S. African Blogger Explains Apology to Sunday Times Public Editor

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See a screenshot of the story that triggered Akanyang's complaints from LexisNexis above. (Credit: LexisNexis, Sunday Times, screenshot)

Last month, iMediaEthics wrote about a blogger’s complaints over the South African Sunday Times’ story on Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe’s wife.  The story alleged that Mugabe had a bodyguard killed, and that Mugabe’s wife, Grace Mugabe, had an affair. (See our first story here.)

We learned about the story from a political and media blogger, Akanyang, who had blogged his criticism of the story in a letter he sent to three South African media figures.  Akanyang also apologized profusely – in a separate post from his complaint – for using the word “crap” in his complaint — an odd and unsolicited move, in StinkyJournalism’s view.

At the time of publication, we hadn’t heard back from either Akanyang or one of media figures we wrote to, Avusa public editor Thabo Leshilo.

We have since heard from both.

We asked Akanyang several questions, including if he worked in media, why he apologized, and if anyone had complained about his critical letter.

Akanyang Merementsi responded and told iMediaEthics in an e-mail that while he is a blogger, his profession isn’t related to the media — he is “an HR Officer.”

He explained that this letter of complaint, posted on his blog, is the same one he sent in complaint to the three.

According to Akanyang, Leshilo was the first and only person to reply to his letter of complaint.

“In his response to my initial letter to him – which I later apologised for – the Public Editor said he could not entertain my complaint because of what I had said. He said: ‘I’m sorry but you won’t be getting any feedback from me. I could not read beyond the first paragraph of your missive because of the crudeness of your language. I do not, as a matter of principle, entertain insults”. He also wished me a ‘good weekend’ and that I should ‘keep blogging’. This he sent to the editor who never bothered to take on my initial complaint, and sent it also to the Press Ombudsman (of course I did not expect any reaction from the latter). The Public Editor accepted my apology, and that was it.”

Akanyang further explained that he apologized for his complaint because he had sent it to the Press Ombudsman.  If he hadn’t copied the ombudsman on his letter, Akanyang wrote that he likely would not have apologized for using the word “crap.”

While Akanyang’s blog apology was profuse, he again apologized for his choice of language in the complaint: “I realised that I may have messed up my complaint by the tone of my language, and after I had apologised, I certainly did not expect anything at all from the Sunday Times newspaper.”

We also heard back from Leshilo, the public editor for Avusa, which owns the Sunday Times. He confirmed with us that he received Akanyang’s complaint and dismissed it because it was “vulgar.”

“I have no intention of indulging Akanyang and his vulgar blog. I told him that much. I’ve not received a complaint from President Mugabe or his representatives or any reader about the story you’re referring to and don’t see the point of responding to what this blogger, or any other for that matter, has to say about it,” he wrote.

“It is up to the editor of the Sunday Times to respond to the criticism of his newspaper by other media, not me. I have seven other newspapers in the group to deal with. I have not felt a compulsion to deal with this specific story, just as I don’t critique all stories published by all eight Avusa Media newspapers. Feel free to check the SA Press Code on the website of the Press Ombudsman of South Africa.”

In a follow-up e-mail, Leshilo wrote: “I forgot to mention that I’m quite willing to discuss the Sunday Times story with you, given the nature of your blog and as one professional to another. I think the exchange of ideas is invaluable and would enrich our craft. Also, the Mugabe story has been criticised in a story carried by the Mail&Guardian, which suggested it was an urban legend.”

We wrote back to Leshilo with follow-up questions and will update with any response.

Leshilo also addressed our previously unanswered questions about another Avusa Media newspaper article.  StinkyJournalism also wrote last month about Avusa’s The Herald.

The Herald was also criticized for its use of anonymous sources in a political story.  We had e-mailed the Herald’s editor, Heather Robertson, who explained that all Avusa newspapers would soon follow a new anonymous sources code.  (See more about the draft code here.)

We e-mailed Leshilo to ask about the code at the time.  He recently responded to explain that the code “incorporates the South African Press Code,” and is a revision of a standing policy on anonymous sources.

In an Oct. 22 Sunday Times column, Leshilo explained some of the updates to the code.  (See that column here.)

  • Stories shouldn’t be based on just one anonymous source
  • Corrections and apologies should be published “on the same page as the original report”
  • “Apologies should be published within one week, provide a clear explanation of and disclose how the error could have been avoided and how it will be prevented in the future.”

iMediaEthics is writing to President Mugabe’s team to confirm Leshilo’s claim that Mugabe had no complaint to the story alleging he had a man killed and his wife had an affair.  We will update with any response.

UPDATE: 12/1/2010 5:08 PM EST:  Thabo Leshilo responded to iMediaEthics’s follow-up questions.  He wrote: “All editorial staff were alerted to the new code via our intranet on November 16. That can be taken as the official date of application.”

We asked what ethical issues he frequently encounters as public editor.  He responded: “The frequent ethical challenge we have pertains to the depiction of children.”

And, regarding the Mugabe story, he reiterated: ” I haven’t received a complaint from Mugabe and consider the matter closed.”

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S. African Blogger Explains Apology to Sunday Times Public Editor

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