Miyeni overstepped the mark, but editors also at fault
It was Evelyn Beatrice Hall, writing as SG Tellentyre, who coined the statement: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."
These lines are as profound now as they were when first written.
South African media, and the Avusa Media group in particular, faced a similar challenge recently when Eric Miyeni's column was terminated after he wrote in the Sowetan that the editor of City Press, Ferial Haffajee, was a "black snake in the grass" and that she would probably have been necklaced in the 1980s.
For the record, this barbaric practise was condemned by all right-thinking South Africans. Maki Skhosana did not deserve to die, let alone die in that manner. Neither did any of the other victims, including the more recent victim in the xenophobic attacks in Ramaphosa informal settlement.
What was Haffajee's sin for her to be so vilified? Her newspaper has been running exposés of the finances of ANC Youth League president Julius Malema.
Does Miyeni have the right to say his say, and should Avusa state that it would defend his right to make the statements?
Columnists carry a great responsibility. Their column content is invariably opinion, analytical or social commentary. One presumes all columnists are used for specific briefs, and very few are given carte blanche to "write what they like".
Reporters and editors perform a massive job of publishing a newspaper on deadline. The pressures are sometimes so great that editors and other oversight executives have been known to throw tantrums, only to calm down once the deadline has passed and the newspaper has gone to print.
The public expect columns to provide them with insight which is not possible to provide in hard news pages. Columnists are expected to be authoritative on their subjects of interest. They must provide an intelligent interpretation of issues and matters of public interest and contribute to the provision of a diversity of opinion. They have to avoid offence, and balance their own freedom of speech and expression with the responsibility that goes with these. But, above all, they are expected to be fair and accurate, and not resort to emotional outbursts.
Editors do not have to agree with the views expressed. But, in publishing the views, editors would want to be comfortable and be able to defend the columnists' right to say what they said. It should also be in line with the values and codes of a publication.
Columnists are not expected to use a column to drive personal agendas and become personal. There would have been nothing wrong had Miyeni stated that he supported Malema's view on nationalisation of the mines, and criticised Haffajee's newspaper, even though the latter would have been undesirable - if you want to criticise a newspaper, write to that newspaper.
It might be a view that an overwhelming majority of members of the ANCYL agree with. While editors might not agree with this view, they would defend his right to make such a statement, provided he contributed to the debate with an insight which gave the reader an opportunity to weigh the facts and make a reasoned judgment.
It seems to me that, in most of these areas, Miyeni fell short. It is significant that the readers who lodged complaints with me generally did not necessarily express support for Miyeni's view, but challenged the action taken by Avusa Media. Many wanted to know why Miyeni's column had been discontinued, while no action, at the time, had been taken against the editors who were in charge of the paper and ought to have made sure that matters about which the newspaper felt strongly did not make the news pages.
They referred to other incidents involving Avusa newspapers: the termination of the columns of Dave Bullard (Sunday Times) and Kuli Roberts (Sunday World). In neither case was action taken against the editors, they argued.
Len Maseko, acting editor of the Sowetan, acted commendably. He told me: "I take full responsibility for this fiasco. Even though I was on my weekend off, the buck still stops with me. The point is I did not watch when I was supposed to."
He followed this up by stepping down from the editorship.
Haffajee was humble in her response, and described the man who vilified her as a "thought leader" she admired.
But Miyeni apparently refuses to accept that he went overboard. He does not seem to understand that he abused a privileged position. Some readers pointed out that he had a similar personal go at Lebo Mashile over her weight.
Did Avusa handle the matter in the best way possible? For me, the answer is no.
Clearly, in the case of the Sowetan, there was a system failure, the same system failure that resulted in Roberts's column passing the gate and that led to the Bullard episode. Structurally, this is not what is supposed to happen. But there does seem to have been a failure on the part of the humans who are supposed to watch.
In my view, the decision to terminate the column was ill-timed, and they should have known what the consequences, in terms of response, would be. This does not suggest that Miyeni is correct in suggesting he did nothing wrong. The column had a lot of emotional appeal to sections of the population, but little logical and ethical substance. He abused a position of trust, a privileged position, by using the column to launch personal attacks on people. That is not what columns are there for, and certainly, I am assured, this is not what the Sowetan - and other Avusa publications - stand for.