A social media picture of two prominent Independent Media editors wearing ANC attire at a rally in January sparked furious debate within journalism circles. This week the Press Ombudsman dismissed a complaint against them — but this does not mean the ruling was in favour of Independent Media. TheMediaOnline explains the finding.
“I am keeping my opinion on this matter to myself.”
This is how part of the finding by Press Ombudsman Johan Retief reads in the complaint by the Democratic Alliance against Independent Media group executive editor Karima Brown and group editor of opinion and analysis Vukani Mde.
Brown and Mde attended the 103rd birthday celebrations of the African National Congress (ANC) on 10 January 2015. The pair appeared in a picture wearing an ANC T-shirt and an ANC cap. The DA said this compromised their independence and impartiality.
But the ombudsman, dismissing the DA complaint, basically found that it was not within his jurisdiction to rule on the conduct of journalists if it did not involve the publication of a story.
“Up to now I have not received, let alone entertained, any complaint dealing with a journalist’s behaviour – neither has this office ever done so (to the best of my knowledge),” read Retief’s ruling.
“This is the question: Does this office have any jurisdiction over journalists’ conduct?
“This is an important question, as the South African Press Code has indeed quite recently been adapted to increasingly cover behaviour prior to publication.”
He then went on to point out examples where journalists’s behaviour needed to comply with the Press Code of Conduct, such as avoiding conflicts of interests or taking bribes.
But, the crucial point here is if this behaviour led to a story being written and published. And in this specific case, even though the journalists’ behaviour came under scrutiny, neither Brown nor Mde wrote about the ANC rally for their publication.
“What a journalist does in his or her private or personal capacity has nothing to do with this office or with the Press Code if such conduct does not result in the publication of journalistic content,” said Retief.
This meant that the ombudsman’s office had no jurisdiction over the matter.
“As I have no evidence that the journalists attended the celebrations in their professional capacity, or that they have reported or commented on the issue, my only conclusion can be that the reporters’ choice of dress is indeed none of this office’s business.
“Therefore, I am keeping my opinion on this matter to myself. The message to journalists is: Your personal conduct has nothing to do with this office; but if your behaviour is followed by publication, it certainly may have.
“The compliant is dismissed,” said Retief.
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