The decision by the editorial team of Sowetan to publish a column by Eric Miyeni that not only perpetuated racial stereotypes but was also potentially defamatory and offensive needs to be questioned.  Ordinarily such a piece should not have passed through editorial scrutiny especially given that on the surface, it appears to violate Avusa’s own editorial policies as well as the South African Press Code.  Media Monitoring Africa calls on Avusa to explain how they intend to hold those responsible, accountable for the piece being published.

Background: Miyeni’s attack on Ferial Haffajee

On Monday 1st August 2011, Eric Miyeni’s column, The Bullet Bite sparked national debate after he used a piece about media coverage of Mr Malema to launch a personal attack on the editor of the City Press Ms Haffajee.  He said referring to Mr Malema, “He should never have to answer to Ferial Hafajee”. He continued to say that “who the devil is she anyway if not a black snake in the grass, deployed by white capital to sow discord among blacks?” the manner in which Mr. Miyeni expressed his views is not only crass and offensive but polarised and oversimplified important issues that need to be debated maturely.

What is of extreme concern to MMA is the manner in which Mr Miyeni responded to media coverage of Mr Malema.  We are similarly concerned by the ANC Youth Leagues response to the article.  MMA would fully support engaged, robust and evidence based debate about the media coverage and bias against, or otherwise of Mr Malema and the ANC Youth League.

ANCYL response to the decision by Avusa to withdraw Miyeni’s column

MMA is equally concerned by the response of the ANC Youth League both to the article and to the decision taken by Avusa.  They raise a fair point when they say, “If the Sowetan found the column by Eric Miyeni inappropriate, why did they publish it in their newspaper?“  Indeed MMA shares their view in this regard.  However to then state, “The ANC Youth League appreciates that ultimately, someone had the courage to tell some journalist where to get off, and we are grateful,” is deeply concerning.  The response is not only churlish but undermines the credibility of the ANC Youth league and the values, principles and rights to freedom of expression for which it and the ANC stand and have fought for.

The issues raised are of a serious nature and should be handled carefully, and with sensitivity, given that they speak to fundamental inequalities in our society.  The claim by the ANC Youth League that the decision made by Avusa was influenced by the right wing elements who determine the direction of Sowetan, seems difficult to justify. It is not helpful for the ANC Youth League to ignore the manner in which Miyeni presented his thoughts by playing the race card in such a deeply offensive manner, as to state that Ms Haffajee would have been neck-laced in the 80’s.

While the ANC Youth League’s response needs to be addressed by the ANC, the role of the Sowetan must be further addressed. According to the South African Press Code the press should avoid discriminatory or derogatory references to people’s race, colour, ethnicity, religion etc. It also states that the press is entitled to comment on actions or events that are of public interest provided that such comments or criticisms are fairly and honestly made. Sowetan has failed to respect the Press Code, a code that it subscribes to.

The cycle of serious editorial malfunctions at Avusa needs to end

Avusa appears to be keen on entrenching a reputation of publishing racist pieces and then discontinuing the columns shortly afterwards. Given South Africa’s history and the importance of defeating racism, the errors are all the more disturbing.  This has now happened three times in three years.  The first incident was when David Bullard was fired in April 2008 after the publication of a column “Uncolonised Africa wouldn’t know what it was missing”.   The second was two years after Bullard’s incident, when Sunday World, gave a platform to columnist Kuli Roberts to utter equally offensive and nonsensical comments about coloured women. Now we have Miyeni’s personal attack on Ms Haffajee. Each time readers have been assured that processes have been tightened and apologies proffered, lets hope that it is third time lucky for change and that those responsible will be held accountable.  MMA hopes that the Sowetan and Avusa will inform their readers of the planned action and to explain how this could have happened.  Should Sowetan fail to do so, as was the case with the edition of 2 August 2011, where there was only a small reference to the issue, MMA would have little other choice but to take a complaint to the Press Council.

For more information contact:

Carol Netshifhefhe

Policy Unit: Media Monitoring Africa

011 788 1278 or 074 690 1023

William Bird

Director: Media Monitoring Africa

011 788 1278 or 082 887 1370