By Rodney Mazinter
In South Africa there are a number of statuary bodies independent of government, officialdom and other outside influences, which determine that the fabric of democracy is kept intact in the daily business of a democratic country. The Press Ombudsman is one, whose role in the print media is to determine whether the actions of a newspaper are in line with good journalistic practice. Complaints regarding the practices of print media can be reported by the general public to the Press Ombudsman, who determines whether a complaint should be brought before the South African Press Council.
The Press Council of South Africa of which all newspapers are members accepts a Press Code that will guide the South African Press Ombudsman and the South African Press Appeals Panel to reach decisions on complaints from the public after publication of the relevant material.
Furthermore, the Press Council of South Africa is constituted as a self-regulatory body with a mechanism to provide impartial, expeditious and cost-effective arbitration to settle complaints arising from this Code.
The powers of the Ombudsman include an ability to censure and fine newspapers found to be in breach of this ethical code.
On 25 October 2012 I believed I had found cause to complain about a story that appeared in the Cape Times headlined Apartheid policies: Israeli poll reveals a ‘sick society’.
My complaint centred around the fact that despite having pointed out to the Cape Times that the newspaper of origin, Ha’aretz, and its journalist, Gideon Levy, had retracted and apologised for an incorrect report, the Cape Times not only refused to do the same, but that it also refused to publish my and other rebuttal letters on its letters page leading the Press Ombudsman to later describe its action as “perpetuating a lie.”
The story, originally written by Catrina Swart of The Independent (in Britain), claimed that a new poll had “revealed that a majority of Israeli Jews believed that the Jewish state practices ‘apartheid’ against Palestinians…” It continued to quote some other statistics, emanating from the poll.
Swart was reporting on an article by Gideon Levy published in the Israeli publication Ha’aretz.
The story read: “A new poll has revealed that a majority of Israeli Jews believe that the Jewish state practices ‘apartheid’ against Palestinians… That many Jews believe that Israel has adopted ‘apartheid’ policies… Nearly 70 percent of those questioned would object to the 2.5 million Palestinians living in the West Bank obtaining the vote if Israel was to annex the Palestinian territory, suggesting that they effectively endorse an apartheid regime.”
Following the publication of Levy’s story, Ha’aretz published a correction the day after stating: “CLARIFICATION: The original headline for this piece, ‘Most Israelis support an apartheid regime in Israel,’ did not accurately reflect the findings of the Dialog poll. The question to which most respondents answered in the negative did not relate to the current situation, but to a hypothetical situation in the future.”
Levy wrote in an added apology: “My sin was to write: ‘The majority doesn’t want Arabs to vote for the Knesset, having Arab neighbours at home or Arab students at school. The truth is different…This article is meant to fix a few mistakes. They shouldn’t have happened; we must acknowledge them, apologise for them and fix them. They were not made intentionally…Now is the time to make things right.”
My complaint was that the Cape Times should have published these corrections.
The Press Ombudsman found inter alia “…its [the Cape Times] intro was materially the same as that of the headline in Ha’aretz (which the latter publication has corrected). The newspaper should therefore do the same; it should also have reported Levy’s own correction. I believe that the Cape Times should have:
- known about the corrections; and
- echoed them.
“The Cape Times is in breach of Art. 1.6 of the Press Code that states: ‘A publication should make amends for publishing information or comment that is found to be inaccurate by printing, promptly and with appropriate prominence, a retraction, correction or explanation.’ This goes for the corrections by Ha’aretz as well as Levy.
“The Cape Times is:
- cautioned for not making the same corrections as that of Ha’aretz and Levy; and
- directed to publish these corrections…”
The Cape Times carried out this instruction and published the Ombudsman’s findings in full on page 7 of its April 19, 2013 edition.
We should be grateful that the position of the SA Press Ombudsman operates effectively as a diligent watchdog over the interests of the general public.
Unfortunately, this did not stop the Cape Times and other newspapers of the Independent group from persevering with their “fake” news and provocative propaganda. Over the intervening years I have had cause to cross swords with its journalists and editors. The consequences have been instructive. One has been that the group no longer subjects itself to the discipline of the Press Ombudsman and thereby frees itself from any responsibility to the truth.
About the author
Rodney Mazinter, a Cape Town-based businessman, writer, poet and author, has held many leadership positions within a wide range of Jewish/South African, sporting, educational, service and communal bodies, and currently serves as vice-chairman of the South African Zionist Federation in the Western Cape.