/ 20 April 2009

Guardian to pay Zuma ‘modest sum’ over ‘subbing error’

The <em>Guardian</em> was negotiating a settlement with ANC president Jacob Zuma's lawyers over a comment it says it published by mistake.

The Guardian was negotiating a settlement with ANC president Jacob Zuma’s lawyers over a comment it says it published by mistake, a spokesperson said on Monday.

”The position at the weekend, was that it was a mistake,” said David Leigh, investigations editor.

The action relates to an article by Simon Jenkins setting the scene for Wednesday’s elections, headlined ”Get used to a corrupt and chaotic South Africa. But don’t write it off”.

Jenkins opens with comments about the beauty of Cape Town’s scenery, writing: ”I could not resist the old Afrikaner cliché that this was God’s own country.”

He then follows with a quote from a unnamed companion who calls Zuma a rapist.

This was a reference to a charge of rape on which Zuma was acquitted in 2006.

”Simon Jenkins quoted him when he was in fact acquitted. As a result of that we are quite happy to correct the mistake and pay him a modest sum,” said Leigh.

This was based on the legal principle that to publish a defamatory or libellous statement by someone else, even through a direct quote, is also regarded as defamation or libel.

”It was probably a subbing mistake,” said Leigh.

The lawyer from the firm Schillings in the UK, which has acted for, among others, Victoria Beckham, Nicole Kidman, Naomi Campbell and Hugh Grant, were not immediately available for comment and nor was an African National Congress spokesperson.

On its website, Schillings writes that court cases are the last resort — ”the exception, not the rule”.

Zuma has launched a number of challenges to newspaper articles and cartoons that he finds offensive.

Three years ago, while standing trial for the rape of an HIV-positive woman, Zuma, who did not wear a condom, said the sex was consensual and he then took a shower to minimise his chances of contracting the syndrome. Zuma was acquitted of rape, but health campaigners were incensed — he is a former head of the National Aids Council.

Thorn in the flesh
Perhaps the biggest thorn in the side of the powerful is Zapiro, a M&G cartoonist whose real name is Jonathan Shapiro. ”Under apartheid, cartoons I did and newspapers I worked for were banned,” Shapiro said.

”But I’ve had a tremendous amount of freedom in the past 15 years to publish cartoons that other cartoonists and editors from around the world have told me they would struggle to get published, even in democratic societies.”

Shapiro’s contributions repeatedly depicted a shower head above Zuma, constantly reminding readers of the HIV gaffe, and have become a popular and much imitated running joke that infuriates the ANC president.

Shapiro (50) said: ”I always think of Steve Bell [of the Guardian] and his cartoons of John Major wearing his underpants outside his trousers. When I first put the shower on Zuma’s head, I didn’t think of it as a permanent fixture. But it had a very positive response and I decided to keep it there. I’m amazed that it’s been talked about in high circles.”

But he is fighting two lawsuits from Zuma over cartoons relating to the rape trial and a dramatic depiction of the rape of Justice. His Z News — a Spitting Image-style satirical puppet show — was recently cancelled by the South African Broadcasting Corporation. There are wider fears that a Zuma presidency could threaten press freedom. A recent ANC plan for a media appeals tribunal provoked an outcry from editors.

Last week the SABC promised its Special Assignment programme would look at the state of political satire and ask: ”Is a slow, chilling effect taking hold of political humour in South Africa?” But the show was cancelled — for legal reasons. – guardian.co.uk