Debra Malete vs. Sunday Times


Mon, May 14, 2018

Ruling by the Press Ombud

14 May 2018

 

PARTICULARS

 

Complainant

 

 

Ms Debra Malete, South West Gauteng TVET College deputy principal

 

 

Lodged by

 

 

Malete

 

Date of article

 

 

4 March 2018

 

Headline

 

 

Party! Party! College allots R2.9M for student bashes

 

Page

 

 

2

 

Online

 

 

Yes

 

Author of article

 

 

Prega Govender

 

Respondent

 

 

Susan Smuts, internal ombud


Complaint                                            

Malete complains that Sunday Times has published allegations regarding her having watched pornography and surfing an online dating site which have racked up her cellphone bill at the college by hundreds of thousands of rands – without obtaining the necessary forensic evidence from the principal (Mr Joe Chiloane), or from the Department of Higher Education and Training to this effect. She argues that the newspaper was not justified to publish the allegations without any proof.

The text

The story says that Malate has allegedly racked up a cellphone bill of R441 719 at the college last year, which includes R366 877 for data that Chiloane claimed she had used to download movies, and to visit an online dating as well as two pornographic sites – allegations that she has reportedly denied.

The newspaper responds

Smuts says the newspaper is surprised at the complaint because the day following publication, Malete told the reporter she was happy with the article.

She argues:

·         The story did not state the allegations as fact, but attributed them to Chiloane;

·         The principal told the reporter he had sought the services of an investigator who had obtained an itemised billing printout of Malete’s usage – he was adamant that she had run up a bill of R441 719, which included R366 877 for data used to download movies and to visit an online dating site as well as two pornographic sites;

·         Chiloane, who had lodged a complaint about this matter with the Department, has not disputed the facts in the story;

·         The Department confirmed that the principal had reported the matter, and that its investigation was at an advanced stage;

·         Malete’s denial was reflected in the story; and

·         The absence of a forensic investigation (if it was absent) does not prevent the newspaper to report on the matter. “It is enough that the principal investigated her cellphone bill, that he referred it to the department for further investigation and that the department confirms it is investigating,” she submits.

The internal ombud concludes that public funds were at stake, which constituted a clear public interest.

Analysis

It is not up to a newspaper to produce evidence of an allegation such as this one before publishing it – the evidence Malete is looking for has to come from the investigation that was taking place. She cannot expect the newspaper to be the messenger as well as the judge of matters.

There are hundreds of precedents where the media report on allegations that are under investigation. It would amount to a serious curbing of media freedom if newspapers are not allowed to report on such investigations prior to their outcomes.

I also fully agree with Smuts’s arguments mentioned above.

The bottom-line is that the story did not state the allegation as fact, that the journalist gave Malete an opportunity to comment, and especially the fact that the matter was in the public interest.

I trust that Sunday Times will publish the outcome of this investigation, whatever that may be.

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