Appeal Decision: News24 vs Minister L Sisulu

Wed, Nov 22, 2017

In the matter between

NEWS 24                                                                 APPLICANT


MINISTER L SISULU                                           RESPONDENT

MATTER NO: 3495/09/2017


1.       On 16 July 2017 News 24 (“applicant”) published a story with the headline “Sisulu must explain dept’s R10m bill for flowers and gifts - DA”. A follow-up article was published on 23 July 2017 with the headline “Spat continues over government R10m flowers and gifts bill”.  The department referred to was the Human Settlements Department headed by Minister L Sisulu (“respondent”).  The essence of the first story, continued in the second one, was a report on what a Democratic Alliance member of Parliament had said, namely, that the department had spent some R10m on “flowers and gifts”.

2.       The respondent complained that the reporting was inaccurate; it stated what was really an interpretation of her parliamentary answer to a question by the DA member of parliament as a fact, which was not the case.  The second complaint was that the respondent was not given the opportunity to respond to a reportage that was critical of her or her department.  The Ombud, in his Ruling dated 13 October 2017, summarized the gist of the main complaint:

“l   the statement that her department had spent more than R10-million on flowers and gifts was incorrect and misleading.  She says she did indicate that the department spent a total of R10 241 089.23 on gifts, donations and sponsorships ‘which include[d] purchases of flowers for staff members ... which does not necessarily qualify to be regarded as gifts’; and

l News24 failed to report the gist of her media release, in which she had distanced herself from the spending as she was not the political head of the department at that time”.

This complaint was upheld by the Ombud, and a sanction was imposed, namely, that the applicant apologized to the respondent; hence this application. All other complaints were dismissed by the Ombud and no reference needs to be made to them.

3.       Despite prolific submissions by the applicant in support of this application, the issue is a very narrow one, and can be simplified as follows: it was reported, as a fact, that R10m was spent on “flowers and gifts”; in other words, on only two items or categories of items whereas, according to the respondent, the R10m was spent on other items as well other than just the two; for example on donations and departmental awards in the form of cash (sponsorships).  The applicant’s argument that there is no substantial difference between what is said in the story and what respondent admits to have said, therefore lacks substance.  As the Ombud correctly held, the second story made the situation worse, with the heading repeating the statement implying that the R10m was spent only on “flowers and gifts”.  The Ombud’s point of departure was therefore correct, and so too his conclusion that section 1.1 of the Press Code was violated.

4.       For the reasons given above, the application for leave to appeal has no reasonable prospects of success and is therefore dismissed.

Dated this 20th day of November 2017

Judge B M Ngoepe, Chair, Appeals Panel