Ombudsman Johan Retief, in a ruling released on Monday, said the Democratic Alliance’s complaint was about a story published on April 20 headlined “DA digs in amid Twitter race war”.
The Democratic Alliance’s communications head Gavin Davis complained that the headline and several statements about the party and leader Helen Zille were incorrect and misleading.
“The story, written by Shanti Aboobaker, said that, as political parties ratchet up their election rhetoric, supporters of Zille have taken to twitter to liken ANC politicians to the Nazis,” said Retief.
Aboobaker mentioned a tweet by the user @Blow_Back_Time, who addressed a message to Zille and Davis saying: “This [Adolf Hitler] is the real face of Gwede Mantashe”.
The tweet contained a picture of Nazi leader Hitler, complete with a swastika band, next to African National Congress secretary general Gwede Mantashe. A swastika had been photo-shopped onto the lapel of his jacket.
The journalist wrote in the story that although the comments violated the Electoral Code of Conduct and skirted the boundaries of hate speech, the DA refused to condemn or distance Zille from them.
Aboobaker added that Zille and Davis “seemed to see nothing wrong with likening a black South African politician to a genocidal white supremacist, and refused to condemn the tweet despite a storm of protests from many of their own followers”.
Aboobaker continued that Zille seemed to encourage the tweeter by calling the message “ironic” because she said the ANC called her Hitler or a Nazi. The journalist said Zille produced no evidence to support her claim.
Davis complained the entire story had been concocted by resorting to exaggeration and omission.
“Overall, the net effect of these inaccuracies is that the reader is left with the impression that the DA condones racism and Nazism. Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said.
Sunday Independent executive editor Janet Smith said she disagreed that the story effectively accused the DA of Nazism.
“Our story grew out of a debate which our reporter followed which played out on a public twitter feed. Miss Aboobaker is our designated reporter to follow the DA throughout its campaign.”
Smith added that the story only showed that Zille and her party had themselves attempted to liken the ANC to the Nazis, but not in terms of anti-Semitism.
“This contention is supported in repeated comments which Ms Zille and the DA had previously made about, for example, ‘Gestapo-like crackdowns’ by the ‘Zuma SABC’ on freedom of speech.
“However, we understand that rhetoric is a major part of electioneering, and that this so-called negative campaigning was part of the DA’s strategy, as it also was for some other parties,” Smith concluded.
Retief said the journalist firstly assumed the person who tweeted was a DA supporter, which was quite innocent.
“However, from there the reporter not only erroneously stated that tweet users broke the Electoral Code, but she also explicitly stated that the DA refused to condemn this or to distance itself from such transgressions,” he said.
It was his view that one could not distance oneself from a transgression that did not even take place.
He said the journalist hinted at possible hate speech, whatever its definition, and again directly linked the DA to it.
Thus, Retief found that the electoral code and hate speech mentions were both in breach of the Press Code.
The code stipulated that the press had to take care to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly, only present what may reasonably be true as fact, and exercise care and consideration in matters involving reputation.
Retief found the headline misleading.
“Although the headline was not of Aboobaker’s making, it served to fuel the non-existent fire the reporter had, evidently, attempted to light,” he said.
The net effect of the story was in breach of section 2.2 of the Press Code, which stated that news should be presented in context and in a balanced manner.
The section also stipulated that there should be no intentional or negligent departure from the facts whether by distortion, exaggeration or misrepresentation, material omissions or summarisation.
The Sunday Independent was ordered to apologise to the DA, Zille, and Davis. The paper was directed to publish the sanction and the finding. It had seven working days to appeal.