The case of the Swaziland journalist dropped by the Times Sunday after writing homophobic comments in his column draws attention to the need for newspapers to be honest with their readers.
Some people are saying that the case of Qalakaliboli Dlamini touches on his right to freedom of expression. Even the editor of the Times Sunday Innocent Maphalala said as much as he issued an apology for publishing Qalakaliboli’s article after an ‘unprecedented’ number of complaints.
But, with Qalakaliboli, the issue is not about free speech, it is about honest writing and telling the truth to readers. Qalakaliboli was neither honest nor truthful.
Qalakaliboli wrote 1,500 words attacking homosexuals, using offensive language and proudly boasting that he was ‘homophobic’. He used examples from the world around him in support of his case. But, the examples were misleading at best and false at worst.
In support of his view that homosexuals are despised in Africa, he wrote that the Anglican Archbishop Emeritus, Desmond Tutu, was to speak at a symposium in the Catholic University of America. He said, students at the university ‘ran riot’ and made it known that they did not want Tutu at the university because of his support for gays. In fact there was no riot, but there was a petition signed by 784 people against the visit. But, 16 times as many people (12,192) signed a counter petition in favour of Tutu.
So, the vast majority of people signing petitions at the Catholic University were very willing to listen to Tutu.
Qalakaliboli also wrote, ‘So, the proponents of multiparty and democracy should not tell us the nonsense that we should accommodate homosexuals because even in democratic country’s such as America, homosexuality is still taboo to most.’
‘Taboo’ means something banned by society as unacceptable and that is obviously not the case with homosexuality in America or developed countries.
Perhaps, Qalakaliboli meant to say that Americans ‘disapprove’ of homosexuality. But the facts do not support even this. In this month (May 2012) alone a number of opinion polls in the US show that the majority of Americans support same-sex marriage. Any number of polls conducted for many years past show Americans also support equal rights for gays and lesbians in public policy areas such as employment, education, housing and health. Most Americans do not disapprove of homosexuals. Qalakaliboli was misleading his readers to say otherwise.
But, the most blatant misdirection of readers was the entire premise for the article. Qalakaliboli told his readers that a new report ‘states that gay sex is on the increase in Swaziland’. He said that the report found 324 gay men and he ‘got the shock of my life’, when he read this.
The report he refers to, the Swaziland Country Report on Monitoring the Political on HIV AIDS, is not about gay sex. Nowhere in the whole report does the word ‘homosexual’, ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’ occur. Qalakaliboli needed to go through the report with a fine-tooth comb even to find reference to his 324 men.
This he clearly did with relish in order to falsely suggest that homosexuality might go ‘viral’ in Swaziland.
The report is actually a very sober account on HIV and AIDS in Swaziland. The 324 men Qalakaliboli despises so much take up four paragraphs of a report covering 91 pages. The 324 men are ‘men who have sex with men’, which Qalakaliboli did not tell his readers does not necessarily make them ‘gay’.
The report makes it clear that this is the first time such information has been collected, so Qalakaliboli is wrong when he writes the report shows ‘gay sex is on the increase in Swaziland’.
So why should we care that Qalakaliboli is deliberately misleading his readers? The simple answer is that journalists are expected by their readers to tell them the truth. A certain trust needs to be established between newspapers and readers, so readers can feel that they are not being manipulated. This is especially important in Swaziland where ordinary people have limited access to alternative sources of information.
Qalakaliboli and the Times Sunday broke this trust.
The Swaziland National Association of Journalists (SNAJ) recognises the importance of trust. Article 1 of its code of ethical conduct states, ‘The duty of every journalist is to write and report, adhere to and faithfully defend, the truth. A journalist should make adequate inquiries, do cross-checking of facts in order to provide the public with unbiased, accurate, balanced and comprehensive information. The public must have unfettered access to all media.’
This discussion is not about Qalakaliboli's attitudes to homosexuality alone: he has form when it comes to telling his readers falsehoods. One, of many examples, was when discussing whether a husband had the legal right to rape his wife. He said, ‘The British law makes it clear that there can never be marital rape in a marriage unless both parties are separated or the court has issued an order forbidding the husband from touching his wife.’ This is not true. Courts in England have ruled a husband cannot force his wife to have sex since at least 1991.
In the past many Times Sunday readers complained to the newspaper and corrected him on a number of articles. Some of these complaints were published by the Times either online or in the printed newspaper, so Times' editors knew Qalakaliboli was unreliable with the truth.
In his apology to readers published last week the Times Sunday editor Innocent Maphalala said he took ‘full responsibility for publication’ of Qalakaliboli’s article. And so he should, but why did he let the article go in the paper in the first place? His comments on gays were clearly in contravention of Article 13 (hate speech) of the SNAJ code and there were significant doubts from the past about Qalakaliboli’s ability to write truthfully.
Following his suspension from the newspaper, Qalakaliboli sent an email to his editors confirming his hatred of homosexuals and stating that he would be prepared to launch an anti-homosexual campaign in Swaziland.
Qalakaliboli cannot claim he has been denied his right to freedom of expression, now he has been dropped. His case is not about the right to hold opinion, it is about deliberately lying to readers to advance his own agenda.
Some readers are expressing relief that Qalakaliboli will no longer be allowed to write for the Times Sunday, but dropping his column does not remove the responsibility of the newspaper to ensure that all its writers are truthful.
Now, it is up to the editors at the Times to ensure in future they monitor the work of their journalists more thoroughly so readers can feel confident they are not being manipulated by them to advance their own purposes.
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