Prof Adam Habib vs. The Citizen


Fri, Jul 20, 2018

Ruling by the Press Ombud

20 July 2018

PARTICULARS OF COMPLAINT

 

Lodged by

 

 

Prof Adam Habib, vice-chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand

 

 

First article in print

 

 

Habib at centre of funding scandal – Allegation: Pulled strings for a friend of his son

(26 June 2018, page 2)

 

Strapline: Incriminating e-mails have surfaced implicating the Wits vice-chancellor

 

 

Online article

 

 

Wits’ Habib caught up in funding scandal – The Wits vice-chancellor allegedly used his influence to obtain funding for a friend of his son, according to a former Wits employee

(June 26)

 

 

Tweet

 

 

Adam Habib caught up in funding scandal – The WITS vice-chancellor allegedly used his influence to obtain funding for a friend of his son, according to a former Wits employee

 

 

Author of articles

 

 

Simnikiwe Hlatshaneni

 

Respondents

 

 

Brendan Seery, deputy editor

Earl Coetzee, news editor

Charles Cilliers, digital editor
 


Complaint                                            

Habib complains that the:

·         articles (both in print and online):

o   reported inaccurately and unfairly about him, making him look guilty of nepotism (details below);

o   contained a headline and a strapline (the latter only in the print version) that did not reasonably reflect the content of the story, and that were baseless;

·         journalist did not afford him a right of reply, while also not reflecting the university’s response;

·         newspaper has failed to:

o   retract, amend or explain the print article, despite amending the one that was published online; and

o   explain its failure to include the university’s reply in its update of the June print article. 

He concludes that the reportage has caused and continue to cause severe and unnecessary harm

to his dignity and reputation.

Habib asks for a full retraction of the print article in dispute, and requests that the retraction be accompanied by a prominent apology, across all of the Citizen’s platforms, as well as on page 2 of its print edition.

The text

The article reported the allegation that Habib had unduly used his position to influence the awarding of a bursary to one of his son’s friends.

Hlatshaneni wrote that former Wits employee Khaya Sithole, who managed the Wits Thuthuka Project (which funded qualifying accounting students through the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants, Saica), had been accused of irregularly processing and approving bursary funds – and that he had been facing disciplinary charges in this regard.

In an affidavit in response to the charges, Sithole reportedly implicated Habib in this matter, submitting that he had merely followed orders.

The complaint in more detail

Inaccurate, unfair reporting

Habib quotes the following statements from the article:

·         “Wits vice-chancellor Adam Habib allegedly used his position to influence the awarding of a bursary to one of his son’s friends”;

·         “The Citizen has seen e-mail correspondence in which Habib instructs employees at the university to find funding for a student, who also happens to be a friend of his son, Irfan”;

·         “Key in the list of allegations [made by Mr Khaya Sithole during the course of  a disciplinary  inquiry instituted by Saica  into his potentially fraudulent conduct] are that the transgressions he is accused of were done under the instruction of members who were his superiors at the time, including Habib…”;

·         Quoting Sithole (in the 26 June print article): “ ‘During the course of 2014, 2015 and 2016, these individuals [presumably including Habib] would individually and occasionally, in cahoots with each other, initiate the addition of irregular students on the programme, in a manner that took advantage of the power they had to override any decisions I made’ … he says in the affidavit”;

·         “In the emails seen by The Citizen, which date back to 2014, a student at the university appeals to Habib, introducing himself as his son’s friend and complaining that despite his academic achievements and numerous applications for funding, he had yet to receive feedback”;

·         “Habib forwarded this email to his deputy Tawana Kupe and Associate Professor Nirupa Padia with a friendly instruction to assist him”; and

·         The email reportedly read: “I think I know him as one of the students in Irfan’s class.  But my attention was drawn to the fact that he had distinctions in Maths and accounting.  I am not sure what he is doing.  Anyway, we can help? How about Thutuka if he is doing accounting…What do you think?”

Habib complains the allegation that he had “instructed” employees to secure funding for his

son’s friend was patently false – the quoted email made it clear that he merely forwarded

a request by a student in his son’s class who had alleged that he had not received any feedback

to his application for funding. He submits that his message was a simple enquiry into whether

the university could assist a student who appeared to be deserving.

He adds that the newspaper has inserted a comma after the word “anyway” into the email

(“Anyway, we can help?”), compared to the one published by Sithole.

He concludes that the allegations made against him in the print article were distorted and

exaggerated, and that the journalist misrepresented the contents of the email which were

alleged to show that he had abused his power in an attempt unduly to influence the awarding

of university funding to a friend of his son. 

Headline, strapline

The offending headline read, Habib at centre of funding scandal – Allegation: Pulled strings

for a friend of his son. The strapline added: Incriminating e-mails have surfaced implicating

the Wits vice-chancellor.

Habib says the headline reflected, as fact, that he was “at the center” of the funding scandal –

while the allegations contained in the article related to untested accusations (made by Sithole

in the context of the latter’s disciplinary inquiry before Saica).  The vice-chancellor argues that

the thrust of Sithole’s allegations was that he, amongst others, initiated the addition of irregular

students on the programme in a manner that took advantage of the power he had to override

any decisions Sithole had made.  The only supporting evidence for this allegation is the email

referred to above, he submits.

 

He denies these “baseless and defamatory” allegations, and calls them “opportunistic”.  

 

The vice-chancellor also says that the headline failed to reasonably reflect the context of

Sithole’s allegations against him. He submits that an ordinary and reasonable reader would

have interpreted the headline as meaning that he himself was at the center of the funding

scandal at the university which was being investigated by Saica – while the real issue under

investigation was Sithole’s alleged unlawful conduct. 

He adds that the headline was subsequently tweeted by The Citizen, who again presented the

contents of the headline as fact.  Following the publication of this tweet, several other media

houses focused on the headline, thereby perpetuating the problem.

Right of reply; university’s response

Habib complains that the newspaper has:

·         published the article without giving him an opportunity to comment on any of the allegations against him; and

·         failed to include any reference to the reply which was timeously provided by the university, and which would at least have provided some balance to the story. 

He submits that these breaches of the Press Code have caused him to suffer “irreparable harm”. 

Failed to address retract/amend/explain in print

Referring to Section 1.10 of the Press Code, Habib complains that The Citizen has failed to

retract or amend the print article, despite amending the online article (to include the university’s

reply), and adds that it has also failed to explain its failure in this regard.

He argues that the print and online versions are published on different platforms and therefore

have different readerships, and argues that those who read the print version only would not be

aware of his reply.

Dignity, reputation

Habib concludes that the reportage has caused and continues to cause severe and unnecessary

harm to his dignity and reputation.

The Citizen responds

The Citizen replies the paragraphs in the original story that included the comments of Wits’ spokesperson, Shirona Patel (who had rejected the allegations made against Habib, and had reserved the university’s right to reply after the conclusion of the hearing), were removed from the story during the subbing and production process.

Seery says it has promptly admitted to its mistake, and the journalist (who had no part in the error), immediately called Habib to explain what had happened, and gave him an opportunity to state his case. This has led to the publication of a follow-up piece the following day, detailing Habib’s views on this matter.

In addition, Seery continues, Habib’s reply was immediately included in the online version, following which the publication then tweeted the corrected version of the article.

The deputy editor says, from the outset, the online headline was different to that of the print one, and did not need to be changed, aside from to reflect that there was an update to the story.

He “sincerely apologises” for the errors that crept in and adds, “but we do believe we did everything within our power to rectify these as soon as we became aware of them… We believed that this was enough to rectify our mistake, and will ensure that it does not happen again.”

Habib replies

Habib says The Citizen’s conduct after the publication of the first article has aggravated, rather than mitigated against its breaches of the Press Code. He points out that comments on the reportage included statements that he was a “fascist” crook, a criminal, corrupt to the core, and that he should resign, and adds that other publications of note, including the Mail & Guardian and Sowetan, have replicated the content of the article, which perpetuated the harm to his dignity and reputation.

The vice-chancellor also submits that, by the time The Citizen has updated the online article to reflect the university’s response, he had already suffered immense damage to his reputation and dignity.

He adds that:

·         the newspaper’s online “correction” did not amount to an apology, despite the huge harm that he has suffered as a result of its reportage;

·         newspaper did not take any responsibility for its mistake to the readers of its print edition, nor has it done so to date; and

·         the follow-up article that contained his views was published significantly less prominent than the offending one.

In addition to his complaint, Habib mentions an editorial published on June 28, as well as a picture of him that gave the “impression” that he was being disciplined or was ashamed as a result of the funding scandal.

In conclusion, Habib says the newspaper has failed to explain why it did not seek his views prior to the publication of the first article. He says it is not good enough to seek a reply from Wits’ spokesperson when he was the subject of allegations that went to his own integrity and conduct, or to seek his comment after publication.

Analysis

I cannot entertain Habib’s latest comments with regard to the editorial of June 28, as well as on the publication of a picture of him that allegedly gave the impression that he was being disciplined or was ashamed as a result of the funding scandal. These matters did not form part of the original complaint, and therefore The Citizen did not have an opportunity to defend itself against them.

Be that as it may, the complaint is going to stand or fall on its own, irrespective of these two issues.

Allegations (in the article) against Habib

Putting aside the reportage regarding the emails for a moment (to which I shall return shortly), I am satisfied that the article did not state any allegation against Habib as fact.

Having said that, the following issues, which are interlinked, now become pertinent:

·         Was the newspaper justified to report the allegations as allegations; and

·         Is this office in a position to decide on the veracity of such allegations?

Given the public interest in this matter, I have no doubt that The Citizen was justified to publish

the allegations (as allegations) – they were made by an accused, in an affidavit, and who had

(rightly or wrongly) implicated Habib in this process. In this instance, The Citizen did not make

the news – Sithole did. The newspaper merely reported the matter, for which it is not to blame.

Secondly, this office has no investigative powers, and therefore is not in any position to pronounce on Habib’s complaint that the allegations against him were false. My mandate starts and finishes with the question if a publication has breached the Press Code – and not if a complainant is guilty or innocent.

If the vice-chancellor wants to establish his innocence, he should explore other avenues to do so.

‘Evidence’ of nepotism

I now turn to the one issue that sticks out like a sore thumb – the references in the article to Habib’s message in the email that he forwarded to his colleagues (deputy Tawana Kupe and associate professor Nirupa Padia).

But first: There was nothing wrong with quoting the content of that email. In fact, it was helpful, as it made me wonder what the fuss was all about – as clearly, Habib did not “instruct” anybody to “secure funding” for a friend of his son (as stated in the article).

This is of extreme importance, so let me analyse what exactly Habib said, and did not say, in his message:

·         At the outset, the vice-chancellor announced his “interest” in this case by declaring he thought he knew the person as one of the students in his son’s class. The fact that he stated this upfront and did not attempt to hide it, is significant;

·         He emphasised that the student’s merits were of overriding importance (having obtained distinctions in mathematics and accounting);

·         Then, and most importantly, he askednot instructed – his colleagues if they could help (he put a question mark behind the sentence that referred to possible help for the student, not an exclamation mark or a full stop); and

·         Far from “instructing” his colleagues, he ended his email with another question, asking them what they thought – which implied that, as far as he was concerned, the matter was not finalised (as an “instruction” would imply).

With this context in mind, I have serious reservations about the following sentence in the article: “The Citizen has seen email correspondence in which Habib instructs employees at the university to secure funding for a student, who also happens to be a friend of his son, Irfan.” (Emphases added.)

What aggravated this unfounded statement is that it was preceded by the introductory sentence that read, “Wits vice-chancellor Adam Habib allegedly used his position to influence the awarding of a bursary to one of his son’s friends.”

It also appeared underneath a damning headline that stated that Habib was at the “centre” of the scandal.

Let me quote those two sentences again, this time in their proper order: “Wits vice-chancellor Adam Habib allegedly used his position to influence the awarding of a bursary to one of his son’s friends. The Citizen has seen email correspondence in which Habib instructs employees at the university to secure funding for a student, who also happens to be a friend of his son, Irfan.”

The second sentence practically overruled the use of the word “allegedly” in the first one, as the journalist was reporting she had evidence that the allegation was true. Her direct accusation of nepotism (read: Habib has used, or misused, his influence to secure funding for a friend of his son) has left readers with little or no room for interpretation.

Charged (but by the newspaper) – and found guilty (in the same breath).

I have mulled over for quite some time what the reason could be why the journalist had misused her own influence to falsely accuse Habib of nepotism, based on “first-hand evidence”. At best it could be that she merely wanted to strengthen her story; at worst…

Let me rather not speculate any further.

Given the careful way in which the reporter has written the rest of the story – which points to the fact that she is quite capable as a journalist – I am left with little doubt, though, that this did not happen accidentally. The journalist has deliberately cast doubt on Habib’s actions, intentions and integrity…

Clearly, the unnecessary – and huge – harm caused to his dignity and reputation weighed less than whatever her motivation was to mislead the public by her inaccurate and unfair reporting.

I hardly ever repeat myself, but this is an exception: Given that this sentence was in stark contrast with the rest of the article, in which the reporter carefully avoided the trap of presenting allegations as fact, I have no other reasonable explanation for this – obvious – mistake than to believe that it was deliberate. If there is any other explanation, I am yet to hear it.

It is interesting – if that is the correct word, within the context of deliberately having cast doubt on Habib’s integrity – that the journalist, at the end of the article, softened her approach by stating: “Habib forwarded this email to his deputy Tawana Kupe and associate professor Nirupa Padia with a friendly instruction to assist him.” (My emphasis.)

This time, the “instruction” was not to secure funding for the student, but merely to “assist him”. However, by this time the damage was already done.

In conclusion, please note I have not said that Habib was innocent – that is not for me to say. What I am saying, though, is that with the information available to the journalist she was not justified in her reportage on this matter, and that she therefore has caused him huge and unnecessary harm.

 Let me quote from the Preamble to the Press Code in this regard: “As journalists we commit ourselves to the highest standards, to maintain credibility and keep the trust of the public. This means always … avoiding unnecessary harm …

Headline, sub-headline, strapline

Habib’s complaint is twofold – he says that these texts did not reasonably reflect the content

of the story, and adds that they were baseless.

I have already dealt with the latter – the “baseless” part of the complaint falls outside the

mandate of this office. The only question on my table is if the texts reasonably reflected the

content of the article (as required by Section 10.1 of the Press Code).

The sub-headline presented the statement that Habib had “pulled strings” for a friend of his son

as an allegation. It was true that Sithole had made this allegation – and, as argued above, the

newspaper was justified to publish it. As such the sub-headline did reasonably reflect the

content of the story.

The same goes for the strapline.

This leaves me with the statement, in the main headline, that Habib was “at the centre” of a

funding scandal.

Habib argues that the headline reflected this statement as fact – while the allegations contained

in the article related to untested accusations made by Sithole. The real issue, his argument goes,

is Sithole’s (and not his) alleged unlawful conduct.   

In later correspondence, Seery admits that the choice of these words was a mistake.

I need to say no more, as I agree with both of them. If Habib was under investigation, the

headline would have been in order. But he was not.

Right of reply

The issues are if the newspaper was justified in only asking the university for its response, and

not also Habib himself, and if the follow-up story sufficiently reflected the university’s

response.

Section 1.8 of the Press Code is relevant. It reads: The media shall seek the views of the subject of critical reportage in advance of publication; provided that this need not be done where the institution has reasonable grounds for believing that by doing so it would be prevented from reporting; where evidence might be destroyed or sources intimidated; or because it would be impracticable to do so in the circumstances of the publication. Reasonable time should be afforded the subject for a response. If the media are unable to obtain such comment, this shall be reported.”

The need for asking the university for comment is not in dispute – this was necessary, as both the vice-chancellor and the institution have become the subject of critical reportage. The Citizen duly complied (the fact that this response was edited out is a different matter, which

I shall address below).

I do not believe that the newspaper was obliged to ask Habib personally for his comments as

well – even though that would have been preferable. When a journalist asks somebody’s

spokesperson for comment, it is widely – also internationally – regarded as if the request was

directed at the person himself. Having asked the university for comment, the newspaper has

absolved itself of its duty, as required by Section 1.8 of the Code.

Secondly, the follow-up article on its website published the university’s statement in full.

(The journalist asked the university for comment on the allegations that Habib had “coerced” Sithole of the Thuthuka fund into approving the funding of students who did not qualify for the fund and/or who were personally associated with the vice-chancellor. Wits responded as follows: “The University categorically rejects the allegations made in recent days by a former employee of the University. The University is of the view that the SAICA disciplinary process should be allowed to run its course without interference. The University reserves its right to comment at a later stage and to take appropriate action against any person or body who makes false allegations or brings the University’s name into disrepute.”)

As the newspaper has already corrected this mistake, of its own accord, I am not going to pursue this matter any further.

The up-dated version

The fact that the university’s response was edited out is inexcusable. It is true that, when

sub-editors need to shorten a story, they usually cut the text from the bottom. But that is not an

excuse – sub-editors are also journalists, and they should realise the importance of publishing

the comment of subjects of critical reportage.

Because of this (quite widespread and understandable) practice, authors should probably

refrain from reflecting such comments only in the last paragraphs of their articles.

Be that as it may, I am satisfied that The Citizen has adequately addressed this matter in its

online version of the story.

The question, though is if the newspaper should not have printed the university’s response in

its print edition as well – as complained by Habib.

Well, The Citizen did better than that, in that it printed a whole article on page 4, headlined It’s

standard, not nepotism – Habib, in which his comments were extensively reported.

Dignity, reputation

In the main, The Citizen was justified to publish the allegations as allegations – and as far as that is concerned, the newspaper did what the media are supposed to do.

However, the journalist has spoiled all her best efforts by the uncalled for and unsubstantiated statement that she had seen an email in which Habib had incriminated himself (based on non-existing “evidence”) – and the writer of the main headline duly followed suit.

The answer to the question if the reportage was likely to cause severe and unnecessary harm to

Habib’s dignity and reputation, therefore, is a resounding “yes”.

Finding

Allegations (in the article) against Habib

As far as the article (mainly) reported Sithole’s allegations against Habib as allegations, the complaint is dismissed.

The statement by the journalist that she had seen an email in which Habib had instructed his colleagues to secure funds for a friend of his son was in breach of Section 1.1 of the Press Code that states, “The media shall take care to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly.”

Headline, sub-headline, strapline

The statement that Habib was “at the centre” of the scandal did not reflect the content of the article. This was in breach of Section 10.1 of the Code which says: “Headlines…shall give a reasonable reflection of the content of the report…in question.”

The complaints regarding the sub-headline and the strapline are dismissed.

Right of reply

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

The up-dated version

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

Dignity, reputation

The newspaper was in breach of Section 3.3 of the Press Code which states: “The media shall

exercise care and consideration in matters involving dignity and reputation.”

Seriousness of breaches                                              

Under the headline Hierarchy of sanctions, Section 8 of the Complaints Procedures distinguishes between minor breaches (Tier 1 – minor errors that do not change the thrust of the story), serious breaches (Tier 2), and serious misconduct (Tier 3).

The statement that the journalist has “seen” Habib’s “instruction” to secure funds for a friend of his son was deliberately misleading, and therefore should be classified as a Tier 3 offence.

The main headline was a Tier 2 offence.

Sanction

The Citizen is directed to unconditionally apologise to Habib for:

·         unfairly reporting, as fact, that there was evidence that he had instructed his colleagues to financially support a friend of his son; and

·         stating, again as fact, that he had been at the centre of the funding scandal.

The newspaper is directed to publish the apology:

·         at the top of page 2, with a headline containing the words “apology” or “apologises”, and “Habib”;

·         online (at the top of that page); and

·         on all other platforms where it has published these matters.

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