Harmeet Sooden complained to the Press Council about a David Cohen opinion piece entitled “Gaza Blues” in his column “This is Not a Blog Post” published in The National Business Review (NBR) on 17 December 2008.
The complaint is upheld on the grounds of inaccuracy. Mr Cohen’s article implies that Mr Sooden is not a New Zealand citizen (and by implication is not entitled to receive support from the NZ Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade).
Mr Sooden’s other complaints concerning the article are not upheld.
On 17 December 2008, The Dominion Post published an article detailing the inquiry which was being conducted by New Zealand Foreign Affairs after a complaint by former hostage (in Iraq) Harmeet Sooden about his recent treatment by Israeli immigration officials.
Mr Sooden, a peace activist, had been planning to work with a Palestinian activist group, International Solidarity Movement, but had been refused entry to Israel. He alleged mistreatment before his expulsion from Israel.
David Cohen’s opinion piece of 17 December was in response to the Dominion Post article. He stated in his “not a blog” that Mr Sooden “is a Zambia-born Canadian citizen and not a New Zealand national”. He questioned whether or not Mr Sooden’s complaint of mistreatment was justified. His article, in essence, lays open what he considers Mr Sooden’s “goofy antics” and suggests that his peace activism antics are attention seeking.
The Complaint
The complainant draws the attention of the Press Council to what he considers a number of inaccuracies in the article. In particular, he is concerned that the article does not acknowledge that he is a New Zealand citizen and therefore entitled to seek help from the New Zealand Government. He also questions the tone of the article, and its clear denigration of his involvement in peace activism in the Middle East, and a statement that a high profile murder of one of his peace activist colleagues, Tom Fox, was carried out by Islamists. He asks how such information is available to Mr Cohen.
The Newspaper’s Response
The Editor in Chief of the NBR, in his initial response to the Executive Director of the Press Council about this complaint, said that he was hoping to set up an Internal Ombudsman to monitor complaints to his newspaper. However, despite best endeavours, this had not happened.
Subsequently, repeated requests to the editor to respond to this complaint have not been met.
In its previous decisions, the Press Council has repeatedly endorsed the view that opinion pieces in newspapers, magazines, or other publications can take a strong line, reflecting the views of the writer.
However, the Press Council has also reiterated the need that information presented as “fact” should be accurate.
In this case, when the complainant pointed out to the NBR that he was indeed a New Zealand citizen, this should have been corrected as soon as possible in a subsequent publication.

The Press Council is not able to resolve the factual dispute over the statement that Tom Fox had been killed by Islamists.

As to the tone of the article, the Council finds that it was not exceptional given that this is an opinion piece. This part of the complaint is not upheld.
The complaint is upheld on the grounds of inaccuracy when Mr Sooden was described as “not New Zealand citizen”. This matter should have been corrected by the NBR.
The Press Council is disappointed that the Editor in Chief of the National Business Review failed to engage properly with the complaint process. In doing so, he undermines the industry-regulated Press Council which was established so that the public could have complaints considered independently by an organisation made up by a majority of public members. The editor’s intention to establish an Internal Ombudsman may have some merit for his company but, if it ever establishes such a position, it will not replace the Press Council. Responding to public complaints should be viewed by editors as part of their job and not a matter to be treated lightly.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Ruth Buddicom, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Sandy Gill, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, John Roughan, Lynn Scott and Stephen Stewart.
Penny Harding took no part in the consideration of this complaint.


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