On Gaza, balance and an Eyewitness News column

There certainly has not been a shortage of news about Gaza in South African media. At one stage last week, South Africa generated so much news about Gaza, we were among the top 10 disseminators of Gaza-related news in the world. But it is not the quantity of the news that is remarkable. What is significant is the way in which this news has been presented. And indeed, for me, it has taken the war in Gaza to drive home some of the most glaring weaknesses of South African newsrooms.

A few weeks ago I was invited by an online radio station to represent the Muslim side of the Gaza war. And while I was annoyed by the assumptions implicit in the invitation – that because I am Muslim, therefore I am sympathetic to the Palestinian cause - this set in motion a set of events that has left me disgruntled with the  state of South African journalism.

That initial prickle of annoyance festered into outrage as I noticed a stubborn misconception of the conflict colouring analysis of the war in Gaza. I channeled my opinions into my weekly column for Eyewitness News, addressing some of the assumptions that manifest themselves in the manner in which this story has been told in South Africa.

In the column, which you can read here, I reflect on the insistence among some South Africans to see this conflict as two irrational groups clinging to guns and hate.

I sought particularly to address the perception of the asymmetric war in Gaza, and the greater conflict between Israel and Palestinian people, as a religious conflict, instead of as a conflict that is founded in a failure to recognise the inalienable rights of human beings.

I tried to explain that this was not about “taking sides”. Children were being shelled as they kicked a ball on the beach; others were being forced to help identify their parents at the overpopulated morgue. This is a devastating human catastrophe that requires us to look beyond a trite formula of “he said, she said”. We need to wade into the complexities of the unfolding disaster and report, analyse and opine with a full understanding of the greater historical and political context.

Eyewitness News however did not publish my column.

They first decided to delay publication of my column, without informing me of their reasons. A day later, only after I enquired whether my column would be published at all, I was told that they had decided to ask “a columnist for another view on the Gaza situation to ensure balance”.

Upon enquiring what the problem with my column was, I was told that it was not problematic but Eyewitness News seeks to publish “a diversity of opinion pieces that allow the opportunity for debate and [they] will therefore also publish a piece from the SA Jewish Board of Deputies.”

My response was to ask whether I had been drafted into a match with the South African Jewish Board of Deputies without my knowledge.

“I am a South African woman journalist writing about the fact that this conflict is wrongly construed as a religious conflict when it is about basic human rights – and the fact that the insistence by some to see it as a religious conflict reflects a particular world view,” I wrote to Eyewitness News in an email.

“How is my column supposed to be balanced by the Board of Deputies – a lobby group? If EWN want a counter to the Board of Deputies, I’m happy to recommend a number of organisations who will provide a ‘balancing’ argument. I however am not a representative of any body, or group.”

It is unclear what exactly prompted editors at Eyewitness News to seek a counterweight for my column from the South African Jewish Board of Deputies – is it because I’m a Muslim writing in support of Palestinian solidarity? Or is it standard practice for EWN to solicit a column from the Jewish Board of Deputies in conjunction with anything that seeks to explain Palestinian solidarity?

I was left bewildered.

On Tuesday morning, I withdrew my column from Eyewitness News. I have spent the ensuing time reflecting on what has happened, and measuring my next step.

The truth is that the treatment of my column by Eyewitness News is not an anomaly.

Jane Duncan, a professor of journalism at the University of Johannesburg recently wrote in The Con that journalists in South African newsrooms suffer a tendency “to produce sanitised copy, adhering to the basic tenets of ‘objective’ journalism to avoid becoming embroiled in energy-consuming controversies”.

“If journalists fail to recognise the fundamental rights and wrongs in the situation, then they abdicate their democratic responsibilities to society. The journalism of objectivity and balance should not trump the journalism of justice and truth. Journalism will also be a lifeless activity without a commitment to democracy and social justice,” Duncan says.

Journalism, as it is located in the news media, is supposed to play a crucial role in the promotion and maintenance of democracy. When we tiptoe around complex issues, we are however failing in our duties as journalists. If journalism is reduced to a sanitised volley of “he said, she said” that  does nothing to challenge the status quo, it is vanquished of its capacity to hold power to account. And if there is no space to talk truth to power, then we might as well abandon journalism altogether and repurpose government statements.

Eyewitness News has extended an apology to me and offered to publish my column as it was originally intended, as a stand-alone column. I have refused to resubmit my column because what would that prove? The editors at EWN are good people but they got it wrong this time. And in their mishandling of this column, they have exposed a structural fault in the ideologies of the newsroom.

This however is not just about the treatment of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian people in South African newsrooms. It is also about the prejudice of individuals that creeps into the day-to-day handling of the news agenda.

This is a prejudice that is not exclusive to Gaza, it is a prejudice that dictates how we report the news, when we report it, and indeed, the way we frame the opinion and analysis that form a greater understanding of the news.

It’s not that journalism is averse to prejudice, but that prejudice must be rigorously scrutinised.


If you want to read the column that was submitted to EWN click here. 

If you want to see why the Daily Vox has a special interest in the invasion of Gaza, read our special editorial here.