Rodney Howard-Browne, Revival Ministries International


Wed, Jun 17, 2020

Particulars

Complaint number: 7720

Complainants: Dr Rodney Howard-Browne (first complainant)

                        : Revival Ministries International (second complainant)

Lodged by: Andrew Boerner, Jurgens Bekker Attorneys

Date of article: 9 September 2019

Headline: Bosasa boss had a ‘Messiah complex’ and claimed he was ‘sent by God’ to guide his staff

Author of article: Jacques Pauw

Respondent: Jillian Green, managing editor, as well as Pauw

  1. Complaint                                            

1.1 Dr Rodney Howard-Browne and Revival Ministries International (RMI) complain the:

  • article contained several inaccuracies in that it reported as fact that:
    • Mr Gavin Watson had sent Ms Lindie Gouws to America to hand over a multimillion-rand contribution to preacher Rodney-Browne (who heads Revival Ministries International); and
    • the payment was written off against Watson’s Consilium Business Consultants in an attempt to hide these astronomical costs from his management; and
  • publication:
    • did not seek comment prior to publication;
    • made use of anonymous sources when referring to them; and
    • did not make amends for presenting inaccurate information or comment by publishing promptly and with appropriate prominence a retraction, correction, explanation or an apology on every platform where the original content was published.

1.2 Howard-Browne asks for a retraction and apology of equal prominence as the article in dispute.

1.3 Sections of the Press Code complained about are:

  • 1.1: “The media shall take care to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly”;
  • 1.3: “The media shall present only what may reasonably be true as fact; opinions, allegations, rumours or suppositions shall be presented clearly as such”;
  • 1.7: “The media shall verify the accuracy of doubtful information, if practicable; if not, this shall be stated”;
  • 1.8: “The media shall seek, if practicable, the views of the subject of critical reportage in advance of publication, except when they might be prevented from reporting, or evidence destroyed, or sources intimidated. Such a subject should be afforded reasonable time to respond; if unable to obtain comment, this shall be stated”;
  • 1.9: “The media shall … supplement [an article] once new information becomes available”;
  • 1.10: “The media shall make amends for presenting inaccurate information or comment by publishing promptly and with appropriate prominence a retraction, correction, explanation or an apology on every platform where the original content was published, such as the member’s website, social media accounts or any other online platform; and ensure that every journalist or freelancer employed by them who shared content on their personal social media accounts also shares any retraction, correction, explanation or apology relating to that content on their personal social media accounts; and
  • 11.2: “The media shall avoid the use of anonymous sources unless there is no other way to deal with a story, and shall take care to corroborate such information.”
  1. The text

2.1 The article was about Bosasa executive and “corruption mastermind” Gavin Watson, a “religious zealot”, who reportedly had dished out millions of rand in cash to pastors who bestowed spiritual powers on him, and proclaimed that he had been called to guide and advise the President of the country.

2.2 Pauw reported: “Over the past 20 years, Bosasa has done business with government to the tune of R12-billion. The company’s former COO, Angelo Agrizzi, has implicated Watson at the State Capture Commission in money laundering, tender fraud, corruption, bribery and tax evasion worth billions of rand. Bosasa allegedly paid bribes of between R4-million and R6-million in cash per month…”

2.3 Watson reportedly sent former Bosasa employee Lindie Gouws with a private plane and a million rand to evangelist and potato farmer Angus Buchan. Watson also sent her to America to hand over a multimillion-rand contribution to preacher Rodney Howard-Browne. He was born in South Africa and heads Revival Ministries International.

2.4 The story also said these costs were written off against Watson’s Consilium Business Consultants in an attempt to hide these astronomical costs from his management.

  1. The arguments

3.1 Inaccuracies in story

3.1.1 The sentences in dispute read:

  • “Watson also sent her to America to hand over a multimillion-rand contribution to preacher Rodney Howard-Browne”; and
  • “These costs were written off against Watson’s Consilium Business Consultants in an attempt to hide these astronomical costs from his management”.

3.1.2 Howard-Browne says the article created the false and unfair perception that the large funds received by him and RMI were linked to accounting irregularities and ultimately funds from Bosasa which were tainted with tender irregularities, fraud and corruption. 

3.1.3 He denies that:

  • there has been any contact with Watson, apart from when he briefly met Watson in 2009. There has been no further contact since then;
  • Watson sent Gouws to America to meet him and to hand over money to him and RMI;
  • he, or RMI, received any funds from Gouws or Watson; and
  • he had any knowledge of Bosasa or Consilium Business Consultants.

3.1.4 Howard-Browne lists other allegations (seven in total) made against various individuals and entities that the story presented as allegations (or attributed to a source) and not as “facts”. He points out that the statements regarding him and RMI (cited above), on the contrary, were not reported as allegations, but as fact.

3.1.5 He concludes that both he and MRI are well-known in South Africa, as the MRI has an established network of churches within the country.

3.1.6 Regarding the sentence stating that:

  • Watson sent Gouws to America “to hand over a multimillion-rand contribution to preacher Rodney Howard Brown”, Green replies that the article reflected her denial of the part that said she was to hand over money; and
  • “costs were written off against Watson’s Consilium Business Consultants in an attempt to hide these astronomical costs from his management”, the managing editor replies that this information came from sources with direct knowledge of the matter – and besides, this did not require a right of reply from Howard-Browne as this matter did not deal directly with him or with MRI.

Analysis

3.1.7 Regarding the first sentence (the “handing over of money”) both parties are, with respect, overlooking one central issue: The story did not state that Howard-Browne had received the money – it only reported that Watson had sent Gouws to America to hand over money.

3.1.8 Yes, the implication was that Howard-Browne had received the money – but the article did not say so. How does Howard-Browne know that Watson did not send Gouws to America to hand over money to him? Surely, he cannot speak for Watson? It is possible that Watson did send Gouws on such a mission, without that mission having been fulfilled.

3.1.9 Looking at the other side of the same coin, I need to say the statement that Watson sent Gouws to America to hand over money has not been proven false. Therefore, I have no reason to find that that particular statement was in breach of the Press Code.

3.1.10 For this reason, I do not believe that Daily Maverick owes Howard-Browne an apology. However, because there was an implication that he might have received the money, I do believe that the publication should publish his right of reply. I shall address this aspect below.

3.1.11 I also do not believe that Howard-Browne has the standing to complain about the second sentence (“costs written off”). Perhaps, at the very best, he should be allowed to reply to this statement (as he had been implicated) – but an apology would be inappropriate.

3.2 Not asked for comment

3.2.1 Howard-Browne and RMI complain that the journalist did not ask for comment, as he should have, since they were the subjects of some serious critical reportage.

3.2.2 They note that:

  • Pauw responded to a complaint made by their erstwhile attorneys of record – but quoting a third party did not absolve Daily Maverick of liability or its obligation to obtain comment from them;
  • their contact details were available online; and
  • the reporter obtained comment from various other persons mentioned in the article, but not from them.

3.2.3 Green offers Howard-Browne a right of reply – even though the latter was not the subject of critical reporting, “but was mentioned in relation to the subject of critical reporting, Lindi Gouws, and who was given right of reply”.

Analysis

3.2.4 Yes, Daily Maverick should have given Howard-Browne and MRI an opportunity to reply – not because they were (primary) subjects of critical reportage, but because they were implicated in the matter (I would therefore describe them as secondary subjects of critical reportage).

3.3 Failing to make amends

3.3.1 Howard-Browne says that, despite having been made aware of the “error” as early as 9 September 2019 (on the same day as the publication), Daily Maverick failed to make amends for presenting inaccurate information or comment by publishing promptly and with appropriate prominence a retraction, correction, explanation or an apology.

3.3.2 In the meantime, there was quite some to and fro between the office of the Press Ombud and the two parties regarding this matter. For example, Howard-Browne was offered a right of reply. Boerner replied on 11 December 2019 that a mere right of reply would not be sufficient. His client demanded an apology as well – which the publication was not willing to do.

Analysis

3.3.3 I need to determine whether the publication of Howard-Browne’s response was published:

  • accurately;
  • sufficiently (read: the question if an apology was appropriate); and
  • timeously.

3.3.4 Firstly, the third paragraph of the updated article read (in bold), This article has been edited post-publication to include a right of reply from Dr Rodney Howard-Browne which was erroneously left out when the article was first published.” 

3.3.5 The following response followed lower down (also in bold):In response, Howard-Browne via a legal representative said he had only briefly met Gouws once in 2009 and had had no contact with her since then. He also denied that he or the Ministry received any funds from Gouws, Watson, Bosasa or Consilium and also denied any knowledge of Bosasa or Consilium.”

3.3.6 Based on the complaint itself, I am satisfied that Daily Maverick did publish Howard-Browne’s response accurately. It also did so prominently enough (as required by Section 1.10 of the Press Code, in that the third paragraph already noted, in bold, that Howard-Browne’s response was included. The response itself was also published in bold.

3.3.7 I have already addressed the question of an apology. I repeat – I do not think the publication owes Howard-Browne and MRI an apology because:

  • the first sentence only said Gouws had been sent to America – and not that Howard-Browne had received the money; and
  • Howard-Browne did not have the standing to complain about the second sentence.

3.3.8 This leaves me with only the matter of time. The issue is if Daily Maverick published Howard-Browne’s response “promptly” enough (as Section 1.10 of the Press Code requires). He says he responded to the article on the same day of publication. However, according to Green, this was only published in February (on the front page). These dates speak for themselves.

3.4 Anonymous sources

3.4.1 Howard-Browne complains that Daily Maverick should have avoided the use of anonymous sources and should have taken care to corroborate the information – which it failed to do.

3.4.2 Green replies the story was based on interviews with sources who had intimate and personal  knowledge of the activities described in the piece. “They were uncomfortable and fearful of being publicly identified. Daily Maverick acceded to this because it was public knowledge that known whistle-blower Angelo Agrizzi had to have increased security after receiving death threats. It was, therefore, a reasonable request given the climate surrounding Bosasa and information leaks.”

Analysis

3.4.3 Section 11.2 of the Press Code reads, “The media shall avoid the use of anonymous sources unless there is no other way to deal with a story, and shall take care to corroborate such information.”

3.4.4 Clearly, this section does not prohibit the media from using anonymous sources. There are cases and instances where it is justifiable to use unidentified sources. Given the severity of the context, I have little doubt that Daily Maverick was justified to keep its sources anonymous in this case.

  1. Finding

4.1 Daily Maverick was in breach of:

  • Section 1.8 of the Press Code for not asking Howard-Browne and RMI for comment on the insinuation that they had received money from Watson. This section reads: “The media shall seek, if practicable, the views of the subject of critical reportage in advance of publication…”; and
  • Section 1.9 of the Press Code that says, “The media shall … supplement [an article] once new information becomes available.”

4.2 The rest of the complaint is dismissed.

  1. Seriousness of breaches                                              

5.1 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).                                        

5.2 The breaches of the Press Code as indicated above are Tier 2 offences.

  1. Sanction

6.1 If Daily Maverick has not published Howard-Browne’s response accurately and timeously, I would have sanctioned the publication – even if only by reprimanding it. In this case though, it would be meaningless to ask the website to, once again, publish Howard-Browne’s response.

6.2 There will be no apology.

6.3 In short: There is no sanction.

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

Acting Assistant Press Ombud