide entertainment, information such as television schedules, and, yes, opinion. In their editorial columns, newspapers state their position on important matters. If they read them at all, readers look to these editorials to guide and inform their own thoughts. It follows that newspaper editorials should at least be well-informed and logically argued. Newspapers, if they want to be taken seriously, should be opinion leaders, not followers.

As opinion leaders, newspaper have an immesely powerful role in society. But if they squander their readers’ respect, the lose the ability to inform and influence.

The Sunday Times’ editorial does not contribute to the debate about Jansen’s actions. It simply climbs on the bandwagon with the most simplistic of Jansen’s critics. Its readers surely deserve better.

Is this Business Day’s best?

October 22, 2009

In my previous post, I said that Business Day “regurgitated” Anglo American’s statement on the company’s far-reaching restructuring, which included axing two senior South African executives. Turns out I was being charitable to Business Day. The story on Business Day Online was in fact the statement from Anglo American, verbatim. The “story” was still on the website at 11:30pm.

In the meantime, competitors such as and Bloomberg News have killed the story. There will be nothing left for Business Day’s print edition tomorrow.

If this is the best Business Day, South Africa’s premier business daily,  could do on a story of great importance for South Africa, the newspaper has to start thinking seriously about its online presence.