Ms Phumla Masilela vs. Sunday Times


Wed, Jul 20, 2011

Ruling by the Deputy Press Ombudsman

July 20, 2011

This ruling is based on the written submissions of Ms Phumla Masilela and the Sunday Times newspaper.

Complaint

Ms Phumla Masilela complains about a front page story in Sunday Times published on April 10, 2011 and headlined Shiceka: The one & only – Spending spree started as soon as he took up his cabinet post.

Masilela complains that the story untruthfully says that she:
• confirmed that the Minister of Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs, Mr Sicelo Shiceka, had visited her in jail in Switzerland;
• was arrested on drug charges; and
• was dating Shiceka at the time of her arrest.

Analysis

The story, written by Mzilikazi wa Afrika, is about Shiceka who has “abused taxpayers’ money to lead a lifestyle befitting a multimillionaire”. One of the examples of this alleged abuse is his visit in December 2008 to Masilela, then an SAA air hostess, when she was in prison in Switzerland. She reportedly confirmed this visit. The story also says that she was his girlfriend at the time and that she has confirmed that she had been convicted of a drug-related offence. She reportedly spent two years in jail.

I shall now consider the merits of the complaint:

Visit in jail

The story says that Masilela has confirmed that Shiceka visited her in prison in December 2007.

She complains that she never “confirmed” that Shiceka had visited her in jail. She says that she told the journalist that she could not speak on behalf of Shiceka and that he should therefore direct his questions to the Minister himself. She adds: “I was shocked to the marrow to read in the newspaper…that I confirmed that the Minister came to visit me. This has put me in a bad light in the eyes of the Minister and the public at large as it created the impression that the tax payers (sic) money was used to come and visit me in prison.”

Sunday Times maintains that Masilela visited her in jail and says that this is evident from a taped conversation between her and the journalist.

However, on this tape she says – several times – that she has “nothing to say” regarding “confirmation” and that the journalist should rather ask Shiceka about this. The newspaper referred me to 10 minutes and 30 seconds into the tape to prove its point. At that stage, the journalist says: “They came together to see you in prison.” She responds: “The two of them – can you image?/! They are in a relationship and they decide to come together?/!”

This does not sound like an admission to me. It is rather a can-you-imagine question or statement.

This question/statement, coupled with her consistent refusal to answer this question, make me believe that the interpretation that she “confirmed” that Shiceka had visited her in prison is not a reasonable one to come to.

So I asked the newspaper for clarification.

Sunday Times says that it accepts that the use of the word “confirm” is “perhaps overstating her response”. However, the newspaper says that it appeared to its reporters that she was accepting that they knew about the visit, and was commenting on it. It says: “We submit that this is a reasonable conclusion to come to since we had already confirmed that the visit had taken place.” The newspaper adds that Masilela never denied the visit, even though she was given ample opportunity to do so.

Note that the question is not whether Shiceka visited Masilela in jail or not, but if she confirmed that he had visited her.

I am not convinced that Masilela’s response could reasonably be construed as a confirmation that Shiceka visited her in jail. My argument (above) therefore stands. I do not believe that she said it or ever intended to say it.

Drug charges

The sentence in dispute says: “Masilela confirmed this week that she was convicted of a drug-related offence in Switzerland in 2007…”

Masilela denies that she was arrested on drug charges and says that she told the journalist so. She says that she was never caught with drugs or money.

Sunday Times says that it:
• has taped the journalist’s interview with Masilela and that this tape proves that she did confirm that she was arrested and jailed for drug-related charges;
• told her that the story would say that she had been found guilty of possession of money from drug proceeds – and that she did not object at the time; and
• confirmed with a Swiss prisons official that she had been convicted and jailed of a drugs (related) charge.

Note that the story does not say that Masilela was convicted of a drug charge, but of a “drug-related offence”.

On the tape Masilela says that she was arrested for money proceeds from drug transactions.

This justifies the use of the words “drug-related offences”.

Dating

Masilela admits that she did date Shiceka, but says that that was not the situation at the time of her arrest.

However, this is not what the story says – the article states that she was Shiceka’s lover when he visited her in jail.

Sunday Times says that Shiceka himself told its reporters that she was his lover at the time of her arrest. The newspaper adds that several well-informed people, including Shiceka’s personal assistant, said that the two were in a relationship at the time. It also says that she did not deny it, adding: “We submit it was reasonable for our reporters to conclude that they were lovers at the time because they had confirmation from Shiceka, his assistant and a number of people who knew the couple”.

Coming from Shiceka himself – and I have no reason to disbelieve the Sunday Times – the newspaper was justified in its reportage.

Finding

Visit in jail

It was not reasonable for the newspaper to report that Masilela confirmed that Shiceka had visited her in jail – it was neither accurate nor fair, and it caused her unnecessary harm.

This is in breach of Art. 1.1 of the Press Code that states: “The press shall be obliged to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly.”

Drug-related charges

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

Dating

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

Sanction

Sunday Times is directed to withdraw the statement that Masilela confirmed that Shiceka had visited her in jail and to apologise to her for making that statement.

The newspaper is directed to publish a summary of this ruling (not necessarily the whole finding) and the sanction. The story should put the matter in context and start with what the newspaper got wrong. It is then free to elaborate on the parts of the complaint that were dismissed.

Our office should be furnished with the text prior to publication.

Please add the following sentence at the end of the text: “Visit www.presscouncil.org.za (rulings, 2011) for the full finding.”

Appeal

Please note that our Complaints Procedures lay down that within seven days of receipt of this decision, anyone of the parties may apply for leave to appeal to the Chairperson of the SA Press Appeals Panel, Judge Ralph Zulman, fully setting out the grounds of appeal. He can be reached at khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.

Johan Retief
Deputy Press Ombudsman