Department of Human Settlements (Free State Province) vs. News24


Mon, Jun 18, 2018

Ruling by the Press Ombud

18 June 2018

PARTICULARS

 

Complainant

 

 

Department of Human Settlements of the Free State Province

 

 

Lodged by

 

 

Mr Senne Bogatsu, Director: Corporate Communication at the Department

 

 

Respondent

 

 

George Claassen, internal ombud of Media24

Complaint                                            

The Department of Human Settlements complains that the reporter, Pieter-Louis Myburgh, was in breach of the Press Code for inviting employees of the Department (via email) to contact him with information relating to corruption and/or dodgy deals taking place in that department.

Bogatsu says this email was apparently only addressed to junior officials at the Department. (In this correspondence, the reporter has requested officials to volunteer information to assist him to “further expose these corrupt dealings” at the Department.)

However, he says the Public Service Regulation 6(3) provided that an employee may not communicate with the media in an official capacity without the necessary permission, and adds that disciplinary steps shall be taken against employees who do not comply with this provision.

The Department argues that the journalist therefore was inviting officials to transgress the law, which would expose them to disciplinary steps that might lead to their dismissal – a fact of which Myburgh seemed to have been aware.

Bogatsu adds that Myburgh could have, but did not use the processes of the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA) – and concludes that, when previous reports by the journalist are taken into consideration relating to the Free State Provincial Government, “the attempt to illegally solicit information from employees is probably driven by a personal agenda”.

Analysis

When this complaint landed on my desk, it was noticeable that it was not aimed at any specific article, but rather at the content of the journalist’s email to the Department.

To get clarity on this matter, I have therefore sent the following email to the complainant:

“Was any story published as a result of the journalist’s alleged illegal questions in his email, dated April 5? If so, please supply me with the relevant information.

“The reason for this question is simple: My office does not have a mandate to adjudicate behaviour by journalists (which, of course, include emails) if such behaviour does not lead to publication.

“In other words, if any article was published as a result of this email, I’ll adjudicate the matter with pleasure – if not, I am not mandated to take the matter further.”

Bogatsu’s response read as follows (unedited):

“Our complaint, attached again, is not against any specific article which has been published by the journalist.  It is rather against the behaviour of the journalist who enticed junior officials of the Department of Human Settlements to disclose information to him which would, when acceded to, cause such officials to break the law. This is well detailed in the complaint letter.

“In our letter we refer to the Code of Ethics of Journalists as reference and basis for our complaint. It does however look like the Office of the Ombudsman or Mr Retief as the representative, does not recognise this behaviour as a violation of any ethics as discussed in the Code.

“I therefore refer your office to the original complaint for a response.”

Based on this response, I merely need to repeat what I have already stated: This office is not mandated to act against a publication if a journalist’s behaviour (including his or her method of obtaining news) has not led to publication. Neither of the Press Council’s three official documents (its Constitution, Complaints Procedures and Press Code) makes allowance for such a scenario.

Myburgh’s email is a matter for the editor to handle as he sees fit.

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