Shamiel Cassim vs. TimesLive


Sat, May 13, 2017

Ruling by the Press Ombud

13 May 2017

This ruling is based on the written submissions of Mr Shamiel Cassim, Director of Navigators Community Development, and those of Fienie Grobler (executive editor) and Bobby Jordan (journalist) of TimesLive, as well as on a fact-finding meeting held in Simon’s Town on 12 May 2017. Present at the meeting were inter alia Cassim and Jordan, as well as Dave Chambers (Times Media Bureau Chief in Cape Town), Mr David Erickson (of the Simon’s Town Historical Society and the local Architectural Advisory Committee) and Ms Ridwana Cassim, the complainant’s wife.

Cassim is complaining about a story in TimesLive of 15 March 2017, headlined ‘Hideous’ mansion resident angers community with plans to buy historic building.

Complaint                                            

In general, Cassim complains that the story was largely unsubstantiated, incorrect, malicious and injurious to his name and reputation.

In particular, he says that the story:

·         falsely stated:

o   that he planned to buy a historic building (the Royal Alfred Hall);

o   several claims related to his private home; and

·         contained the allegation that he had used “dubious tactics to quell resistance”, without clarification or substance.

He also complains that the:

·         photograph was photo-shopped, thereby falsely reflecting the plans submitted to council for approval; and

·         headline described him as “controversial businessman”, without any justification in the story.

The text

The article, written by Bobby Jordan, said, “It used to be a place of laughter and ballroom dancing. Now one of Cape Town’s oldest buildings is marooned in a bitter ownership dispute involving a controversial businessman.”

He stated that Cassim, a former restaurant owner and labour broker for the navy, was buying the historic Royal Alfred Hall “despite fierce opposition from the local historical society”.

Jordan added: “The largely derelict 150-year-old building‚ currently owned by the City of Cape Town‚ was once at the centre of Simon’s Town social life‚ and served variously as a masonic lodge‚ a social club during World War II‚ a ballroom dancing venue‚ and an artist craft centre.

“It has since fallen into disrepair‚ prompting the City to put it up for sale.

“However‚ critics of the sale have raised concerns about the prospective new owner‚ Cassim‚ who has also applied for special permission to build a five-storey mansion in the heart of Simon’s Town’s historical district.

“The proposed mansion‚ described as ‘beyond hideous’ in a written notice to affected residents‚ has raised doubts about Cassim’s plans for the Royal Alfred Hall – plans he has to date declined to clarify.”

A picture of the proposed building accompanied the story.

The arguments

Planning to buy the historic building

The headline read, “Hideous mansion resident angers community with plans to buy historic building”; the story added that Cassim was buying the historic building (despite fierce opposition from a local historical society).

Cassim denies that he was the buyer of the Royal Alfred Hall. He says the building was sold to Navigators Community Development for community use, as stipulated in tender document 181P/2015/16.

Jordan says Cassim and his wife are the only two listed directors of Navigators Community Development. “It is common cause that they control/own the company.”


Cassim replies that he and Ms Ridwana Gamgraker (Cassim’s wife’s maiden name) are the founder members of Navigators Community Development. This is a legal entity, and was registered in 2006.  The founder members were registered as the directors of the organization.

Analysis

This matter had two sides – on the one hand Cassim was indeed in the process of buying the building, but on the other the building could only be used as a community hall and / or for NGO-related activities. Hence his sensitivity to the fact that the public should not get the idea that he was buying the house in his personal capacity.

In other words, it was not wrong to say that Cassim was buying the property – but then it should be clear that he was not buying it in his personal capacity, or for personal use.

While discussing this matter, a lot was made of Jordan’s unsuccessful attempts to get comment from Cassim. In fact, Jordan has indeed tried several times to elicit comment from Cassim – who simply ignored the journalist’s requests.

Cassim explained that, when Jordan asked him for comment, the contract between him and the City of Cape Town had not been counter-signed, which is why he felt he should not comment at that stage.

Granted.

However, I advised that he should at least have told Jordan that he was in no position to give any comment at that stage (and that he would do so when the time was right).

I trust that this was a learning experience for Cassim on this particular issue.

I also noted with appreciation that TimesLive had held back the story for several weeks in order to obtain comment from Cassim (and that there were some rumours which amounted to hearsay and could easily have been false, which the journalist did not publish).

Cassim’s private home; concerns raised

The story said, “Critics of the sale have raised concerns about the prospective new owner, Cassim, who has also applied for special permission to build a five-story mansion in the heart of Simon’s Town’s historical district.”

Cassim complains that his private home had no connection to the Royal Alfred, that he has not applied for “special permission”(he says his architect submitted plans to Council for approval), and the house was not in the heart of Simon’s Town’s historical district – the plot was located in Harbour Heights, where houses are no older than 20 years.

Jordan says he attended a meeting of neighbours who expressed their opposition to both the purchase of the hall and the application to build the mansion on the hill. “Both matters were the subject of the debate, and the historical society – which hosted the meeting – made a definite connection between the two.  The issue here is that a Cassim is caught up in two controversial matters simultaneously, one involving a historical building that many feel needs to be preserved at all costs; the other a planning matter that involves an application to deviate from building regulations.” 

The journalist explains that the chief concerns of the historical society and others were that Cassim had not clarified what he intended doing with the Royal Alfred Hall, and that there has not been sufficient public consultation. 

Jordan says the proposed building was in the town’s Heritage Protection Overlay Zone (conservation area), which is not the same thing as the “historic core” (which denoted a smaller area closer to the Royal Alfred Hall). He admits, “In this regard I can see how my sentence may have been misleading, although it was intended to impart a generic meaning and not a specific reference to the specific area… I was hoping to get comment on this point … from Mr Cassim.”


Cassim replies that the chairman of the local Historical Society, Mr David Erickson, has been in consultation with the City of Cape Town representatives for years concerning the Royal Alfred, and was fully aware of the sale of the Royal Alfred (he attended the site meeting hosted by the City of Cape Town on 19 January 2016).

He adds that current municipal by-laws allow for the use and “Extent of Development” as per the application. The application was advertised because the property fell within the Heritage Protection Overlay Zone. 

Analysis

At the meeting Cassim confirmed that his complaint on this matter was twofold, namely that:

·         the reference to his proposed private home was of no relevance to the Royal Alfred Hall; and

·         he was not aware of the “concerns” mentioned by Jordan in his story.

It turned out that there was a lack of communication on various fronts, which had nothing to do with either Cassim or Jordan.

The reporter said he “connected” the two buildings in his story because people who attended a public meeting on the proposed sale of the Royal Alfred Hall made that connection. (The meeting was convened by the local Historical Society and the Civic Association.)

I accepted that explanation; I added that the two buildings were indeed “connected” in the sense that the same person (Cassim) was involved in both.

To my surprise Cassim said he did not know of the public meeting, and that he had not been invited to it. He also knew of only two objections to his building plans – but was unaware that others were also critical of those plans (including the Historical Society).

Erickson revealed that the main concern of the people present at the meeting was the question as to the purpose of the house – its mere size suggested that it was intended for business, or perhaps a guest house, while there were only two parking spaces.

So therefore, there were concerns (albeit that more people were involved than Cassim knew) – and consequently Jordan was justified in his reportage on this matter (as well as in mentioning both buildings in one story).

However, I would have preferred the reporter to be more specific on the nature of the concerns.

Another issue popped up at the meeting – Cassim said the statement in the story that he had applied for “special permission” to build his house in Simon’s Town was false. All he did, was to follow normal procedures, he declared.

I noted Cassim had to comply with extra requirements as the proposed building was in the middle of a Heritage Protection Overlay Zone. This is what Jordan meant by using the phrase “special permission” – but Cassim’s view was that this was an unfortunate choice of words, as it might have created the wrong impression that he had asked for special favours. “Special processes” would have been more accurate, he maintained.

However, I do not believe that this issue is material – there is not much difference between “special permission” and “special processes”. Still, it is a matter that needs some clarification.

At the meeting, we did not discuss Jordan’s use of the words “historic core” when describing the location of the proposed building, as he had already admitted in his response to the complaint that it should have read “Heritage Protection Overlay Zone”, which is a conservation area.

Again this was a mistake, albeit not an intentional one (and one not likely to cause unnecessary harm).

‘Dubious tactics to quell resistance’

The article said,  “Both the hall and the building proposal have prompted opposition from sections of the Simon’s Town community, while some residents accuse Cassim of condoning dubious tactics to quell resistance against the proposed mansion on Runciman Drive, overlooking the naval base.”

Cassim complains that the story did not clarify the allegation about “dubious tactics to quell resistance”. He adds that, to date, there have only been two objections, “which have been satisfactorily addressed”.

He adds that, to date, “we have had no communication or correspondence from the local historical society. This ‘fierce opposition’ is unsubstantiated.”

Jordan says the resistance referred to here is objections from affected residents on Runciman Drive.  “At the public meeting I attended in Simon's Town to address the two applications – Runciman and Royal Alfred – it was alleged that Mr Cassim's lawyer personally contacted objectors, requesting meetings with them.  Some affected neighbours present confirmed this correspondence, and David Erickson (from the Historical Society) expressed concern about residents having been contacted in this way, claiming it could well be intimidatory.”


Cassim replies that he had not received a letter from affected neighbours, neither did he have any idea that a public meeting had taken place concerning him.

He says a meeting was taking place concerning a home that he intended building whereby only two recorded objections were received. Correspondence received from the City of Cape Town clearly indicated that a notice letter to surrounding neighbours was sent, giving them sufficient time to comment and only two objections have been recorded.

He asks, “[I]f a notice letter was sent to surrounding neighbours and they did not object, why attend a public meeting and object?”

Analysis

The sentence in dispute became the only real problem that I had with Jordan’s story – he reported that some residents had “accused” Cassim of “condoning dubious tactics to quell resistance” to his proposed “mansion”.

I presume that the lack of communication between so many interested parties has given rise to all sorts of gossip, hearsay and second-hand “information”.

I explained to Jordan that a journalist is not at liberty to publish an allegation, or an accusation, just because someone has made it – there has to be some sort of basis, some vestige of truth to an allegation. If an allegation is purely false, all it succeeds in doing is unnecessarily to sow seeds of doubt about a person – which can lead to huge (unnecessary) harm to such a person’s dignity and reputation.

I also established that Jordan did not ask Cassim about this specific allegation, which he certainly should have done – even if Cassim would not respond (which the reporter did not know at that time).

This means that the conditions, as set out in Section 3.3.1 to 3.3.4 of the Code, by which considerations in matters involving dignity and reputation may be overridden, are not applicable in this case – the report was not (demonstrably) true or substantially true (3.3.1), and the reportage was in this instance not prepared in accordance with “acceptable principles of journalistic conduct” (3.3.4, such as asking a subject of critical reportage for comment before publication).

At the meeting it was said that the architect was “aggressive” in insisting to speak to individuals, instead of attending meetings. His alleged non-attendance of meetings is none of my concern. I have, however, seen his correspondence to the two individuals who had lodged complaints against his proposed building – and the architect’s reaction certainly was far from aggressive.

Cassim says he did not even know about this action, or lack of action, by his architect. I accept his word on this matter.

In conclusion, I do not know whether or not Cassim’s architect used dubious tactics to quell resistance against the proposed building, neither is it in my mandate to determine that. What is important, though, is that there is no proof whatsoever that Cassim has “condoned” such tactics, whether they were used or not.

The publication of this accusation was therefore fundamentally unfair to the complainant and most probably unnecessarily harmed his dignity and reputation.

At the meeting it was also pointed out that the publication of the allegation that Cassim's “lawyer” personally contacted objectors had been wrong – it should have read “architect”.

Photo-shopped

Cassim complains that the photograph was photo-shopped, thereby falsely reflecting the plans submitted to council for approval.

Jordan replies that the picture emanated from Cassim’s own architect, and was obtained by the Simon’s Town Historical Society.

Cassim replies that Erickson visited his architect unannounced on March 31 this year. As the architect was unavailable, Erickson dropped off the building guidelines for Simon’s Town with the staff. A few days later he requested a copy of the building plans from the architect.

Analysis

The picture used by TimesLive was photo-shopped (as it showed Cassim’s proposed house standing on site, while it has not been built yet).

I explained that in this case, the potential problem was not whether the picture was photo-shopped, but rather whether the photo-shopping altered the picture in a misleading manner.

I compared the “photograph” which was published with the architect’s plans, and was convinced that the proposed building had not been altered – and therefore, that the public had not been misled in this case.

Yes, the picture was not perfect, mainly in that it showed a building behind the proposed one which could have been interpreted as being part of the structure – but that was not serious enough for me to decide that TimesLive altered the picture with the intention to mislead the public.

Headline

Cassim complains that the headline described him as “controversial businessman”, without any justification in the story. He says, “This title paints me in a negative light and tarnishes my reputation and that of the project without good reason.” He says he and his family have long lived in harmony with the Simon’s Town communities. “I have been a law-abiding citizen in this town for many years. I have been involved in a number of community projects that have empowered the underprivileged of our society.”

Regarding the reference to “controversial businessman”, Jordan replies it is true that the story did not go into much detail about Cassim’s history with the navy (as a labour broker), which is partly the source of the controversy (a long history of unhappiness within the naval dockyard), neither did it detail Cassim's past involvement with the next-door Dawood building, which was condemned. He explains, “It was my intention to include this information in my story, but I felt uncomfortable doing so without any input / reply from Mr Cassim himself. I had to weigh the benefit of including this information against giving a one-sided report.” 

He adds that news of Cassim’s involvement in purchasing the Royal Alfred Hall was reason enough to earn him the tag “controversial”, and the issue was already in the public domain.

Jordan says other points raised by Cassim about his positive role within the community was information he chose not to share with TimesLive. “It could have helped balance the story. However, community representatives I spoke to, including the Phoenix Committee – quoted in the story – made no mention of Mr Cassim’s positive contributions. I should add that provincial and local government sources confirmed that Mr Cassim's actions in Simon's Town had raised eyebrows within government administration.”


Cassim replies that the labour tender that he applied for was successfully completed. It was for a period of one year.

He asks Jordan to substantiate his statement with proof of his insinuation that provincial and local government sources confirmed “Mr Cassim's actions in Simon's Town” had raised eyebrows within government administration.

Analysis

The introductory sentence to the story (and not the headline) described Cassim as a “controversial businessman”.

Given the issues around his proposed house as well as his intention of buying the Royal Alfred Hall, I agree that he was controversial. This does not mean that he has done anything wrong – but there were perceptions (rightly or wrongly) that he had been stepping out of line, which made him controversial.

Chambers admitted that the headline was poor, as it was not even clear whether the word “hideous” referred to the proposed mansion or to its resident.

However, a poor headline is not necessarily in breach of the Code.

General comment

Before coming to a finding, I need to express the hope that our meeting, as well as this ruling, will contribute to a better understanding between the parties. There certainly are many communication gaps, which give TimesLive an ideal opportunity to dig for the truth and to report it fearlessly – irrespective of who would be at the receiving end.

My overall impression is that Jordan is a good reporter, but that in some instances he did not choose his words carefully enough – which might have contributed to the confusion and misunderstanding which clearly exist. I do not for one moment, though, believe that he has done so intentionally, or was malicious in his reporting – on the contrary.

On the other hand, the few mistakes which I am about to outline, when seen together, did probably cause unnecessary harm to Cassim’s dignity and reputation. As Ombud, I need to protect him.

Finding

Planning to buy the historic building

The statement that Cassim was buying the Royal Alfred Hall was not wrong, therefore the complaint regarding this matter is dismissed – but on condition that the wrong impression that could have been created in some readers’ minds (namely that he was buying the building in his personal capacity) is clarified.

Cassim’s private home; concerns raised

The complaint that Cassim’s proposed private home had no relevance to his intention to buy the Royal Alfred Hall is dismissed.

The complaint about concerns raised against Cassim’s proposed private home is dismissed – but on condition that the main concern (that the structure might be used for business purposes while there were only two parking spaces) is clarified.

The statement that Cassim had applied for “special permission” to build his house is dismissed – but on condition that this matter is clarified.

The complaint about the use of the words “historic core” is dismissed as it was not likely to cause unnecessary harm – but on condition that the wrong impression that could have been created in some readers’ minds is clarified.

‘Dubious tactics to quell resistance’

The statement that some residents had accused Cassim of condoning dubious tactics to quell resistance to his proposed private home did not even have a seed of demonstrable truth to it and was not prepared in accordance with acceptable principles of journalistic conduct, and therefore could have led to huge unnecessary harm to his dignity and reputation. This was in breach of the following sections of the Code:

·         1.1: “The media shall take care to report news … fairly”; and

·         3.3: “The media shall exercise care and consideration in matters involving dignity and reputation…”

Jordan did not ask Cassim for comment about this accusation. That was in breach of Section 1.8 of the Code which states, “The media shall seek the views of the subject of critical reportage in advance of publication…”

The complaint about the reference to Cassim's “lawyer” who allegedly personally contacted objectors is dismissed as it was not likely to cause any unnecessary harm – but on condition that this matter is rectified.

Photo-shopped

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

Headline

The complaint about the headline is dismissed.

The complaint about the reference to Cassim as a “controversial businessman” in the introductory sentence is dismissed.

Seriousness of breaches

Under the headline Hierarchy of sanctions, Section 8 of the Complaints Procedures distinguishes between minor breaches (Tier 1), serious breaches (Tier 2) and serious misconduct (Tier 3).                                                                                      

The breaches of the Code of Ethics and Conduct are all Tier 2 offences.

Sanction

TimesLive is directed to apologise to Cassim, without reservation, for:

·         reporting the accusation that he had condoned dubious tactics to quell resistance to his proposed private home, and to state that this claim did not have a seed of demonstrable truth to it and was not prepared in accordance with acceptable principles of journalistic conduct;

·         not having asked him for comment on this matter prior to publication; and

·         most probably causing unnecessary harm to his dignity and reputation in those processes.

 

TimesLive is also requested to clarify that:

·         while Cassim was planning to buy the Royal Alfred Hall, he was not doing so in his personal capacity or for personal use;

·         the main concern raised against his proposed private home was that the structure might be used for business purposes, while there were only two parking spaces;

·         Cassim’s proposed house was to be built not in the “historic core” of Simon’s Town, but rather in the Heritage Protection Overlay Zone;

·         Cassim had to follow special processes, which did not indicate that he had asked for special favours; and

·         it was Cassim’s architect who allegedly personally contacted objectors, and not his lawyer.

The text should:

·         be published as prominently and in the same space as the offending article;

  • start with the apology;
  • refer to the complaint that was lodged with this office;
  • end with the sentence, “Visit www.presscouncil.org.za for the full finding”; and
  • be approved by me.

The headline should contain the words “apology” or “apologises”, and “Cassim”.

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