Lehlogonolo Masoga vs. News24


Mon, Aug 6, 2018

Ruling by the Press Ombud

6 August 2018

PARTICULARS

 

Complainant

 

 

Lehlogonolo Masoga, deputy speaker of the Limpopo legislature

 

 

Date of article

 

 

11 June 2018

 

Headline

 

 

R100k alleged porn bill: Top Limpopo govt official must pay back the money – PP

 

 

Author of article

 

 

Alex Mitchley

 

Respondent

 

George Claassen, internal ombud

Complaint                                            

Masoga complains that the:

·         article inaccurately and unfairly alleged that a large part of his telephone bill (which he had incurred while on an official overseas trip) was due to watching pornography, while the Public Protector’s report on this matter could not find any evidence to support this allegation; and

·         headline stated this allegation as fact.

He asks for a withdrawal of the article as well as for an apology, arguing that the reportage has caused unnecessary harm to his privacy, dignity and reputation.

The text

Mitchley reported on the finding of the Public Protector, in which she had found Masoga guilty of improper conduct and maladministration after running up a bill of over R100 000 on a work cellphone while on a US trip.

Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane reportedly recommended that Masoga pay back part of the R125 000 bill.

The reporter recalled that City Press previously (on 29 March 2015) had reported that Masoga had had run up the bill by allegedly watching pornography.

The arguments

Claassen says Masoga has apparently not been prepared to explain the high bill. “It is strange that he does not want to clear up the matter even after the public protector ordered him to pay back the money,” he argues.

Masoga replies that:

·         News24 did not ask him for an explanation for the bill;

·         he disputed the contents of the article in City Press, and that the matter is now with the Appeals Panel of the Ombud’s office; and

·         the Public Protector found no evidence to support the pornography surfing allegation, which made the reportage unfair and inaccurate.

He says that the continued use of the word “pornography” was intended to denigrate his character despite the absence of facts to support this spurious allegation.

He demands that News24 retracts the story and apologises, unless it has new evidence against him.

Analysis

Inaccurate, unfair

On 11 June 2018 the Public Protector issued a report titled, Report on an Investigation into Allegations that the Deputy Speaker of the Limpopo Legislature, Honourable Lehlogonolo Masoga incurred an Exorbitant or Unreasonable Mobile Telephone Bill on an Official Trip to the USA in 2014.                                                                   

In her report, Mkhwebane stated that the scope of her investigation entailed the question whether:

·         Masoga had incurred an exorbitant or unreasonable mobile telephone bill whilst on an official trip in the USA in August 2014; and

·         the amount spent by him on his mobile telephone bill was exorbitant or unreasonable in the circumstances.  

She found against him on both scores.

(A third issue of her investigation is not directly related to the matter at hand.)

It is of critical importance to note that the Public Protector did not pronounce on why Masoga’s telephone bill was so high. It is therefore not correct for him to state that Mkhwebane “found no evidence” to support the pornography surfing allegation – she did not investigate the reason why the bill was what it was in the first place.

In other words, while Mkhwebane has not found that watching pornography was the reason for the exorbitant bill, she has not exonerated him on that issue either.

Given Masogo’s high public profile, and the fact that there still is no explanation for the unreasonably high telephone bill (to the best of my knowledge), he should not be surprised that the media continue to pursue this matter.

As far as the article goes, it accurately and fairly reflected the findings of the Public Protector, and never stated the allegation in question as fact.

Even the headline used the word “alleged”.

Appeals Panel

A second incorrect statement by Masoga pertains to his claim that his earlier complaint with this office is presently before the Appeals Panel.

These are the facts:

·         He complained to this office about the article in City Press (published on 29 March 2015);

·         On 22 April 2015 I have dismissed his complaint;

·         He appealed my decision; and

·         On 1 June 2015 Judge Bernard Ngoepe dismissed his application for leave to appeal, saying it had “no reasonable prospects of success”.

Not asked for comment

Even though this matter did not form part of Masoga’s initial complaint (to which News24 therefore did not get the opportunity to defend itself), I am dealing with it.

When a journalist writes about the outcome of an investigation, it is not his or her duty to ask any party for comment – it is universally understood that the investigator has listened to all parties concerned.

Dignity, reputation; privacy

In this case, News24 was merely the messenger. If Masoga feels that his dignity and reputation were tarnished, he should look elsewhere for the reason.

Given his public position and the outcome of the Public Protector’s investigation, public interest should outweigh private interest in this instance.

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