In a ruling by the Press Ombudsman on Friday, it was revealed that an article published in City Press and subsequently quoted by other news titles, including The Citizen, was misleading.
Black First Land First’s president, Andile Mngxitama, and Njabulo Sithebe complained that the Sunday newspaper had “incorrectly and misleadingly quoted Prof Chris Malikane, and adviser to the Minister of Finance, Mr Malusi Gigaba, as saying that if the Constitution could not be changed, ‘to achieve what we want to achieve, we need to go that route [take up arms]…’; and did not reflect the fact that Malikane was responding to a question, and that this issue was not a part of his speech.”
Mngxitama also complained that “it was shocking to see how the white-owned media ‘blatantly’ lied about what was said”.
The ruling by the ombud, Johan Retief, went on to say that the article, “written by Msindisi Fengu, said Malikane had warned South Africans to be prepared for the worst if radical economic transformation was to succeed”.
“He was speaking at Blacks in Dialogue [event], which was organised by the BLF movement.
“Malikane reportedly reiterated his call for a new economic policy and for an amendment to the Constitution to nationalise key sectors of the economy.
“He was inter alia quoted as saying, ‘We need a two-thirds majority to change the Constitution. Otherwise, to achieve what we want to achieve, we need to go that route [take up arms]. Let’s try two-thirds. I don’t like war.’
“A decision to take up arms, he reportedly said, would have to be discussed and could not be a decision taken by an individual.”
After considering the argument by City Press that they had added text in square brackets when quoting Malikane for the purpose of clarity because Malikane was responding to a question about taking up arms, Retief ruled that this had been unintentionally misleading on the paper’s part.
“I have listened to the relevant part of Malikane’s speech – Mngxitama is correct, the professor did not propagate the taking up of arms, and I note that neither did [City Press executive editor Dumisane] Lubisi argue that he did do so.
“The issue is quite simple: Lubisi says the newspaper did not want to portray the message that Malikane was contemplating taking up arms as an option – therefore, I merely need to decide whether the story could reasonably have portrayed the message which City Press did not want to portray.
“The fact that Malikane did not dismiss the possibility of taking up arms either (he said that was a matter to be discussed, even though he did not like the idea) is therefore irrelevant as far as this adjudication is concerned.
“Like some publications, my first impression was indeed that Malikane was in favour of taking up arms to solve the land issue if democratic processes failed; this impression remained when reading the text again.
“I also note that the journalist used square brackets more than once (in the same story) – in which he clearly elaborated on what the speaker himself, and not what somebody else, had said. This, of course, has contributed to the confusion.
“Unlike Mngxitama, I am not willing to accept that City Press deliberately tried to misrepresent Malikane’s words; I simply do not have enough evidence to substantiate such a serious allegation.
“However, talking about serious: The (wrong) impression created by Fengu’s reportage is indeed extremely (I do not often use adjectives and adverbs) serious – an option (taking up arms) which reasonable citizens surely would want to avoid at all costs.
“Of course the media should report it if a person in Malikane’s position propagates violence as a means to an end – that goes without saying. But the last thing this country, including the media, needs, is for someone to needlessly fuel the already volatile climate in this young democracy – not to speak of the tag which Malikane might be carrying with him for who knows how long, without justification. His reputation was at stake, was it not?
He found that: “The impression that Malikane favoured the taking up of arms to solve the land reform issue misrepresented him, was unfair to him, and unnecessarily associated him with a position which, if taken to implementation, would have consequences too ghastly to contemplate.”
City Press and its partner website News24 were directed to “apologise, unreservedly, to Malikane in particular and to the public in general, for misleadingly and unfairly creating the impression that Malikane favoured the taking up of arms to solve the land reform issue”.
The paper has the right to appeal.