Office of the Premier of Limpopo vs City Press


Tue, Sep 25, 2018

Ruling by the Press Ombud and a Panel of Adjudicators

25 September 2018

PARTICULARS

Complainant: Mr Stan Mathabatha, Premier of Limpopo

Lodged by: Mr Phuti Seloba, Provincial Government spokesperson

Date of article: 22 April 2018

Headline: Limpopo premier stall on corruption report

Online: Yes

Author of article: Mpho Dube

Respondent: Dumisane Lubisi, editor

HEARING

Date and place: 3 September 2018, Johannesburg

Complainant represented by: Seloba, Mr M.E. Selomo

Publication represented by: Lubisi; Rapule Tabane, political editor

Members of panel: Public representative – Carol Mohlala

       : Media representative – Tshamano Makhadi

Complaint                                            

The gist of the complaint is that the “report” which City Press based its story on did not exist.

The Premier also complains that the following statements in the story were inaccurate, false, unfair, distorted and misleading:

  • Limpopo Premier Stan Mathabatha has been accused of not acting on a report that could have led to criminal charges against senior government officials”;
  • “Mathabatha spent the past two years sitting on recommendations by the provincial Department of Treasury to act against officials fingered in a multi-million rand corruption tender awarded by the Department of Health under his close ally, MEC Phopi Ramathuba”; and
  • The confidential treasury report, in possession of City Press, highlights a range of discrepancies, including violations of the Public Finance Management Act”.

Seloba adds that the:

  • headline was false and unsubstantiated; and
  • article attributed quotes to him which he never gave.

In conclusion, the premier’s office complains that the reportage was harmful to its reputation and its administration, and demands a retraction and an apology.

The text

The article said that Mathabatha had been accused of not acting on a report by the provincial Department of Treasury regarding a multi-million rand corruption tender awarded by the Department of Health “under his close ally, MEC Phopi Ramathuba” that could have led to criminal charges against senior government officials.

The Premier reportedly initially claimed there was nothing wrong with the tender. Later, though, he ordered his treasury department to investigate the matter – and vowed to take tough action should the investigation confirm irregularities.

However, Dube stated, two years after the damning report had been handed to him, Mathabatha was yet to take action.

The journalist cited parts of the confidential treasury report that was “in possession of City Press”; he also quoted Seloba as claiming there was a ‘‘political witch-hunt’’ against Mathabatha.

The arguments

Non-existent report

The story said: “The confidential treasury report, in possession of City Press, highlights a range of discrepancies, including violations of the Public Finance Management Act.”

Seloba says the “report” which City Press based its story on was preliminary (which the newspaper has reported on in December 2015) – and that the “report” it referred to in the story in question did not exist (as the team would be finalizing their report a few days later).

He submits it is up to City Press to prove that such a report exists, and when was it sent to the Premier.

Lubisi says that Seloba, on the one hand, claims the report does not exist; on the other hand, though, he asserts that the premier did act on the report and that the team would be finalising the report within days. “How could the premier act on a non-existent report? What report is he referring to, if such doesn’t exist?” he asks.

He adds: “It is not clear from the complaint whether he believes the report does not exist or he is questioning the accuracy of the report… he [also] fails to make a case of how the Press Code was violated. This appears to be a fishing exercise.”

Seloba replies there was a preliminary report – which the Premier acted on and the paper ran a story about. However, he submits: “We are saying there has never been a report since the preliminary report.”

Hearing; panel

The first issue was about the status of the document that City Press had used as a basis for its story. 

In addition to complaint that such a report did not exist, Seloba denied at the hearing that the Premier had received such a (final) report, and asserted that the CFO of the Department of Health still had to meet with the Treasury Department on this matter.

However, Lubisi has supplied the panel with a copy of this report by Provincial Treasury. This document referred to a “report” – not a “draft report”, or a “preliminary” one. However, it was not signed, or dated. This, of course, elicited some questions from the panel, such as to why that had been the case, and how the newspaper knew that it was authentic.

The editor countered that the reporter asked Treasury head of communication Sydwell Sibanda about this specific document – and argued that the reporter was justified to believe that the document was authentic as Sibanda did not query its existence, but rather responded to questions in this regard.

He said that the newspaper had received this document from a source, about a week or two before publication.

This convinced the panel that the newspaper was justified to base its story on this document, and to call it a “report” by the Treasury Department – whether or not the Premier had received it prior to the publication of the article, and even though it was unsigned and undated. To put it differently: The reasons for accepting the authenticity of the document were stronger than those which counted against it.

The issue from here on, therefore, is not if City Press could / should have used the document, but how it reported on the matter.

The article                          

Sitting on a report

Dube reported:

  • Limpopo Premier Stan Mathabatha has been accused of not acting on a report that could have led to criminal charges against senior government officials”; and
  • Mathabatha spent the past two years sitting on recommendations by the provincial Department of Treasury to act against officials fingered in a multi-million rand corruption tender awarded by the Department of Health (under his close ally, MEC Phopi Ramathuba).”

Seloba denies that the Premier has been “sitting” on a report by the Department of Treasury.

The editor says that officials, as the report from Treasury show, were accused of changing tender information to favour one supplier over others. These kind of (fraudulent) action were criminal in nature, he adds.

He also rejects the accusation that City Press has “invented” the story – not only did the article quote a source in this regard, he says, but over two years since City Press reported on this matter nobody has been held accountable.

Seloba retorts that the Premier has instructed the MEC to take action based on the preliminary report. He reiterates, “We are saying there is no Premier who have been sitting on a report for two years.” He adds that his office had indicated this inaccurate reporting to City Press, but the newspaper merely ignored this information.

Hearing; panel

The basic problem throughout the article in question is that the reporter used the original, preliminary report and the final one inter-changeably (as stated by the editor himself). This was bound to be confusing to reasonable readers. The fact that the article also did not state that the preliminary report had led to the final one, contributed to the confusion.

Consider inter alia the following statements, which all referred to “a report”:

  • “…Mathabatha has been accused of not acting on a report that could have led to criminal charges against senior government officials”;
  • But two years after the damning report was handed to [Mathabatha] with recommendations to take action … [he] is yet to take action”;
  • The confidential treasury report, in possession of City Press, highlights a range of discrepancies, including violations of the Public Finance Management Act”; and
  • The report read in parts …”

The first two statements referred to the preliminary report, and the other two to the final one. The reasonable reader would not have known the difference. It was only with the benefit of the hearing that the panel could discern between the two.

The interchangeable references to the two reports, without clarifying which was which, and without even announcing that the newspaper got hold of the final report, had unfortunate consequences.

For example, on which report was the Premier supposedly “sitting”? On the original one, which was provisional, or on the final one, which he has not received yet? (The panel has no reason not to accept Seloba’s testimony on this matter, and the newspaper has presented no evidence to the contrary.)

If it was the first one, the onus was on the newspaper to explain the accusation; if it was on the final report, the accusation would have been downright unfair, for one cannot act on a document that one has not yet received.

The newspaper was at liberty to believe that the Premier has not done enough after having received the initial, preliminary report – but in that case, the journalist should have spelt it out clearly. As it stood, the accusation merely hung in the air.

If Dube wanted to raise this issue, he should have done so in so many words.

Given the interchangeable use of the two reports, as if they were one, seriously lacked the necessary context.

Ramathuba

The journalist reported: “…a multi-million rand corruption tender awarded by the Department of Health under [the Premier’s] close ally, MEC Phopi Ramathuba.”

Seloba denies that Ramathuba has awarded the tender.

Lubisi says the story did not say that Ramathuba had awarded the tender – it merely said it was awarded by the department that fell under the “current” MEC (Ramathuba).

He adds that, when City Press first exposed this story in 2015, it was the very same MEC who went on record saying there was nothing wrong with this tender – and yet, at a later stage, she had this tender cancelled.

The editor also argues: “When she assumed office, City Press believe she also assumed responsibilities over anything that the department had done. The MEC can’t divorce herself from the transgressions of her department.”

Seloba replies that, even though it was pointed out to the newspaper it was not true that Ramathuba had awarded the tender during the term of the MEC Kgetsepe, the newspaper did not correct this mistake. He says that only City Press would know what its intentions were for dragging Ramathuba’s name into the awarding of the tender.

Hearing; panel

It is not in dispute that Ramathuba was appointed as MEC after the tender was awarded.

Lubisi’s argument that Ramathuba has assumed responsibility for what happened in the department since his appointment is correct, but that does not justify the statement in question. Any reasonable reader would have interpreted the statement that the tender was awarded “under” Ramathuba that she was directly responsible for the taking of that decision – which she was not.

An alternative wording such as the following was required:“…a multi-million rand corruption tender awarded by the Department of Health which now falls under [the Premier’s] close ally, MEC Phopi Ramathuba.”

The headline

The headline read, Limpopo premier stall on corruption report.

Lubisi says that, given the fact that there was no finality on how the matter was resolved, and no official was disciplined, the headline was fair, accurate and in context. He argues that it merely reflected the content of the article and, in particular, that the Premier, as the head of government in the province, had not finalised this matter.

Hearing; panel

The panel has already found that the reporting inaccurately and unfairly portrayed the Premier as sitting on a report / recommendations that required his urgent attention. The headline, in reflecting the story, lacked the same context.

Right of reply

The story said Seloba claimed there was a ‘‘political witch-hunt’’ against Mathabatha, as well as against the MEC of health and his administration. He reportedly threatened to take action against those who leaked the report to City Press, labelling them ‘‘political opportunists’’ who were “gunning” for the Premier.

Seloba denies that the journalist ever contacted him, and adds that he never made the statements as reported.

Lubisi says that, prior to his complaint to this office, Seloba had confirmed to Tabane that Dube did contact him – and added that there was a bitter exchange of words with the reporter and that he had been turned off by the reporter’s “bad attitude and arrogance”.

He adds that the newspaper sent a set of questions to the departments of health and treasury, as well as to the Premier’s office days before going to print.

However, “Instead of allowing each of the affected parties to respond comprehensively to the questions sent … Seloba told everyone to back off as he had the ‘capacity’ to handle this. Instead of doing so, [he] responded by trying to hoodwink the reporter into dumping the story. When this attempt was refused, [he] then resorted to threats which included ‘rendering me unpopular’ and similar low tactics,” the editor submits.

He concludes there was no way in which the reporter could have manufactured the quote from Seloba.

Hearing, panel

At the hearing, Seloba emphatically denied that Dube had contacted him. The consequences of this statement was potentially disastrous, as it meant that the reporter had fabricated a comment.

It is difficult to fathom a more serious mistake by a journalist.

The panel, therefore, gave Dube (through the editor) an opportunity to prove that he did phone Seloba at the relevant time.

As no response was forthcoming after the hearing, the panel extended the deadline until noon on Monday, September 17.

Again, nothing transpired.

Consequently, the panel has no other option but to decide that Dube has fabricated the comments.

As the panel has no jurisdiction over journalists (but only over publications that subscribe to the Press Code), we leave this matter up to the editor to handle as he sees fit.

Finding

Non-existent report

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

The article                          

Sitting on a report

The interchangeable references by the journalist to the two reports, without clarifying which was which, and without even announcing that the newspaper got hold of the final report, wrongly and unfairly portrayed the Premier as sitting on a report that required urgent and serious action, as it lacked the necessary context.

This was in breach of the following sections of the Press Code:

  • 1.1: “The media shall take care to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly”; and
  • 1.2: “News shall be presented in context and in a balanced manner, without any intentional or negligent departure from the facts…

Ramathuba

The story inaccurately and unfairly stated that the tender had been awarded “under Ramathuba”. This was in breach of Section 1.1 of the Code.

The headline

Having inaccurately and unfairly portrayed the Premier as sitting on a report / recommendations that required his urgent attention, without the necessary context, the headline was in breach of Section 1.1 and 1.2 of the Code.

Right of reply

The journalist quoted Seloba, without having spoken to him. This is so serious a matter that the Code does not even cater for such action – except to say that this was in breach of Section 1.1 of the Code.

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 manufacturing of a quote was a Tier 3 offence; the rest amounted to Tier 2 offences.

Sanction

City Press is directed to unreservedly apologise to:

  • Mathabatha for wrongly and unfairly portraying him as sitting on a report that required urgent and serious action, both in the headline and in the text, without supplying the necessary context; and
  • Seloba for attributing statements to him that he never made, and for falsely stating that he had communicated with him.

The newspaper is also reprimanded for inaccurately and unfairly stating that the tender had been awarded “under Ramathuba”, and is directed to retract this statement.

The newspaper is directed to publish:

  • the apology:
    • at the top of the same page on which the offending article was published, with a headline containing the words “apology” or “apologises”, and “Mathabatha”; and
  • online, at the top of the offending article, also with a headline containing the “apology” or “apologises” and “Mathabatha”.

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 the panel.

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.

Tshamano Makhadi, media representative

Carol Mohlala, public representative

Johan Retief, Press Ombud