Lumka Oliphant vs. Daily Maverick


Fri, Jun 15, 2018

Ruling by the Press Ombud

15 June 2018

PARTICULARS

 

Complainants

 

 

Ms. Lumka Oliphant, spokesperson for the Minister of Social Development

 

 

Date of article

 

 

8 February 2018

 

Headline

 

 

SassaGate: Bathabile Dlamini attacks officials on Twitter while experts suggest Sassa be barred from paying grants

 

 

Author of article; respondent

 

Marianne Thamm

Complaint                                            

Oliphant complains the article falsely stated that she had been tweeting on a certain issue – in other words, that the tweets in her name were fake, but that Daily Maverick took them as genuine.

She also argues that the reportage has discredited her in her professional capacity.

The text

The article was about a probe into the question whether Minister of Social Development Bathabile Dlamini should be held personally liable for the SassaGate scandal last year.

Thamm stated that, while former Sassa CEO Thokozani Magwaza and former Department of Social Development (DSD) DG Zane Dangor were testifying at the inquiry, a few tweets that could be regarded as libellous rolled out on Dlamini’s official account.

The story attributed the tweets several times to either Dlamini or Oliphant.

The arguments

Oliphant says her Twitter handle is @Ma_Lunga, and not @shahlesonke” (the handle used for the tweets in question). She adds that all official communication from the DSD was published through the Facebook page “@SocialDevelopmentZA”, the Twitter handle “@The_DSD”, and the Instagram account “@socialdevelopmentza” – information that she has announced in a media statement on 31 March 2018 headlined, Minister Bathabile warns of fake Facebook and Twitter accounts).

In later correspondence, she says it takes a call or a Google search to verify an account – by DM’s own admission, it knew that Twitter could provide some verification by using a blue tick.

She adds: “[However], the DM had no intention of verifying any information. A search of ‘Bathabile Dlamini’ on Twitter and Facebook gives you multiple results of people purporting to be the former Minister. As for me personally, I have my own accounts that are separate to that of the Department.”

Oliphant says that, in the same media statement she also announced that the Minister’s Twitter (@dlaminibatha) and Facebook accounts were de-activated in January 2017. She adds that Dlamini was at the time of publication not on any social media platform. The Minister consequently “distances herself from posts on Facebook and parody Twitter accounts which have been illegally [set up] in her name,” she says.

Thamm replies that Oliphant, as Dlamini’s spokesperson, was closely associated with the Minister. She was also responsible for arranging Dlamini’s media conferences, and at times spoke on behalf of the Department and the Minister – as such she represented the DSD, advised the Minister, and would make comments on Dlamini’s and the department’s behalf.

She also points out that the article did not state as fact that Oliphant had been responsible for the tweets – she says the text read, “who sounded remarkably like her spokesperson Lumka Oliphant”. She adds that it was reasonable to assume that as Dlamini’s spokesman, Oliphant could be responsible for the tweets on the Minister’s official twitter account.

Thamm says the content of the tweets and the fact that they were made from the Minister’s official twitter handle are not in dispute. “Despite that reasonableness, we referred to the person behind the tweet as being Dlamini-Oliphant...an indication that it could be either of the two tweeting,” she says.

The journalist adds that the story was of immense public interest, considering the searing sanction Dlamini has had to face from the Constitutional Court with regard to her actions, and considering that this was an ongoing crisis that affected the lives of 17 million social grant recipients.

Thamm calls Oliphant’s complaint that she did not attempt to find out from her who was tweeting “splitting hairs”. She says that, while the account did not have a Twitter “blue tick”, it was not disputed that this was the Minister’s official account.

Analysis

Genuine, or fake

The first question is if the tweets were genuine, or fake.

The Twitter handle used for the tweets were “Bathabile Dlamini @shahlesonke” (and not any of the ones mentioned above).

I have asked two journalists, both independent experts in the field of electronic communication, for advice..

After having explained the situation to them, including the arguments of both parties, I said: “I need to know whether the Daily Maverick was justified in ascribing the tweets (attached) to either Oliphant or Dlamini, or if perhaps those tweets were fake – and if they were, if the DM should have, and indeed could have, checked whether the tweets were fake or not.

Both agreed that the issue was quite tricky.

I relate the rest of their relevant correspondence in full (slightly edited):

 

 

Expert A:

 

“If you look at the Twitter account it is represented as the Minister’s account and the content on its timeline seems to suggest the same – all very official and policy-orientated postings alongside the posts that the article refers too, but I’m not sure that this is the Minister’s official account despite how it looks. 

 

“I cannot see it linked to her in any official bio or statement etc. and it is true that the accounts Oliphant refers to have been disabled… If she says that this is not the Minister’s account in any shape or form, then DM would have to prove otherwise or else they would have used a fake account as a source for their story.”

 

 

 

Expert B:

 

“It was fairly well-known that Dlamini’s social media accounts were discontinued more than a year before this incident, as announced numerous times by Oliphant. 

 

“And since the account was not verified, and for the reasons that [Expert A] mentioned, it was necessary to double-check.

 

“But looking at the nature of the content on the account, one should acknowledge … that anybody could have been fooled by it.

 

“Nevertheless, on the balance of the facts, I think the journalist should have questioned the account and not have stated it as a fact that it was ‘Dlamini’s official account’, and rather have referred to it as purported to be her account, or something similar.”

 


Based on their advice, and on the correspondence at my disposal, I accept that the:

·         minister’s original Twitter handle was de-activated at the time of publication;

·         DSD’s official Twitter handle was not the same as the one used in the various tweets; and

·         content of the tweets looked genuine, and DM could easily have been fooled by it (to use Expert B’s words).

Under such circumstances the only reasonable conclusion I can come to, is that the tweets did not originate from either Dlamini or Oliphant (read: they were fake), and that DM should not have stated such as fact (which Thamm did – she did not leave open any other possibility).

The headline followed suit, stating: Bathabile Dlamini attacks officials on Twitter…

Fake news can be defined as a deliberate attempt to mislead the public, inter alia for purposes of propaganda. This seems to be a classic case of a publication having used fake news, or rather, fake “(dis-information”), as a source for its story – without knowing it, of course.

The important consideration is that DM did not verify that the tweets indeed came from either Dlamini or Oliphant. This, while the journalist should have been awake to the possibility that the tweets could have been faked – especially given that it was trite that Dlamini’s social media accounts had been closed for quite some time, and that the DSD’s official Twitter handle was not the one used in the article.

This should serve as a vivid reminder to the media that they should be extremely careful whenever there is a possibility that their source might be fake.

Content of the tweets

Having decided that the tweets did not originate from the complainant, I now need to look at their content in order to decide if the reportage could have tarnished Oliphant’s reputation (unnecessarily so, that is).

I note that Thamm herself stated in her article: “While Magwaza and Dangor were testifying at the inquiry last week, over on Twitter a ribbon of tweets, all of which could be regarded as libellous, rolled out on Dlamini’s official account.” (My emphasis.)

The first question is why Thamm reported the content of some of the tweets if she regarded them as libellous – surely, she must know that the repetition of libel is also libel.

Be that as it may, let me look at the content of the tweets to see if I agree with the journalist. To be more exact: I need to see if the reportage could unnecessarily have reflected badly on Oliphant (or Dlamini, for that matter).

These are what the tweets which are at my disposal said (unedited):

·         “We had thought Mr Dangor was a progressive intellectual but later I discovered he was a liberal and not patriotic”;

·         “We should not have respect for people like him because they were preying on the ideas of the minister. They had suppressed the ministers ideas and vision because these ideas needed people that were ready for transformation”;

·         “We were shocked when We heard Mr Dangor saying money would be paid with army vehicles when it was difficult. He had heard the minister talking about this before but never developed it. When it was time to deal with challenges of payments he threw this idea as if it was his idea”; and

·         “Mr Dangor never responded to the ministers question of administrative fees that would be taken by the banks from grant beneficiaries when they withdrew their grants.”

I am not going to decide if these texts were libellous or not, as my office is not a court of law. I am willing to say, though, that if I were in Oliphant’s shoes I would also have complained that the reportage has reflected negatively on me – and unnecessarily so, as I was not responsible for the tweets in the first place.

Finding

The complaint is upheld in full.

Daily Maverick was in breach of the following sections of the Press Code:

·         1.7: “Where there is reason to doubt the accuracy of a … source and it is practicable to verify the accuracy thereof, it shall be verified. Where it has not been practicable to verify the accuracy of a report, this shall be stated in such report”; and

·         3.3: “The media shall exercise care and consideration in matters involving … reputation…”

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 presentation of fake news or (dis)information as fact cannot be described any other than a Tier 3 offence, whether there were mitigating circumstances or not – the onus is on the publication to verify the veracity of its sources.

The lack of care and consideration regarding Oliphant’s reputation was a Tier 2 offence.

Sanction

Daily Maverick is directed to apologise to Oliphant and to Dlamini (even though she did not complain herself, she was mentioned as well) for not:

·         verifying that the tweets were fake, and therefore unnecessarily ascribing them to either of them; and

·         exercising care and consideration regarding their reputation.

DM is directed to publish this apology, with a headline containing the words “apology” or “apologises”, and “Oliphant” and “Dlamini”, alternatively “The Department of Social Development”, at the top of the page which carries the offending article.

The text should:

·         be published at the earliest opportunity after the time for an application for leave to appeal has lapsed or, in the event of such an application, after that ruling;

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

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

·     be published with the logo of the Press Council (attached); and

·     be prepared by the publication 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