/ 10 November 2017

Letters to the editor: November 10 to November 16 2017

Pan Africanist Congress founder Robert Sobukwe
Pan Africanist Congress founder Robert Sobukwe. Without ideology and theory it would be impossible to interpret the past, anticipate the future and understand the present.

Shame on unethical M&G

The article under the headline “Liberation leader raped me” (October 27) was a crude attempt to posthumously defame and besmirch the reputation in a most abhorrent manner of my father, Ntate Potlako Kitchener Leballo.

More importantly, his lifelong contribution to fighting for the political and social freedoms we enjoy in post-apartheid South Africa was sullied by this poorly researched article, approved for publication by the Mail & Guardian editorial team.

It is a matter of public record that, in 1940, Ntate Leballo volunteered and joined the Southern African contingent of the Allied forces as a private. He put his life on the line to be part of the global fight against oppression. He served in the North Africa campaign, eventually returning to his homeland as part of the victorious Allied forces in 1945 and then demobbing as a sergeant in 1946. He dedicated his life to fighting oppression for a nonracialist and nonsexist society in South Africa.

Those who knew and worked with Ntate Leballo can attest to his singlemindedness in his pursuit of dismantling apartheid, and replacing it with a nonracist, free and fair Azania, where every person is the same in the eyes of the law.

So it came as a real shock to read his deliberate character assassination. These allegations show no meaningful effort to present the other side of the story.

The M&G subscribes to the Code of Ethics and Conduct for South African Print and Online Media. This article most certainly breached key clauses of the code. The purpose of the code is not to “police” the press, but rather to maintain journalistic standards; presenting all sides and ultimately avoiding being reporter, judge and jury.

Clearly due care and attention has not been paid by the journalist and the editor. Further — given the speed at which media works — print and online media have an added responsibility to ensure that no harm is done by the material they publish.

The Code of Ethics is comprehensive, but reliant on the self-application by all media. But content producers might disregard the guidelines to pursue their own agendas. I hope this is not the case with the M&G.

As a stalwart of the Fourth Estate in South African society, your reputation for presenting stories of substance without fear or favour has been built up over the years. It would be a shame if this below-par article — which in my view transgresses elements of six of the subclauses of chapter one of the Codes of Ethics and Conduct — heralds a new phase of “tabloid” journalism.

The manipulation of the media, not only here in South Africa but also globally, to drive specific agendas is a reality. The proliferation of so-called “fake news” is becoming more commonplace, corroding decent society.

The question I ask is this: Will the Fourth Estate in South Africa be true to itself? That is, upholding its responsibility of keeping the institutions moral and legal.

If the Fourth Estate cannot right itself, and rededicate itself to upholding the Code of Ethics, then we realistically stand a chance of being swallowed into the hole of abuse, corruption, theft, power-mongering and political reckless abandonment — all in the name of narrow agendas.

Perhaps a lesson that can be taken from this defamatory article is that an effective press is one that adheres to and is self-governed by the Code of Ethics, fully embraces the role of the Fourth Estate, but invigorates that role to adapt to modern times.

It will be difficult to right the wrong you have done my father, who is clearly not alive to defend himself. This is the shame on you. — Motsoasele Leballo, Johannesburg

Corroborate, check facts before you trash the dead

It is not for no reason that for more than 2 000 years the saying “de mortuis nil nisi bonum” (about the dead say nothing but good) has been quoted.

In South African law a dead person cannot be defamed, but outside of the legalities a dead man can certainly be defamed. As you did. In “Liberation leader raped me” (October 27) you reported serious accusations.

I am not sure what ethics you consulted in deciding to run your front-page accusation about the dead Pan Africanist Congress leader: a single source, uncorroborated, without the family’s comment, trashing the reputation of a man unable to defend himself, a man whose reputation has been untarnished since his death.

If this kind of journalism is allowed to continue unquestioned, accusations are likely to pop up all over the place about people who are no longer around to defend themselves.

In 400 BC Diogenes Laërtius wrote that Chilon of Sparta, who lived 200 years earlier and was one of the seven sages of Greece, had said “tòn tethnekóta mè kakologeîn” (don’t badmouth a dead man).

The Romans and Greeks may have felt this way because of superstition, but I suggest you and your crew think very carefully before going down this path of publishing serious accusations that cannot be tested.

It opens a Pandora’s Box you may not be able to close.

All sexual harassment is wicked and the #Metoo campaign is an excellent outlet for the righteous outrage of women.

Although they have a right to be heard, newspapers have a higher right in reporting on these matters, which is to tell the truth, not simply to list unsubstantiated accusations.

Who will be next to climb on to this bandwagon, with what outrageous accusation against a dead person?

As a former editor (of The Star) I am loath to criticise newspapers, and as a man I am wary of entering this emotional fray.

Yet I feel a duty to call for caution when serious newspapers decide to defame the dead, simply because the law allows it. — Peter Sullivan, Killarney