Would the real journalist please stand up?

New York Times

Can newspapers meet today’s challenges? The media is criticised for sloppy journalism in an era when rampant racism and seething conflicts make every word important

CAN the media be trusted? The New York Times this week criticised its own editors for sloppy journalism regarding how they dealt with an op-ed on Sunday by a Palestinian leader jailed in Israel. It coincided with a well-known South African online paper, Huffington Post SA, being slammed for a racist blog post headlined “Could It Be Time To Deny White Men The Franchise?” written by someone who it was later shown did not exist.

It’s tough to hold up high standards in journalism today, when fake news is everywhere and the onslaught of mediocrity and mob rule through social media has so shaken the industry. A story in the Israeli online paper YNET reports that only 26 per cent of Jewish Israelis have faith in the press, according an Israel Democracy Institute survey. This probably reflects low regard for the media today in many other places.

Both of the above cases relate to highly charged political contexts – the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and racism in South Africa – which should make editors doubly concerned with journalistic credibility.

Sunday’s NYT op-ed by Palestinian Marwan Barghouti criticised Israel and justified a mass hunger strike which he had organised by Palestinians jailed for security-related offences. It is perfectly appropriate to publish such a piece, it is part of the debate on the issues, and Barghouti is an important figure in Palestinian politics – some people have described him as a Palestinian “Mandela”.

However, the op-ed’s tag line described Barghouti as a “parliamentarian and leader” without mentioning that he was in an Israeli jail after being sentenced by an Israeli court to five life terms for murder and terrorism.

After an outcry, the NYT’s public editor responsible for monitoring its journalistic integrity, on Tuesday criticised the op-ed department, saying “skimping” on key background information on opinion writers – Barghouti’s terror activities in this case – discredits it. Papers need to “fully identify the biography and credentials of authors, especially details that help people make judgements about the opinions they’re reading.” Failure to do so suggests an inappropriate agenda.

Outraged Israeli officials said the way the paper referred to Barghouti was akin to calling murderous Syrian President Bashar Assad an eye doctor, because he had studied medicine.

The NYT admitted its mistake. An online clarification on Tuesday said the article had “…neglected to provide sufficient context by stating the offenses of which he was convicted….”

In the South African case, the HuffPost ran the anti-white racist blog from one “Shelley Garland” without being rigorous about determining who she was. It later turned out she didn’t exist; it was a race hoax performed by a self-described white man in Johannesburg which HuffPost had fallen for. The story went viral internationally when American right-wing papers spread it on social media to illustrate their view that people of colour posed a threat to white people.

The HuffPost editor initially defended the posting of the piece, but later removed it and admitted she didn’t know who Shelley Garland was and had not done sufficient checks to determine this.

It might be some consolation to the HuffPost’s editors that they are at least in good company with the NYT, when that illustrious paper also neglects journalistic obligations for which it is criticised. An editor’s job is a hard one and all papers sometimes make mistakes.

But that should not comfort them. Freedom of speech is essential and they can defend it in those terms, but in the current volatile environment, allowing a racist post onto a news and opinion website which proposes denying white men the franchise detracts from the seriousness of their platform, and suggests a political agenda. Would they have run the story if the headline had suggested that blacks, for instance, should be denied the vote for 20 years?

(GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za )


Zuma speech to SA Jews leaves crisis issues unanswered


Crowd at conference

The capacity Jewish audience at the SA Jewish Board of Deputies conference listens raptly to President Jacob Zuma’s speech on the state of the country and the ANC meeting with Hamas

The audience at the national conference of the SA Jewish Board of Deputies in Johannesburg on Sunday expected President Jacob Zuma’s keynote speech to be the event’s highlight, despite other eminent speakers including World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder, and French philosopher-activist Bernard-Henri Levy.

The latter had torn himself away from his “beloved, bereaved Paris”, still traumatised because of the recent terrorist attacks there by the Islamic jihadists of ISIS. Despite the emotional difficulty of leaving Paris, his family and friends at a time like this, he had decided to come, he said, because of the importance of South Africa, which was “one of the battles of my generation” – the anti-apartheid struggle.

The key leadership of SA Jewry assembled at the gala event, offered Zuma a chance to inject some optimism into the Jewish constituency that, although numerically small, is an important part of the SA mosaic. Its general feeling today – along with numerous other South Africans – is gloomy about the state of the country and its political directions. Jewish rage simmers about the ANC’s attitude to Israel, symbolised by its embrace of terrorist organisation Hamas when it visited three weeks ago.

Krengel, Levy, Zuma, Lauder (2)

Keynote speakers Bernard-Henri Levy, President Jacob Zuma and Ronald Lauder


Zuma did, at the end of his speech, talk about Hamas. But for the bulk of it, he simply plodded through the tired script about the important role Jews had played in the liberation struggle. As if by flattering the Jewish audience in this way, he could divert their anger. But instead of making them feel good, it came across as patronising. We know all that history already; the facts are correct. It is, however, history. Today’s urgent issues are about other things: South Africa’s flagging economy, political instability, racism in the society, corruption, foreign policy particularly regarding Israel, international terrorism and South Africa’s place in it, and so on. That is what people came to hear about.

From 1915, Jews helped form the first South African socialist organisations, said Zuma; in 1921 they helped create the SA Communist Party; in 1922 they tried diverting striking white miners’ anger to more constructive directions for the good of all; in the 1960s with the liberation movements’ bannings, Jews like Denis Goldberg provided safe houses for activists hiding from police; other activists went into exile, like Joe Slovo, a founder of Mkhonto we Sizwe; whites in the Rivonia trial were Jewish; Eli Weinberg was the courageous photographer of the liberation movements; in Mandela’s post-apartheid South Africa, Jewish jurists Arthur Chaskalson, Albie Sachs and Richard Goldstone were prominent in the legal system. And so on.

In his few sentences about the state of the country, he spoke about economic growth being too low to solve unemployment, affected by the slowdown in China’s economy. But there was nothing new said, or much hope offered. He looked like a man without a vision.

Regarding global terrorism, he said the incidents in Paris, Mali and other places put the spotlight on peace and conflict in the Middle East, including Palestine. And the key to Israeli-Palestinian peace is a two state solution based on the 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as the Palestinian state’s capital. Audible murmurs of disapproval were heard from parts of the audience, and one wondered whether Zuma would be boo-ed.

But, he stressed, South African support for a Palestinian state does not exclude support for the safety of Israel. South Africa will engage with all sides. But again, he provided no programme or details for such engagement, no vision beyond his bland statement of principle.

Then he got to Hamas and said quietly that he had become aware that the effusive manner in which Hamas was received by the ANC, concerned the Jewish community. He had taken note of this, he said pointedly. This acknowledgement was perhaps as far as he was able to go in terms of his own political realities. He did not, however, specifically denounce Hamas’ terrorist tactics – or even acknowledge they existed – nor apologise for the welcome given to them. Rather, he repeated, South Africa must engage with all parties, in the belief that it has something to offer in the promotion of peace in the world.

Zuma is not regarded by Jewish leaders as an enemy of Israel, personally. Indeed, outgoing SAJBD president Zev Krengel stated categorically that on many occasions he intervened behind the scenes to solve problems regarding Israeli issues in South Africa. But clearly, the hostility towards Israel in ANC ranks is something Zuma does not have control over. Or is perhaps, unwilling to exert control over. Flattery about Jewish heroes of the Struggle cannot hide this. The most glaring element in Zuma’s speech was the absence of any vision for a better future.

(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. This article was first published in the SAJR on November 25, 2015)

What has Paris terror to do with South Africa?


South African President Jacob Zuma on the spot on terrorism

When President Jacob Zuma addresses the SA Jewish Board of Deputies conference on Sunday, it will be in the shadow of the horrific terror attacks by ISIS in Paris last Friday, which left 129 dead and hundreds of others wounded. All signs are that the Third World War, between radical Islam and Western civilization, has begun in earnest. French President Francoise Hollande said as much when he declared, “France is at war”, imposed a state of emergency and told the French parliament on Monday that France should unite with the US and Russia in a grand coalition to destroy ISIS.

The audience at the SAJBD conference will have mixed feelings towards Zuma because of the ANC’s welcome extended to the Palestinian terrorist organisation Hamas a few weeks ago.

It will be disappointing if he sticks to mouthing the old, worn-out platitudes about the rainbow nation, the Jews’ importance in the liberation struggle, and how the ANC is fighting for the good of the country. There is a perception that under his leadership, South Africa has lost its moral bearings and has shrunk to an irrelevant midget on the world stage, two decades after the great international prestige it held during Mandela’s time as a moral touchstone for all.

South Africa has never faced terrorism of the sort going on in Europe and the Middle East, and which destroyed the World Trade Centre in New York on September 11, 2001. But we are not immune, even here at the bottom of Africa. We are part of today’s connected world.

The Paris attacks illustrate the reduced role of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in international affairs, despite the massive media attention it still gets. The brand of terror France has suffered has little to do with the “occupation of Palestine”; it is more about the clashing Islamic and other forces in Syria, Iraq, Libya and other places in the Mideast, as ISIS attempts to establish its Islamic caliphate under Sharia law.

Diplomatic myopia still exists about the relative role of the Palestinian issue. Israeli defence minister Moshe Yaalon said after the Paris killings, that European defence ministers visiting Israel to consult with him mostly focus – correctly – on radical Islam’s anti-Western terror campaign. But, he said, “when foreign ministers come, they speak with us about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as if that is the source of all the world’s problems.” ANC support for a Palestinian state is legitimate. But South African politics, whether in the ANC, Cosatu, the SACP and elsewhere, still seems largely stuck in the latter mindset.

Radical Islam has become the ‘Nazism’ of the 21st century. It will have to be defeated by a determined international alliance of countries acting together, in the same way Nazism was defeated in the Second World War. This is what Hollande is calling for.

Going back to Zuma’s speech at the SAJBD conference: Terrorism is at the top of people’s minds and he needs to address Jewish outrage about his Hamas meetings. Was it part of a long-term strategy, or motivated by expedient local politics? The issue is complicated, and not everyone opposes engaging with Hamas, including some top Israelis. For example, former Israeli intelligence chief Efraim Halevy, who spent decades in the Mossad and was a key player in achieving the Israel-Jordan peace treaty, says Israel itself should talk with Hamas. Interviewed at a Haaretz-sponsored conference on peace in Tel Aviv recently, he said military action hasn’t been successful in combatting the terrorist group, and Israel should recognize democratically-elected Palestinian governments even if they include Hamas. Other Israelis vehemently reject this view.

France is the birthplace of human rights, epitomised by its secularity, vibrant culture, and the phrase liberté, égalité, fraternité. Together with all of Europe, it faces the dilemma of how to protect these human and individual rights while providing security against terrorism. The most important individual right is the right to life itself.

Zuma has an opportunity to show his colours: Is he a leader of global stature who understands the grim new reality of the Third World War? Will his South Africa side unequivocally with Western values, and support the grand coalition against Islamist terror in a more meaningful way than simply sending ‘condolences’ to Paris? Or will he continue playing small-minded local politics aimed mainly at staying in power?

(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. This article was first published in the SAJR on November 18, 2015)