Should ombudsmen criticize opinion?

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Dealing with the question of whether ombuds should be involved in critiquing opinion journalism has long been a problem. That’s because journalism should be about allowing a range of opinions. But what if an opinion goes too far?

Yavuz Baydar from the newspaper Sabah in Istanbul posed this dilemma and got some answers from ONO members.

— Jeffrey Dvorkin
ONO Executive Director

Ombuds-

Here is another question for all of you.

We have a developing case of a columnist who has been accused of denigrating a physically handicapped MP (who lost her leg and arm in an accident), with political undertones. This happens at the same time a large group of NGO’s exert pressure on criminalising hate speech in Turkey.

I agree with the critique from readers.

But, I have remained utterly reluctant to step over the opinion segment; except in 2 times (each time in racism).

Have you ever had to deal with complaints on hate speech in columns / Op-Ed?

What did / would you do?

Best.

— Yavuz Baydar

From Karen Rothmyer, The Nation, Nairobi.

I’ve had to deal with racism, and I called the columnist out on it. She is an Asian-Kenyan and said some things about African-Kenyans that I thought were over the line. The column brought a complaint by a progressive Asian-Kenyan organisation, which made it easier, since I could begin with their complaint.

I recently did a long column on covering hate speech, which was criminalised here after the inter-tribal 2007-8 post-election violence, as a way of helping readers to understand what a complicated concept it is. I talked to the head of the commission that investigates hate speech, along with the head of the national media council and some of our own journalists. Maybe you could try doing something similar, pegged to the effort to get a bill passed, that would serve as a general look at the situation. I know I learned a lot about the issue, and what I thought about it, just from doing that column, and I expect to be applying that knowledge to readers’ complaints about hate speech ahead of the next election. One thing I feel certain of is that there is no single answer that’s right for all countries, so you could do a real service by looking at your particular circumstances.

From Kirk LaPointe, CBC, Toronto

The situation can depend on the code or guidelines you against which you are assessing performance, but I have had to determine that name-calling foments contempt or hatred in a couple of cases. That said, when there are instances of hate speech, usually in our situation the courts are called upon instead of an ombudsman to resolve the matter.

From John Horgan, Irish Press Council, Dublin

Yes. They rarely succeed. However, one very prominent one, about three years ago, was a complaint about a columnist who had written a column criticizing Western aid policies towards Africa. He was adjudged to have caused “grave offence”, which is the lesser of two possible breaches of Principle 9 of our Code. The more serious one is that of “inciting hatred”, but no publication or journalist has ever been found to be in breach of that provision.

The reason such complaints rarely succeed is that though the comments in question might well have been regarded as offensive, they rarely “gravely” so. The test of offensiveness is whether I consider it gravely offensive – not whether the complainant does so.

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