Accommodation Options Events (AOE); Sandra Linley vs. Sunday World


Tue, Jul 17, 2018

Ruling by the Press Ombud

17 July 2018

PARTICULARS
 

 

Lodged by

 

 

Deonette Janse van Vuuren of Kraljevich & Janse van Vuuren ING/INC

 

 

Date of article

 

 

13 May 2018

 

Headline

 

 

Parastatal’s top-brass face tender, donations rap

 

Page

 

 

4

 

Online

 

 

16 May 2018

 

Authors of article

 

 

Boitumelo Kgobotlo and Aubrey Mothombeni

 

Respondent

 

 

Wendy Pretorius, managing editor; and

Amos Mananyetso, deputy editor

 

Complaint                                            

AOE and Linley complain the story falsely stated that:

·         CIPC documents showed the company was owned by Linley (and others), without properly verifying this dubious information (details below);

·         they had provided services for the Centre for Public Service Innovation (CPSI) for six years; and

·         the latter had said she could not comment, while she did not have sufficient time to do so.

They add that the reportage has tarnished their reputation and dignity, and ask for the story to be withdrawn.

The text

The story said that two high-ranking CPSI officials, CFO Annette Snyman and programmes manager Lydia Phalwane, as well as a service provider were facing criminal investigations over an event contract and missing donations – they allegedly had “hijacked” an event management tender from a company recommended by a bid adjudication and evaluation committee in favour of AOE.

This reportedly came after a CPSI employee and member of Nehawu had opened a case of fraud at the Lyttelton police station.

The journalists reported that, according to CIPC documents, AOE was owned by Linley and other directors, and they have been providing services to CPSI for six years.

Linley reportedly said she could not comment.

The arguments

Ownership

The article said: “AOE, according to CIPC documents, is owned by Sandra Anne Linley [and others]…”

Linley complains that this statement was false, as she was an employee (AOE’s accountant), She adds that the newspaper has relied on information garnered from:

·         the Police, while that docket was not public and could not be relied on before the SAPD had finalised their investigation. She also wants to know how the reporters got access to the docket; and

·         Legal City, while that portal’s information was outdated and could not be considered to be reliable (given its own provisions in this regard – see below).

Pretorius says the reportage was based on information and credible documentation that were available at the time. She says the day before publication the newspaper conducted a company search on AOE with legalcity.net (an online portal providing legal services, including CIPC searches), which showed that Linley was an active director of the corporation and has been one since her appointment on 1 September 2013.

She offers to publish a correction if these details are proved incorrect.

The managing editor adds that Sunday World has confirmed its information with SAPS and CPSI officials regarding charges laid against CPSI officials, and argues: “The article properly attributed the allegations to the police statement and documents attached thereto and did not present them as fact.”

She rejects the argument that police documents cannot be relied on “before the SAPD has not finalized their investigation”, and adds there is no law or provision in the Press Code that prohibits the media from relying on and quoting from such documents.

Janse van Vuuren replies that the legalcity.net online portal was not a CIPC search, “as falsely stated in the article”. She attaches a CIPC search, which clarifies that Phoebe Motlatso Thlaku was the only active member of this CC.

She adds that Linley has resigned in 2013, which made the statement that she “owned” AOE (at the time of publication) also false.

She draws my attention to the bottom of legalcity.net’s page, where it says: “This web site (sic) may include technical, typographical or other inaccuracies and you are urged to contact us to confirm all information contained herein before placing any reliance on it.” She says she wants proof that the journalists did confirm the information accordingly.

Janse van Vuuren adds that the newspaper’s own attachments indicate its records were as old as December 2015.

She concludes: “…the publication was done mentioning incorrect information from out of date sources and information obtained from a leaked docket and / or mere statements. [Besides], the statement was not verified…”

Analysis

I was faced with quite an interesting situation: Records produced by the newspaper, as obtained through a Legal City search, produced different results from that of a CIPC search done by Janse van Vuuren.

The CIPC document, dated 11 June 2018, lists only one registered member of AOE (Ms Phoebe Motlatso), and shows that Linley has resigned on 17 July 2017. The Legal City search, on the other hand, was done on 12 May 2018, and it listed nine directors – including Linley. However, lower down in the same document it stated that her details were last updated at the end of 2015.

I asked Sunday World why the reporter(s):

·         used Legal City as a source, while that website itself says its information could be out of date? In other words: How justified was the newspaper to use this document as a reliable source of information?

·         did not use the official records, which a CIPC search would have given them?

·         stated in the article that a CIPC search was done (and not a Legal City search), if this was not the case?

I also have solicited Janse van Vuuren’s reply to the answers given by the newspaper.

Here are their responses:

 

The newspaper explains it has been using Legal City as a vehicle to access CIPC records for more than a decade, without any problems. Mananyetso adds the fact that Legal City is a paid-for service, “more trustworthy”.  He says that the disclaimer about the accuracy of the information that Legal City provides is because that portal relies on the effectiveness of the back office of the dti (CIPC). If and when information is loaded later than it was submitted to the dti, it will obviously reflect late on the portal. “In essence, the portal is as good as the dti is,” he asserts.

The deputy editor submits that accessing official records from the CIPC is almost impossible, given the red tape that people have to go through. He states that service providers such as Legal City and Windeed are third parties that are “plugged” into the database of the dti to help those portals access the information faster.

Mananyetso says the reference “according to a CIPC search” in the article stemmed from the manner in which Legal City obtains its information. “In simple IT terms, Legal City is a third party bridge that plugs into the main frame of the dti by law. So effectively, Legal City is an extension of the dti as is their legal agent,” he explains.


Janse van Vuuren replies the Legal City search clearly stated when AOE’s and its members’ records had been updated. She says this should have prompted the reporters to further enquire and verify such information, as this update was done quite some time ago.

She says even if it is argued that the Legal City company information was updated on 23 April 2017, as shown on one such document, the information was still more than a year old. Besides, she adds, records of members were last updated last on 31 December 2015.

Moreover, she continues, the statement that the newspaper never had problems with the verification of information obtained from Legal City does not mean that they should not deal with each matter with caution. She adds: “The statement that it is a ‘paid-for service’ [carries] no weight as the portal’s own terms and condition state that errors may occur.”

She calls the statement that the Legal City portal is as good as the dti “absolute nonsense”. She argues: “The CIPC website (operated by DTI) is the first line of first hand updated information because this is the actual office of the Government where accountants, attorneys and members of the Public lodge company documents, amend records etc.”

Contrary to Mananyetso, she says access to information on the CIPC website is easily accessible, free of charge, and publicly available.

She submits it is common cause that Sunday World has not verified its information – the newspaper blindly and negligently based it reportage on outdated information.

From her own experience, she also denies that accessing official records from the CIPC website is almost “impossible” and that “red tape” is involved, and emphatically denies that Legal City is “an extension of the dti” – which rendered the statement in the article that the newspaper has done a CIPC search false.

I need to take the following into account:

·         A CIPC search containing information from the dti’s official website shows that Linley did not own AOE at the time of publication;

·         The data obtained from that website were more recent than that of the Legal City search; and

·         The latter’s website warned that its information might include inaccuracies, urging readers to verify its data before placing any reliance on it.

I recognise that Sunday World says it has used Legal City for a decade now, without any prior problems. I accept this explanation. It follows that I am not blaming the newspaper for not verifying the information obtained from its Legal City search, as (based on years of previous experience) it had not enough reason to suspect that the data could be wrong.

However, given this specific case, I also need to urge the newspaper to do a “direct” CIPC search in future, to avoid a recurrence of a situation like this one – as Legal City’s information clearly was out of date in this instance.

Pretorius has offered to publish a correction if the newspaper’s information proves to be incorrect (at the time of publication). That would indeed be necessary.

Insufficient time to comment

Linley says the newspaper phoned a colleague of her on Saturday morning for comment. She then asked the journalist to send her an email, to which she could respond on Monday morning during office hours – upon which the reporter replied that that would be too late.

She says this did not give her colleague sufficient time to respond.

She also complains the article falsely stated that she had said she “could not comment”.

Pretorius says Kgobotlo called Linley’s colleague on that Saturday. After numerous unsuccessful attempts, she sent the latter a WhatsApp message, explaining who she was and what the nature of her enquiry was. Linley then told the reporter that she could not comment on the matter because she did not work on Saturdays.

The editor provides me with a screengrab of the WhatsApp message sent to Linley’s colleague on 12 May 2018 at 11:06.

She argues that the latter was given a reasonable opportunity to respond, and adds that the information requested from her was such that she should have been able to respond to the questions without having to be in the office.

Linley says the journalist had no business in contacting her, as she was not a member of AOE. Janse van Vuuren adds that, nowhere in the WhatsApp, did the reporter state that the story would be published the following day, which meant that Linley was not afforded a reasonable time to respond.

Analysis

It is noticeable that AOE does not complain that the newspaper did not ask it for comment – the complaint merely is that the reporter did not give Linley sufficient opportunity to respond.

This is quite bizarre, as the argument is that Linley was not a member of AOE anymore and that she therefore could not speak on behalf of the CC. It would have made more sense if the complaint was that the newspaper never gave AOE an opportunity to comment, instead of not giving someone who is not in a position to respond insufficient time to do so.

The fact that Linley was the wrong person to ask for comment, largely renders the complaint that she was not given sufficient time to respond irrelevant.

I also take into account that the reporter was under the impression (albeit wrongly) that Linley was a member of the CC, which made it reasonable for her to have contacted her for comment.

I accept that Linley’s colleague was not in a position to answer this question, as she was not a member of AOE anymore. However, instead of merely pointing this out to the journalist, she opted to divert the question to Linley, who was in the same position as she was. That was not the newspaper’s fault – a straight response would have clarified the matter.

Given this situation, I do not believe the newspaper could be faulted for going ahead with the publication of the story.

Services provided for CPSI

The article reported: “AOE … [has] been providing services to CPIS for six years.”

AOE and Linley complain that this statement is false.

Pretorius says the allegations in the story were based on a signed statement by Mr Vincent Londi Sikakane, a CPSI employee, and a member of Nehawu. She says the information came from a whistle-blower and in accordance with the whistle-blowing policy of CPSI, which was attached to the statement. 

She says the allegations in the statement were supported by annexures to the statement including emails between Nehawu and CPSI officials and Bid Adjudication documents regarding the tender for events manager services.

Pretorius says the allegation that AOE had been providing services to CPSI for six years stemmed from the statements made to the Police. She adds that an annexure to the Police statement (an email from Nehawu dated July 2017) also mentioned that AOE had been doing work for CPSI “for approximately over five (5) consecutive years”.

Analysis

Janse van Vuuren has given me no reason to doubt the credibility of the information garnered from its various sources, as proffered by Pretorius.

Dignity, reputation

AOE and Linley complain that the reportage has tarnished their reputation and dignity, and ask for the story to be withdrawn.

Analysis

Because the gist of the story is reasonably true, it follows that the complaint that the reportage has unnecessarily tarnished AOE’s reputation cannot be upheld.

In so far as Linley was not a member of AOE at the time of publication the article unnecessarily involved her in an issue she was not part of – at the time of publication, that is. However, the allegation stretched back to a period during which she was a member of the CC – which convinces me that this part of the complaint should also be dismissed as far as she is concerned.

Finding

The story incorrectly stated as fact that Linley owned AOE at the time of publication. This is in breach of Section 1.1 of the Press Code that states: “The media shall take care to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly.”

The rest of the complaint is dismissed.

Seriousness of breaches                                              

Under the headline Hierarchy of sanctions, Section 8 of the Complaints Procedures distinguishes between minor breaches (Tier 1 – minor errors which do not change the thrust of the story), serious breaches (Tier 2), and serious misconduct (Tier 3).                                             

The breach of the Press Code as indicated above is a Tier 2 offence.

Sanction

Sunday World is directed to apologise to Linley for incorrectly stating as fact that she had owned AOE at the time of publication, and to publish the correct information in this regard.

The newspaper is directed to publish the text:

·         at the top of page 4, with a headline containing the words “apology” or “apologises”, and “Linley”; and

·         online, at the top of the page that carries the article.

The text should:

·         be published at the earliest opportunity after the time for an application for leave to appeal has lapsed or, in the event of such an application, after that ruling;

·     refer to the complaint that was lodged with this office;

·     end with the sentence, “Visit www.presscouncil.org.za for the full finding”;

·     be published with the logo of the Press Council (attached); and

·     be prepared by the publication and be approved by me.

Appeal

The Complaints Procedures lay down that within seven working days of receipt of this decision, either party may apply for leave to appeal to the Chairperson of the SA Press Appeals Panel, Judge Bernard Ngoepe, fully setting out the grounds of appeal. He can be contacted at Khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.

Johan Retief

Press Ombud