Clinton Manuel vs. Knysna-Plett Herald et al


Thu, Sep 13, 2018

Ruling by the Press Ombud

13 September 2018

Particulars

Date of article: 5 July 2018

Headline: [For over a year we have seen the to and fro of conflicting theories of how the Knysna fires started. But after the CSIR report, many people are asking: has Knysna’s former chief Clinton Manuel not been caught with his…  ] Pants on fire?

Page: 4

Online: Yes

Author of article: Stefan Goosen

Respondent, on behalf of the newspaper et al: JS Marais Inc Attorneys & Conveyancers

Complaint                                            

Mr Clinton Manuel, former Knysna’s fire chief, complains that the headline, certain contents of the article, and the cartoon were defamatory and damaging to his reputation as they have imputed dishonesty on his part.

The text

The article was about two separate reports (the one by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research – the CSIR – and one by Dr David Klatzow) that reportedly refuted the report by Manuel regarding how the devastating fires in and around Knysna had started.

The cartoon portrayed Manuel with a Pinocchio nose and holding a book entitled Manuel’s book of Fables, being kicked from behind by a person connected with the CSIR report.

The arguments

Manuel says that both the headline and the cartoon implied that he was a liar. 

He adds that:

·         the statement that the two reports have opened “the floodgates to litigation that could reach billions of rands” was inaccurate, misleading, sensationalist and false – and damaging to the municipality and to himself;

·         the CSIR report was a data driven analysis for information purposes only “to be used at own risk”; and

·         the matter will be dealt with in a court of law – but a trial by media, imputing dishonesty and blame on his part, is irresponsible and not in accordance with the Press Code.

The newspaper says the article accurately reflected that:

·         the CSIR had published a report which contradicted the one compiled by Manuel regarding the origin of the Knysna fires in 2017;

·         the article did not draw any conclusions, nor dit it imply or impute such – and as such, it was neither defamatory nor damaging to Manuel; and

·         Klatzow had published a report which also contradicted the findings published in Manuel’s report. The journalist merely quoted statements by Klatzow (namely that Manuel was not properly qualified to investigate and report on the origin of the fires, and that it was inappropriate for him to investigate a matter in which he might have had a conflict of interest).

Marais Attorneys says it is a fact that two reports, that both indicated the existence of a smouldering fire in the relevant area prior to June 2017, contradicted the one by Manuel.

They add that thousands of people have suffered damages as a result of the fires, totalling a vast amount – and the two reports will serve to support claims which potential litigants may wish to institute against the Knysna Municipality and/or Manuel.

Based on the above, the newspaper argues that the publication of the article and cartoon was reasonable and justified.

Manuel replies that the newspaper did not respond to his complaint about the headline, or to the title of the book in the cartoon that he held, which both implied that he was dishonest.

He says on page 1 of the CSIR report it states it is a data driven analysis compiled in good faith, and also disclaim all warranties relating to the quality and accuracy of the report – saying that the use of that document and data / conclusions is “entirely at the user’s risk”.

He says the newspaper did not disclose this to its readers, “and neither was the fact that this report did not take my report into consideration and makes no reference to my report or the conclusions I reached at all. Instead the tone of the article was calculated to mislead the readers into believing that my report has been debunked as fiction which is most certainly not the case.”

He argues, “The fact that I am portrayed as Pinocchio with a title Pants on fire holding a book of Fables certainly can be seen in no other light as to imply that my report is wrong and that I was not qualified to submit a report.”

He also denies that the CSIR report or that of Klatzow has contradicted his. He says a court of law will one day determine if a conclusion can be made as to the origin of the fires – “but it is most certainly not up to a newspaper to make that determination and to label me as being a liar”.

He concludes that the reportage was damaging to him and will impede his ability to obtain promotions if his complaint is not addressed.

Analysis

The article

I have studied all three reports, and I am satisfied that there are enough essential differences between the one by Manuel and the other two for the newspaper to have reported that fact – which is exactly what the journalist has done, without himself commenting on the differences or taking sides in this matter.

Moreover, all relevant parties enjoyed a proper right of reply. And no doubt, the matter was in the public interest.

The statement about opening up “floodgates to litigation that could reach billions of rands” was also justified, as it was taken from the CSIR report.

Regarding the article itself, therefore, I cannot find a single issue where the newspaper was in breach of the Press Code.

The websites where the reports can be found are:

·         https://www.dropbox.com/sh/xzdub21lgt6fh2x/AAB6Jpux0J9zfmYk57INJhh9a/Knysna%20Municipality?dl=0&preview=Fire-Investigation-Report-20-Sept-2017-final.pdf&subfolder_nav_tracking=1;

·         https://www.dropbox.com/sh/xzdub21lgt6fh2x/AAAhjXrpMmBQyXFmleAhmDY0a?dl=0; and

·         https://www.csir.co.za/documents/csir-knysna-report-2018pdf

The headline, sub-headline

This was reflective of the content of the story, as required by Section 10.1 of the Press Code.

It should also be noted that it did not state as fact that Manuel’s pants were on fire, but rather noted people asking that question. It was their right to ask such a question – the same right the newspaper had of reporting such.

In itself, this does not boil down to an accusation of dishonesty. At most, it suggests that Manuel might have been wrong – but reading “dishonesty” into it is going one bridge too far.

The cartoon

Cartoonists enjoy a huge amount of freedom when airing their views. Based on a verdict of the Constitutional Court, Section 7 of the Press Code states (under the headline Protected Comment):

7.1.  The media shall be entitled to comment upon or criticise any actions or events of public interest.

7.2.  Comment or criticism is protected even if extreme, unjust, unbalanced, exaggerated and prejudiced, as long as it:

7.2.1.  expresses an honestly-held opinion;

7.2.2.  is without malice;

7.2.3.  is on a matter of public interest;

7.2.4.  has taken fair account of all material facts that are substantially true; and

7.2.5.  is presented in such manner that it appears clearly to be comment. 

There cannot be any doubt that the cartoon strongly suggested that Manuel was dishonest (especially given his Pinocchio nose, but also the title of the book/report in his hand).

I do not necessarily share the views of the cartoonist regarding dishonesty on Manuel’s part – but then, that cannot be my yardstick. I also need to take into account that Manuel could indeed have been conflicted, and that the CSRI is a credible organisation.

Therefore, I am satisfied that, even though the cartoon might have been unjust, etc, it still fell under what the Press Code allows regarding freedom of expression.

Finding

The complaint is dismissed.

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