/ 16 October 2013

Press ombud decides not to ban Islamic terms

United Muslim Nations International says the use of terms such as 'militant Islam' are misleading
United Muslim Nations International says the use of terms such as 'militant Islam' are misleading

The terms "Islamist militants" and "militant Islam" will not be banned from South African newspaper reports.

This emerged in a letter on Wednesday from ombud Johan Retief to the United Muslim Nations International (Umni) organisation, which made the request.

Retief said he could not instruct publications on editorial content or policy. Rather, the ombud's office adjudicated disputes over what had already been published.

"Our office cannot and never will instruct any newspaper to refrain from publishing anything that would amount to censorship," Retief wrote in the letter, which was released to the media.

"There is a vital difference between the latter [which takes place prior to publication] and regulation [which happens after publication]."

In South Africa's democratic society, the press was at liberty to exercise its freedom of speech, read as no censorship.

However, if it crossed borders in doing so, the ombud had a role to play, read as regulation.

"Of course, this does not mean that the press has carte blanche to write what it wants to," Retief wrote.

"On the contrary, with freedom comes responsibility. That is why we have a system of regulation, and a press code to use as a compass if and when ethical borders have been crossed. I am therefore not able to adhere to your request."

​Sheik Faarooq al-Mohammedi of the Umni, in his reply to Retief, wrote that his ruling was contrary to the ombud's standards, rules, and regulations.

He would appeal against the decision. The appeal will be heard by South African Press Adjudication Panel chairperson Bernard Ngoepe.

Umni said it would pursue the appeal because the use of these terms had led to deaths in a number of countries because of misinformation, fear and hate-mongering, discrimination, and stigmatisation.

This, in turn, led to hate crimes and terrorism, it claimed.

Umni said its request had nothing to do with freedom of speech or freedom of the press, given there was no such thing as total freedom, as it came with responsibility.

"You say your office has a responsibility when press freedoms go beyond the borders. Mr Retief, it has gone far beyond the borders," al-Mohammedi said.

"The press should, in belief, subscribe to what is 'accurate' and 'fair'. Can you explain to me what is 'accurate' when media outlets use the words 'Islamist Militants' and 'Militant Islam'?" The use of such terms was misleading, defamatory and highly offensive, he said.

"Our aim is to prevent all forms of extremism and we want to prevent a clash of civilisations," he said. – Sapa