One of the fiercest campaigns by readers against a newspaper in Swaziland that anyone can remember has been raging this week.
At least six organisations and countless individuals have criticised the Times Sunday newspaper after one of its regular columnists wrote last week that battered women were 'bitches' and said 'most' women who were beaten up by men brought it upon themselves.
Since the article was published, a petition demanding an apology from the Times and supported by Swaziland Action Group Against Abuse (SWAGAA), Swaziland Coalition of Concerned Civic Organizations, Coordinating Assembly for Non-Governmental Organisations (CANGO), Swaziland Concerned Church Leaders, Swaziland National Association of Teachers, Swaziland Positive Living and the Swaziland Agricultural Producers Union (SAPU) has been circulating.
The article's author Qalakaliboli Dlamini is no stranger to controversy and was suspended by his newspaper in May 2012 after he wrote he was a proud homophobe and he hated homosexuals.
Once critics complained Qalakaliboli identified himself as a victim who was having his right of freedom of expression curtailed. Alec Lushaba, chair of the Swazi chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (a press freedom group), and the Times managing editor Martin Dlamini publicly supported him in this view.
In their support of Qalakaliboli both men missed a crucial point being made by critics: the attack on the article was not about freedom of speech, it was about poor journalistic standards at the newspaper.
Here's an example of what critics meant. In his article Qalakaliboli wrote that women abused men more than the other way round and said 'most' women who are beaten up by men brought it upon themselves. He wrote, 'Let us be honest with each other, women are the biggest abusers in the world.'
None of what Qalakaliboli wrote there is actually true. Nowhere in the world is there a country where more women are accused or convicted of gender-based violence than men.
Alec Lushaba, chair of MISA, wrote on his Facebook page,'It is wrong of us to suffocate such opinions.' Lushaba was wrong because what Qalakaliboli wrote was not 'opinion', which is defined as reasoned argument based on facts. What the Times Sunday actually published was Qalakaliboli's prejudice, which was not based on fact.
What Qalakaliboli said cannot be considered as 'fair comment', since it is provably untrue.
What has angered critics is that journalism standards at the Times are so poor that his column was allowed to be printed. Any journalist at the newspaper, including the editor, who read the article before it reached publication, should be able to spot the falsehood in Qalakaliboli's assertions that women abused men more than the other way round.
The same journalists should also have realised that for Qalakaliboli to write of a woman trying to escape an abusive marriage, 'I am reminded of the saying: "B***es come and go - real women give it their best', was unacceptable.
Alec Lushaba, in his support of Qalakaliboli's 'right' to say what he wanted about violence against women, however unpalatable it might be, denied his own organisation's policy on gender violence.
The MISA policy recognises that reporting of gender violence, 'is often sensational, lacking in depth, context and analysis'. That description aptly sums up the Times Sunday article.
MISA's policy goes on to state, 'As one of the main shapers of public opinion, the media has a critical role to play in the advancement and attainment of gender equality.'
It also says. 'As an agenda setter, the media has a duty to portray not just what is, but what could be ...'
It is baffling to see how Lushaba can reconcile his own belief that the Times Sunday had a right to publish Qalakaliboli's article, with the policy of the organisation he chairs. Clearly, he has some explaining to do to colleagues at MISA.
Martin Dlamini, the managing editor of Times of Swaziland newspapers and the man ultimately responsible for what is published, misled his readers badly when he tried to defend the article. He wrote in his own newspaper that there was evidence from around the world that women were abusing men. But he did not tackle Qalakaliboli's central claim that 'women are the biggest abusers in the world.'
It is a sad reflection on the poor standards at the Times newspapers that Martin Dlamini, the most senior person in the company's three editorial offices, seemed to genuinely believe that he had provided compelling 'evidence' to support Qalakaliboli.
Martin Dlamini also asked rhetorically, 'Would he have been said to have used hate speech if the article headline was: "Men are the worst abusers?"' The answer to his question, of course, is: No, because that headline is a statement of provable fact. It is very sad that Martin Dlamini was unable to see the difference.
Yesterday (14 December 2012), it was revealed that Qalakaliboli Dlamini was bragging to his Facebook readers that the controversy he had created with his article would help sales of a book he was about to publish. This has raised speculation that he had tricked his newspaper and its readers into creating a publicity stunt for his own ends which raises another question about the judgement of the Times in allowing the article to be published.