How contrite should a newspaper be?

28 August 2011 - 04:24 By Joe Latakgomo

Alongside this column is the front page of a newspaper in Rwanda. It shows the managing director of the paper, Fidele Gakire, bowing meekly to Rwandan President Paul Kagame.

The front page of the Rwandan newspaper
The front page of the Rwandan newspaper

The headline "Imbabazi", I am told, means "Sorry". This whole issue was dedicated to an apology by the newspaper for having called the president a sociopath - my dictionary defines this as somebody affected with a personality disorder marked by aggressive, violent, anti-social thought and behaviour and a lack of remorse or empathy.

Apparently, the paper was exclusively filled not only with the apology, but also with articles singing the praises of the president, focusing on the good things that he has achieved - the positive stories.

Media critics in SA will probably say the boss of the paper got what he deserved. The chief editor had resigned, saying he was not aware of the article - and once more, media critics will say more of this kind of response is needed in our local papers, as was demanded during the height of the Eric Miyeni episode.

In addition to the resignation of the chief editor, members of the Forum of Private Newspapers, an organisation of newspaper owners, suspended Gakire from the group for six months. It was significant that sanctions came from his peers, and not from government.

There were demands for the state-run media ombudsman to reprimand Gakire. The police also seized copies of the paper from vendors to prevent distribution.

While it is clearly unacceptable for a newspaper to call anybody - including the head of state - a psychopath (unless declared so in a court of law), and while the actions of the FPN are all praiseworthy, to dedicate a whole edition to atone for misdeeds is just as bad for the media as the initial report. This action would erode public trust just as much as the initial report would.

Even journalists reportedly protested to the paper - it was a serious blight on them as well, many of whom are trying to do a job in difficult circumstances.

Considering the history of Rwanda, where up to a million people died in a genocide sparked off by calls by government and some private media, journalists ought to be more circumspect in their reporting.

What are the lessons for us?

First, we need to ensure that we do not sink to a level where papers are so scared of government as to be cowed into the kind of action taken by Gakire and his management.

Surely there are other remedies for the president, or any other citizen, to seek redress. This could include criminal charges laid against the paper and its editor.

These are the remedies that are available in this country. And so, calls for the government to control the media would lead to precisely this kind of distortion of the noble profession of journalism.

It would be a sad day when papers are forced, through covert pressure, to go down on their knees - particularly if their livelihood is dependent on advertising from government and government institutions.

Our media needs to be looking out for ways to prevent the kind of lapse which occurred for the article to make it into the paper. We have seen columns - more recently the Miyeni incident - getting past the gate when they should not have. In this case, the editor (equivalent to the chief editor referred to above) also resigned. He admitted he should have had better controls in place.

It is critical for papers to put every article they publish through what I want to call a "factometer" - an instrument against which the facts as represented in articles are tested. It requires vigilance at all times, and if it means papers have to re-examine their checks and balances, then they ought to do so. Double-checking facts can be time-consuming, but it is a critical part of any journalist's operational armoury.

Being half right is not good enough for readers. It is the errors that people remember, the misrepresentation of facts.

The Sunday Times had this experience with its report on a tender awarded by the Western Cape provincial government. The paper reported that the tender was worth just over R1-billion. It turned out that it had arrived at this figure from a false premise. There were other issues which the editor admitted to having been wrong, but there were also aspects on which the newspaper was substantially right.

The Democratic Alliance, and its leader Helen Zille, have said that they would lodge a complaint with the Press Council Ombudsman. For that reason, I will not go into detail of what was right in the report and what was not, other than to state what is already in the public domain - the issues which the Sunday Times has admitted to having been wrong.

What some readers questioned, however, is the display of the admission that certain information used was not correct. Some argue that the correction should have been given the same prominence as the original article - in the same font or style.

But that is not how newspapers work - unless the mistake is of such monumental proportions that justice would require such a display. That does not mean that newspapers should hide corrections on the inside pages. Prominent display would, in my view, in this case, mean the correction should be placed on the same page as the original article - and it was.