MICHAEL BAHJEJIAN AGAINST WAIKATO TIMES

Case Number: 2305

Council Meeting: FEBRUARY 2013

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Waikato Times

Ruling Categories: Discrimination
Balance, Lack Of
Unfair Coverage

Michael Bahjejian claims that the Waikato Times breached Principle 1 (Accuracy, Fairness and Balance) by removing an opinion piece from their website but leaving a right of reply responding to the opinion piece up.

He also believes the newspaper’s actions breach Principal 6 (Discrimination and Diversity) as it “obviously discriminated against Christian and Jewish minorities who are the innocent victims of the rise of Islamism”.

This complaint is not upheld.

Background
The opinion piece published 10 November 2012, was headed ”We should listen to Malala about Muslim influence” and outlined the story of a young girl shot on a bus by “cowardly Taleban attackers” and the opposition to female education by the Taleban and Islamic fundamentalists.

The opinion piece then went on to quote a book by Dr Peter Hammond called “Slavery, Terrorism and Islam” which outlined a process Dr Hammond called “Islamisation” and the possibility, and impact, of Sharia law being implemented in non- Islamic countries. The opinion piece clearly notes that this is Dr Hammond’s viewpoint.

On 17 November 2012, the newspaper published a right of reply to the opinion piece from Anjum Rahman headed “Muslim women want to be heard and respected”. The response provided a life perspective of a Muslim woman.

Following the complaint to the paper from Ms Rahman and the subsequent publication of her response, the newspaper made the decision to remove the opinion piece from their website but not the response.

On 27 November, the writer of the opinion piece included an apology for “any clumsy words I may have used in my recent Opinion article about the Pakistani girl Malala”.

The Complaint
Mr Bahjejian believes that when the newspaper removed the opinion piece, but not the response, a reader was left “in limbo” with “no room for freedom of choice and opinion” as they were unable to obtain the original opinion piece without great difficulty.

He believes that the apology included in a later opinion piece reinforces “the unbalance as the apology refers more to the use of clumsy words than to the core of his message”.

He also believes the removal of the first piece “obviously discriminates against Christian and Jewish minorities who are the innocent victims of the rise of Islamism since no mention of their alarming situation can be found anymore in the subsequent opinion pieces”.


The Newspaper’s Response
The editor responded that the opinion piece was removed as the newspaper believed parts of it were inaccurate, offensive and unfair.

The newspaper believed that the decision to remove the opinion piece and allow a right of reply was a responsible one for which they made no apology.

He believed that while the opinion piece was strong robust opinion, it also contained some claims about Muslims in general which the newspaper felt were unfair.

The editor rejected the claim that removal of the opinion piece and publishing of the response were discrimination against Christians and Jews and argued that the removal of the opinion piece was an action to promote tolerance and understanding of respective cultures given the concerns regarding a small part of the opinion piece.

He stated that there had been no suppression of information as all letters on both sides of the argument were published.

The writer of the opinion piece himself, without prompting from the newspaper, apologised for some statements in the opinion piece.

The editor stated that removing the opinion piece from the website is not in itself a big deal as not everything published in the newspaper is put on the website.

The editor stated that to argue that removal of the column is a breach of accuracy, fairness and balance is “nonsense as parts of the article were inaccurate, unfair and offensive and the newspaper “simply remedied that as any responsible publisher should do”.

Discussion and Decision
The Council has previously defended the right of a writer of an opinion piece to express his/her views and the presentation of contrasting views is a critical aspect of democracy. But the expressed views should not deliberately mislead or misinform readers either by commission or omission.

While the opinion piece cited in this complaint commenced as, and in the main concerned, a story about a young Muslim girl, it progressed to some generalisations regarding Muslims.

The newspaper, upon reflection and recognising that the opinion piece contained some unfair and inaccurate comments, published a right of reply response from a female member of the Muslim community and then removed the opinion piece from the website.

There were various options available to the newspaper including leaving the article there alongside a reference to the apology. After reflection, the newspaper felt that the opinion piece was arguably in breach of Principle 6 (Discrimination and Diversity) and the responsible option was to remove it which they did. The option chosen by the newspaper was not an unreasonable one, and did not amount to discrimination.

The complaint is not upheld.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson, Tim Beaglehole, Liz Brown, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Chris Darlow, Sandy Gill, John Roughan and Stephen Stewart.
Clive Lind took no part in the consideration of this complaint.