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New York, U.S.A – The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the campaign of harassment and intimidation against a newspaper in South Africa after it published a photo of a painting of President Jacob Zuma more than two weeks ago.
On May 13, local private weekly City Press published an art review of an exhibition in Johannesburg that featured a painting of a Soviet-era propaganda poster casting Zuma in the mold of Vladimir Lenin with exposed genitals, according to news reports. After a series of criticism and threats against the paper in the week of 28 May, the paper’s editor-in-chief, Ferial Haffajee, announced the removal of the photo from the website on Monday, she said in an op-ed.
Haffajee told CPJ 31 May 2012 that she had received a letter from a government official that said the paper’s coverage could instigate a race war if they continued to report on Zuma. Days before City Press removed the photo, news accounts reported that a City Press reporter was obstructed from covering a local union meeting on Saturday, while others said that on Sunday, protesters from Zuma’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) party had burned copies of the paper that featured the painting.
The ANC released a statement on May 24 saying that City Press had singled itself out as being against Zuma, the ANC, “our democracy, and the majority of South Africans.” Jackson Mthembu, a spokesman for the party, called the newspaper “a perpetrator of injustice and slander,” and told supporters “to indefinitely boycott buying the City Press Newspaper … until the removal of the insulting portrait of President Jacob Zuma from their website.”
On 31 May 2012, the Goodman Gallery announced that it had reached a deal with the ANC to remove the painting permanently, according to news reports.
“We condemn acts of intimidation and threats against City Press, as they undermine the rule of law in South Africa and curtail the freedom of the press to report on speech critical of the authorities,” said CPJ Africa Advocacy Coordinator Mohamed Keita. “As head of the ANC and the ruling coalition, President Jacob Zuma must call his supporters to restraint. We hold the government responsible for the safety of the staff of City Press.”
Zuma had filed a complaint at the Gauteng High Court on May 18 seeking the removal of the painting from both the gallery and the newspaper’s website, arguing that the artwork depicted him as a “philanderer, a womanizer, and one with no respect.” In court, City Press argued, as shown in an affidavit published online, that its decision to publish the photo was lawful and “amounted to the publication of legitimate criticism” in light of the president’s public admission of extramarital affairs and involvement in several sex scandals in office, the newspaper reported.
The Film and Publication Board also summoned City Press for a meeting, but then referred the case 30 May 2012 to the Press Ombudsman, who could take disciplinary action against the publication, according to news reports.
“It is a view I still live by and have never claimed that my or City Press’ freedom of expression is limitless. But our right to publish and to free expression is constitutional,” wrote Haffajee in an earlier Sunday op-ed.