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Kuten and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2003-066

Members

  • P Cartwright (Chair)
  • R Bryant
  • Tapu Misa
  • J H McGregor

Complainant

  • Jay Kuten of Wanganui

Dated

24th July 2003

Number

2003-066

Channel/Station

TV One

Broadcaster

Television New Zealand Ltd


Complaint
Some of my best friends are … Muslims Muslims, Christians and "zsh" described favourably as religions – "zsh" apparently "Jewish" but allegedly censored – excision breached standards of balance, accuracy and fairness

Findings
Standard 4; Standard 5; Standard 6 – no evidence of any censorship in programme designed to promote tolerance – no uphold

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Summary

[1] The comments made by a Muslim woman were indistinct when she was promoting understanding between Muslims, Christians and a third religious group – possibly Jews. The incident occurred in the programme, Some of my best friends are… which looks at minority groups in New Zealand. Muslims was the group featured in the programme broadcast on TV One at 7.00pm on 29 March 2003.

[2] Dr Kuten complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that it appeared that a statement designed to promote understanding between religious groups had been censored. He considered that the broadcast breached the requirements for balance, accuracy and fairness.

[3] In response, TVNZ said its enquiries disclosed that the tape had not been edited and the indistinct word occurred as English was not the first language of the interviewee.

[4] Dissatisfied with the extent of TVNZ’s investigation, Dr Kuten referred the complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.

For the reasons below, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.

Decision

[5] The members of the Authority have viewed a video of the programme complained about and have read the correspondence which is listed in the Appendix. The Authority determines the complaint without a formal hearing.

The Programme

[6] Some of My Best Friends are…. – a weekly series presented by Pio Terei – looked at minority groups living in New Zealand. Some of My Best Friends are…Muslims was the title of the programme broadcast on TV One at 7pm on 29 March 2003.

The Complaint

[7] Dr Kuten complained to TVNZ about a comment towards the end of the programme which, he believed, involved censorship. The presenter asked a woman from Sudan what being Muslim meant to her. She referred to matters all religions agreed on, saying: "Muslims, Christians and Zsh".

[8] Dr Kuten suspected the last word was "Jewish" and suggested that an excision had been made which was in breach of the requirements for balance, fairness and accuracy. Describing the action as serious in view of rising tensions between religious and ethnic groups, he wrote:

That the program which seemed aimed to promote understanding of one religious group should omit an important name of another religion, spoken of in complimentary terms by a Moslem women casts a shadow over that program.

The Standards

[9] TVNZ assessed the complaint under the standards nominated by the complainant. Standards 4, 5, 6 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice provide:

Standard 4 Balance

In the preparation and presentation of news, current affairs and factual programmes, broadcasters are responsible for maintaining standards consistent with the principle that when controversial issues of public importance are discussed, reasonable efforts are made, or reasonable opportunities are given, to present significant points of view either in the same programme or in other programmes within the period of current interest.

Standard 5 Accuracy

News, current affairs and other factual programmes must be truthful and accurate on points of fact, and be impartial and objective at all times.

Standard 6 Fairness

In the preparation and presentation of programmes, broadcasters are required to deal justly and fairly with any person or organisation taking part or referred to.

The Broadcaster’s Response to the Complainant

[10] On the basis that the complaint focused on an "indistinct" moment in the dialogue, TVNZ’s Complaints Committee listened to a tape of the programme and wrote:

The committee was inclined to agree with you that the word the woman was intending to utter was "Jewish" but it came out sounding more like "jsh"

[11] TVNZ reported that it had consulted with both the producer and the appraiser. It noted that there was no picture disturbance and the producer had advised that no sound edit had been made. TVNZ recorded that it was satisfied that no edit had taken place. It continued:

It was noted by the committee that the woman, whose first language was not English, spoke with a strong North African accent. The way she pronounced what you and the committee assumed to be the word "Jewish" was faithfully reproduced on the soundtrack. In documentary programmes, participants are encouraged to be themselves and to express themselves in a manner of their choosing. In this case it appears that the woman concerned delivered what may have been the word "Jewish" with a very much abbreviated vowel sound. On the other hand, she may have had some other word or religion in mind altogether.

[12] TVNZ concluded that the censorship had not occurred and, as the standards were not breached, declined to uphold the complaint.

The Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority

[13] As he considered that an elision had occurred in the programme which was broadcast, Dr Kuten referred the complaint to the Authority. The missing word he thought, was "Jewish" and he noted a further phrase was missing in the sentence which would link the religions named.

[14] Dr Kuten expressed dissatisfaction that TVNZ’s Complaints Committee had not bothered to identify the woman correctly and had speculated that thewoman, whose first language was not English, was considered to speak with a strong North African accent. He pointed out that her name was included in the programme, she was described as a refugee from the Sudan, and had been identified by the programme’s presenter as a "mover and shaker in the community, and not just the Muslim community". He argued:

Her language while clearly accented is distinct and she appears to have a good command of English, certainly capable of pronouncing a two syllable word like "Jewish" distinctly.

[15] TVNZ, Dr Kuten noted, acknowledged that the word "zsh" or "jsh" was probably "Jewish", but had speculated that it might be another word altogether. Dr Kuten commented that it was apparent that Mrs Omer (the woman involved) had not been interviewed by the Complaints Committee or asked to comment on the broadcast.

[16] Dr Kuten suggested to the Authority:

In addition to an interview of Ms. Omer I would request of the Broadcast Standards Authority that it subject the tape to oscilloscope analysis which would demonstrate if alterations have been made. There may be additional analytic techniques for making a scientific determination of the integrity of a tape recording. There is no indication that the Committee used any of them.

It is clear to me, as the speculative comment, and casual misspelling of Ms. Omer’s first name indicates, that the TVOne Committee was less than thorough in its consideration of this matter.

[17] Dr Kuten said his concerns now focused not only on the word "zsh" but also the following phrase where, according to the transcript provided by TVNZ, another word was absent. He concluded:

The TV One letter finds my "suspicions" of censorship unjustified. I do find myself suspicious when a program purporting to promote ethnic or religious understanding, has two missing words and word-phrases at a critical point in which a speaker is in fact, illustrating her own inclusiveness and interfaith tolerance. Those suspicions are not allayed by the manner in which TV One dealt with my concerns.

The Broadcaster’s Response to the Authority

[18] TVNZ rejected the complainant’s belief that the soundtrack had been tampered with to distort the word "Jewish". It also advised that the complaint had been processed thoroughly and completely through TVNZ’s complaints process, adding:

With respect to Dr Kuten, it would not be practical to call witnesses in the sense he suggests (the law requires that TVNZ responds to the complainant within 20 working days), and in this case it would have been unwarranted imposition upon Mrs Omer to have demanded that she appear before our Complaints Committee. She, after all, has not complained about the item. As is routine the people who made this programme were approached during the investigation process, and provided assurances that the word Dr Kuten has complained about was not tampered with in any way. Those assurances are confirmed by our own close examination of the videotape.

The Complainant’s Final Comment

[19] Describing TVNZ’s response as "offhand and contemptuous", Dr Kuten maintained that TVNZ’s contention that the complaints process was not flawed was not credible. In view of the complaint that the broadcaster displayed bias against Jews, Dr Kuten believed that a phone call to Mrs Omer would allow her to clarify her comment. TVNZ, he argued, seemed to be unwilling to clear up a problem that it had created.

The Authority’s Determination

[20] Dr Kuten complained that TVNZ had been involved in censorship which ensured that Mrs Fatuma Omer, a Muslim refugee from the Sudan, who was interviewed on Some of my best friends are… Muslims, was prevented from speaking positively about Jews.

[21] Having viewed the video and read the correspondence, the Authority is firmly of the view that there is no visual or aural evidence that the material was edited in any way. It notes that Mrs Omer spoke with a significant accent and was difficult to understand at times. It considers that the word heard as "zsh" or "jsh" was her pronunciation of the word "Jews".

[22] The Authority also notes that the programme complained about was designed to promote religious understanding and tolerance. It would not have been in the programme maker’s interest to carry out the censorship that the complainant alleged has occurred. The Authority declines to uphold the complaint that the item was unbalanced, inaccurate or unfair.

[23] The Authority observes that to find a breach of broadcasting standards on this occasion would be to apply the Broadcasting Act 1989 in such a way as to limit freedom of expression in a manner which is not reasonable or demonstrably justifiable in a free and democratic society (s.5 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990). As required by s.6 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act, the Authority adopts an interpretation of the relevant standards which it considers is consistent with and gives full weight to the provisions of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act.

 

For the above reasons, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Peter Cartwright
Chair
24 July 2003

Appendix

The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:

  1. Dr Kuten’s Complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd – 30 March 2003
  2. TVNZ’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 1 May 2003
  3. Dr Kuten’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 6 May 2003
  4. TVNZ’s Response to the Authority –17 May 2003
  5. Dr Kuten’s Final Comment – 15 June 2003