Martins Antonio vs. Sunday Times


Thu, Feb 2, 2017

Ruling by the Press Ombud

2 February 2017

This ruling is based on the written submissions of Makgahlela Mashaba Attorneys & Conveyancers, on behalf of Mr Martins Antonio, and those of Susan Smuts, legal editor of the Sunday Times newspaper.

Antonio, director of MPA Investigations, is complaining about an article in Sunday Times of 20 November 2016, headlined Protector tears apart R6 million ‘forensic probe’.

Complaint                                            

Antonio complains that the story was neither balanced nor fair, and that the journalist did not enquire about the (proud) work the MPA Investigation Team (a private firm) has conducted in the Department.

He also complains about the following sentences:

·         “A debt col­lec­tion com­pany owned by a po­lice ad­min­is­tra­tion clerk was paid al­most R6-mil­lion to carry out a foren­sic in­ves­ti­ga­tion into com­put­ers miss­ing from Lim­popo’s trans­port depart­ment, which had al­legedly been re­pos­sessed due to non­pay­ment”;

·         “The debt collection firm, MPA Investigation Team, didn't have the qualifications to conduct the investigation”;

·         “Two days before the contract was awarded, the company's director attended a five-day crash course in forensic investigation”;

·         “Mpho Antonio, an administration clerk with the police, was MPA Investigation Team's ‘sole director’ when the R5.8-million contract was awarded on September 16 2014. She was involved in extra remuneration work without permission” (Ms Mpho Antonio is Martins Antonio’s wife); and

·         “Martins told the Sunday Times on Friday he was a rhino-poaching investigator. ‘I was in Kruger National Park investigating a case of rhino poaching when I got a call to see the MEC… I didn’t submit any tender document for this contract. I was told I must investigate a case of computers stolen from the building. That’s how I got this deal’.”

The text

The first two sentences of the article, written by Mzilikazi wa Africa, adequately sums up the gist of the story. It read, “A debt col­lec­tion com­pany owned by a po­lice ad­min­is­tra­tion clerk was paid al­most R6-mil­lion to carry out a foren­sic in­ves­ti­ga­tion into com­put­ers miss­ing from Lim­popo’s trans­port depart­ment, which had al­legedly been re­pos­sessed due to non­pay­ment. Then-trans­port MEC Ma­pula Mokaba-Phukwana awarded the con­tract to the com­pany without any ten­der process and flouted the Pub­lic Fi­nance Man­age­ment Act, ac­cord­ing to a pro­vi­sional re­port by the pub­lic pro­tec­tor.”

The story stated the report inter alia also found that:

·         The debt col­lec­tion firm MPA In­ves­ti­ga­tion Team didn’t have the qual­i­fi­ca­tions to con­duct the in­ves­ti­ga­tion;

·         The ap­point­ment was made purely on a recommendation to the MEC by “a com­rade” who used to stay with her mother dur­ing the po­lit­i­cal strug­gle;

·         Mpho An­to­nio, an ad­min­is­tra­tion clerk with the po­lice, was MPA In­ves­ti­ga­tion Team’s “sole di­rec­tor” when the R5.8-mil­lion con­tract was awarded on Septem­ber 16 2014. She was in­volved in “ex­tra re­mu­ner­a­tion work” without per­mis­sion; and

·         Mok­aba-Phuk­wana’s ac­tions were “im­proper” and con­sti­tuted “mal­ad­min­is­tra­tion”.

The pub­lic pro­tec­tor’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion was reportedly launched fol­low­ing an EFF com­plaint.

The complaint in more detail

R6-million paid

The sentence in question read, “A debt col­lec­tion com­pany owned by a po­lice ad­min­is­tra­tion clerk was paid al­most R6-mil­lion to carry out a foren­sic in­ves­ti­ga­tion into com­put­ers miss­ing from Lim­popo’s trans­port depart­ment, which had al­legedly been re­pos­sessed due to non­pay­ment.”

Antonio denies that MPA was a debt collecting company. He says it was a “general business company, having interests in debt collection, asset recovery, private investigations, corporate investigations, infiltration, threat assessment, body guarding and a range of other security related solutions. He says the company’s profile was on its website, which would have been accessible to wa Afrika. “As such,” he argues, “it is misleading in the extreme to brand us as a debt collecting company. It gives the false impression that we were not qualified to do investigations, which is not the case.”

Antonio adds the story erroneously stated that MPA had been appointed to investigate missing computers from the Limpopo Department of Roads and Transport. He says, “According to my contract, which is available on request, I was appointed to investigate the following: procurement and awarding of tenders, traffic management systems and contract management, leraner (sic) driver license and testing centres, misstatement and falsifying subsistence and travel claims and many more. As such, it is grossly misleading to suggest that we were paid almost R6 million to investigate stolen computers.”

No proper qualifications

The disputed sentence reads, “The debt collection firm, MPA Investigation Team, didn't have the qualifications to conduct the investigation”.

Antonio provided this office with a list of his qualifications and expertise.

Five-day crash course

The sentence said, “Two days before the contract was awarded, the company's director attended a five-day crash course in forensic investigation.”

Antonio admits that he attended this course as a result of gaining the contract with the Department, but complains that the reportage suggested that he had no experience of investigations.

Sole director acting untoward

The story said, “Mpho Antonio, an administration clerk with the police, was MPA Investigation Team's ‘sole director’ when the R5.8-million contract was awarded on September 16 2014. She was involved in extra remuneration work without permission.”

Antonio says the article falsely stated that his wife (Ms Mpho Antonio) had still been working for the SAPS – while she had resigned about two months previously. He adds that while it is true that his wife was the sole director of the company at the time the contract was issued, a reasonable reader would have erroneously concluded that he had not been involved in the company in any way.

Rhino-poaching investigator

“Martins told the Sunday Times on Friday he was a rhino-poaching investigator. ‘I was in Kruger National Park investigating a case of rhino poaching when I got a call to see the MEC… I didn’t submit any tender document for this contract. I was told I must investigate a case of computers stolen from the building. That’s how I got this deal’.”

Antonio says wa Afrika failed to disclose that their conversation was on record when they agreed that he should send him questions via e-mail (which he did). He asks, “Why would he still need to forward questions … if we had already spoken and he felt his concerns were already addressed.”

Sunday Times responds

Smuts replies that the story was a straightforward news report of a provisional report by the Public Protector. “The subject matter of the report is self-evidently in the public interest, and we were well within our rights to report on the contents of the report,” she argues.

Therefore, she says, she will not deal with specific complaints as the newspaper was entitled to reflect the contents of the report. “If Mr Antonio had evidence to the contrary, one would have expected him to make it available to the Public Protector during her investigation. Furthermore, we approached him for comment. He did not share with us the information he shared with you in his complaint. We submit that we discharged our duty by giving him an opportunity to respond. The fact that he did not make use of this opportunity is not to be laid at our door,” she argues.

Smuts nevertheless also submits that the:

·         MPA Investigation Team, even on Antonio's own version, was inter alia a debt collection company; the Public Protector's report also stated that the documents submitted when the contract was awarded were the CIPRO registration certificate, and the debt collection certificate;

·         mention of the missing computers was based on information given to the reporter during an interview with Mokaba-Phukwana – who told wa Afrika that a few days after she was appointed, a service provider had called her to say he had taken some of their computers because he had not been paid. She then decided to find out what was going on in the department;

·         Public Protector's report did not traverse the scope of the contract; the only information we had to go on, in this regard, was provided by Ms Mokaba-Phukwana;

·         fact that Antonio had other qualifications was not disputed – however, the contract was awarded on the strength of the documents submitted at the time, being a CIPRO registration certificate. The article reflected Antonio’s comment that he was a forensic investigator, but he did not provide the publication (or, it would appear, the Public Protector) with certificates proving this;

·         journalist specifically asked Antonio for documents or certificates proving his qualifications;

·         wife of Antonio was employed by the SAPS at the time of the events in question; her subsequent resignation is not material to the story; and

·         reporter identified himself as a Sunday Times journalist when he contacted Antonio. She argues, “It is accepted journalistic practice that identifying yourself as a reporter means that conversations or responses are on the record. At no time did Mr Antonio state that he wished his response regarding his presence in the Kruger National Park to be off the record.”

Analysis

R6-million paid

The reference to a debt collection company was taken from the PP’s report.

The sentence in question read, “A debt col­lec­tion com­pany owned by a po­lice ad­min­is­tra­tion clerk was paid al­most R6-mil­lion to carry out a foren­sic in­ves­ti­ga­tion into com­put­ers miss­ing from Lim­popo’s trans­port depart­ment, which had al­legedly been re­pos­sessed due to non­pay­ment.”

Regarding the complaint about the statement that MPA was appointed to investigate missing computers: I have asked Smuts about the basis of this statement, as it does not appear in the PP’s (provisional) report.

She responded, “The reference to the computers was based on information given to our reporter during an interview with … Mokaba-Phukwana. The PP's report did not really deal with the scope of the contract, but [she] told us that shortly after she was appointed, she received a call from a service provider who said he had taken some of their computers on account of not being paid. She decided to find out what was going on and decided to investigate. Everyone else followed from the investigation into the missing computers. We based the reference to computers on her comments.”

This is good enough for me.

It is true that the story did not disclose the scope of work listed in the MPA Investigators’ letter of appointment and the service level agreement – but then, the story was about the PP’s report, and that document did not outline those matters either.

As it was not the purpose of the article to comprehensively outline all the aspects of the matter, but merely to report on the content of the report, I do not blame Sunday Times for not mentioning the content of the letter of appointment or that of the service level agreement.

Given all of the above, I do not think it was misleading to suggest that the Limpopo Department of Transport paid almost R6 million to investigate stolen computers. 

No proper qualifications

The statement that MPA did not have the qualifications to conduct the investigation came from the PP’s report – and the newspaper was justified in quoting it.

wa Afrika is on record that he did ask Antonio for proof of his qualifications, prior to publication.

Five-day crash course

The story did not say that there was anything wrong with Antonio having attended the course – and it was taken from the PP’s report.

Sole director acting untoward

Antonio’s conclusion (that readers could have though he had not been involved in the company) was his – and not mine. I believe he reads too much into this part of the story.

It seems not to be in dispute that Antonio’s wife was employed by the SAPS at the time of the events in question; I also agree with Smuts that her subsequent resignation is not material to the story.

Rhino-poaching investigator

Smuts’s argument is journalistically sound – everything a source tells a journalist is for publication, unless specifically stated otherwise.

General comment

I need to make this clear: It was not the newspaper’s mandate to establish the merits of the case for or against Antonio, and neither is it mine. The publication’s only task was to accurately and fairly report the content of the PP’s (provisional) report; and my sole interest in this matter is whether Sunday Times has done so adequately.

Smuts is therefore correct – the story stated that the report was provisional, and the newspaper was justified to report on the matter, in the public interest.

Sunday Times was merely the messenger, and it has not done anything wrong in this regard.

Finding

The complaint is dismissed.

Appeal

Our 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