Coenie Groenewald and Dudley Coetzee vs. Overstrand Herald


Mon, Nov 6, 2017

Ruling by the Press Ombud

3 November 2017

This ruling is based on the written submissions of Mr Coenie Groenewald, municipal manager of the Overstrand Municipality, in his personal capacity and also on behalf of the deputy mayor, Mr Dudley Coetzee, and those of Gerard Grobler, editor of the Overstrand Herald newspaper.

Groenewald and Coetzee are complaining about an editorial in Overstrand Herald of 5 October 2017, headlined, Why the secrecy?

Complaint                                            

Groenewald and Coetzee complain that the following references to their houses were incorrect and misleading: “They sat in their multi-million rand mansions in Hermanus, bought with our hard-earned money, while Kleinmond was burning.”

They also complain that those statements incited antagonism, and even perhaps racial tension, towards them.

They ask for an apology and a withdrawal of the statement in dispute.

Background, the editorial

On 28 August 2017, residents from the Over Hills township (at Kleinmond) marched to the offices of the local Overstrand municipality to hand over a memorandum of grievances. The main problem was the awarding of a local cleaning tender to a businesswoman from Hermanus.

The protest quickly evolved into full-scale violence, during which businesses were looted, shop windows broken and roads blocked.

The editorial was about a meeting between the municipality and Over Hills residents about the awarding of the tender. Groenewald was said to have banned the newspaper from attending the meeting, and Grobler wanted to know why that was the case. He also argued that the public had an interest in the meeting, as decisions made by the municipality could lead to (more) violence.

The arguments

Groenewald denies that he:

·         lives in a mansion – he says he resides in a small three-bedroom house in a complex in Onrus River; and

·         bought his house with ratepayers’ money – he says he bought it when he relocated to Hermanus in 2003 with proceeds from the sale of his previous house in Limpopo.

Coetzee says he resides in a standard two-bedroom house in Pearly Beach, which he bought before he got involved in politics.

Groenewald argues that part of the grievances of the Over Hills community was about the provision of adequate housing, for which the Overstrand Municipality acted as an agent.

He says, “In citing false information the Editor provoked communal (racial?) antagonism against [Coetzee] and myself (who are both white men in our sixties)  at a time when housing needs in the community are an issue – more so antagonism towards a senior politician and a senior official who are tasked to negotiate in good faith and under very difficult circumstances with representatives of the perturbed community.”

Grobler denies that he tried to provoke communal (racial) antagonism towards the complainants.

He says Groenewald’s “small three bedroomed townhouse” is in the exclusive Onrus – and a local estate agent valued similar properties at between R2.3-million and R2.5-million. He adds that Coetzee’s property has a “gorgeous sea-front view”.

He adds, “If the money for Mr Groenewald’s home did not come from our ratepayers it probably came from the ratepayers at the municipality where he worked before joining Overstrand. How do the two complainants pay for improvements and the upkeep of their homes if not from their salaries = ratepayers money?”

Coetzee denies that his house has a sea-front view.

Analysis

Both parties raise various issues not germane to the complaint, which I therefore disregard. For example, it does not matter how much the complainants earn, etcetera.

The issues raised in the complaint, on which I firstly focus, are the statements that Groenewald and Coetzee:

·         lived in multi-million rand mansions in Hermanus; and

·         had bought their houses with “our hard-earned money”.

The following sections of the Press Code are relevant:

·         Section 6: Members are justified in strongly advocating their own views on controversial topics, provided that they treat their constituencies fairly by  making fact and opinion clearly distinguishable; not misrepresenting or suppressing relevant facts; and not distorting the facts”; and

·         Section 7: The media shall be entitled to comment upon or criticise any actions or events of public interest. Comment or criticism is protected even if extreme, unjust, unbalanced, exaggerated and prejudiced, as long as it expresses an honestly-held opinion; is without malice; is on a matter of public interest; has taken fair account of all material facts that are substantially true; and is presented in such manner that it appears clearly to be comment.”

From this it is clear that the media enjoy huge freedom when advocating a view, or when commenting on or criticising people. This freedom is so extensive that a newspaper’s views may even be “extreme, unjust, unbalanced, exaggerated and prejudiced”.

However, this freedom is not absolute. The relevant preconditions in this regard are that facts should not be distorted (Section 6) and that fair account should be taken of them (Section 7).

Multi-million rand mansions in Hermanus

Groenewald’s house

Groenewald does not contest Grobler’s claim that his house is worth between R2.3-million and R2.5-million, which leads me to accept that the words “multi-million rands” were justified.

In normal parlance, a “mansion” is a rather large house which Joe Public would find hard to afford. Personally, I would not have called a house worth R2.5-million in a complex a “mansion”, but I guess this is a value judgment and could therefore be debated. I am giving the newspaper the benefit of the doubt on this issue.

I am also allowing the reference to his house being in Hermanus, as Onrus is immediately adjacent to that town – and many people regard the two areas as one town.

Coetzee’s house

I have no reason to disbelieve Coetzee when he says he lives in a two-bedroom house, in Pearly Beach, with no sea-front view. Knowing that area quite well, I cannot give Grobler the benefit of the doubt on this particular issue – I do not believe that such a house, as described by Coetzee, is worth millions (plural) of rands, and that it could justifiably be called a mansion.

Also, Pearly Beach does not form part of Hermanus as it approximately 70 kilometres away.

Bought with ‘our hard-earned money’

Both Groenewald and Coetzee bought their houses before they got involved in the local municipality – a statement Grobler does not dispute.

Therefore, the editor’s arguments in this regard cannot hold water – the use of the word “our” (in the phrase “our hard-earned money”) could only refer to local ratepayers; he also wrote that the complainants had “bought” their houses with ratepayers’ money, and not that they had “kept them up” with such.

The statement in question is just completely wrong.

Antagonism

I now need to take a look at the rest of the sentence: “They sat in their multi-million rand mansions in Hermanus, bought with our hard-earned money, while Kleinmond was burning.” (My emphases.)

In short, the statement was that they were safe in their houses, which were elsewhere (not in Kleinmond), while that town was burning.

It is undisputed that both Groenewald and Coetzee live outside Kleinmond.

It is an established principle in journalism that a publication cannot be responsible for conclusions drawn by readers if published text is accurate.

This part of the complaint, therefore, has no merits – except, of course, for the distortions which the sentence in dispute contained, as pointed out above. The complaint should therefore be upheld insofar as those mistakes (not the rest of Grobler’s views, which he had a right to hold and to express) might unnecessarily have caused antagonism towards Groenewald and Grobler.

Finding

Multi-million rand mansions in Hermanus

Groenewald’s house

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

Coetzee’s house

The statement that Coetzee lived in a multi-million rand mansion in Hermanus was inaccurate and a distortion of the truth. It was therefore in breach of the following sections of the Press Code:

·         Section 6: “Members [shall] treat their constituencies fairly by … not misrepresenting or suppressing relevant facts; and not distorting the facts”; and

·         Section 7: “Comment or criticism is protected … as long as it … has taken fair account of all material facts that are substantially true…” 

Bought with ‘our hard-earned money’

Being inaccurate and a distortion of the truth, this statement with regard to both Groenewald and Coetzee was in breach of the following sections of the Press Code:

·         Section 6: “Members [shall] treat their constituencies fairly by … not misrepresenting or suppressing relevant facts; and not distorting the facts”; and

·         Section 7: “Comment or criticism is protected … as long as it … has taken fair account of all material facts that are substantially true…” 

Antagonism

This part of the complaint is upheld only in so far as it relates to the mistakes, as outlined above. The same sections of the Code as cited above are valid here – if statements were false or unfair, it follows that their possible consequences would also be unfair.

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 breaches of the Press Code as indicated above are all Tier 2 offences.

Sanction

Overstrand Herald is directed to apologise to:

·         Groenewald and Coetzee for falsely stating, as fact, that they had bought their houses with hard-earned money garnered from local taxpayers;

·         Coetzee for falsely stating that he lived in a multi-million rand mansion in Hermanus; and

·         both for possibly, and unfairly so, inciting antagonism by the local community towards them.

The newspaper is requested to publish the apology on its editorial page, with a headline containing the words “apology” or “apologises”, and “Groenewald and Coetzee”.

The text should:

·         be published at the earliest opportunity after the time for an application for leave to appeal has lapsed;

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

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

·     be prepared by the newspaper 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