University of Pretoria vs. The Citizen
Thu, Dec 14, 2017
Ruling by the Press Ombud
14 December 2017
This ruling is based on the written submissions of Mr Cyprian Khumalo, on behalf of the University of Pretoria (UP), and those of Brendan Seery, the acting deputy editor of The Citizen newspaper.
The UP is complaining about a story in The Citizen of 13 November 2017, headlined Gruesome death at University of Pretoria due to ‘inadequate training’ – Training on new piece of equipment lasted just one day, says co-worker.
The University of Pretoria complains that the newspaper did not ask it for comment on issues raised in the article – while it did ask a representative of General Industries Workers Union of South African (Giwusa), which is not even a recognised union or organiser at the university.
Khumalo calls the reporting deceptive, misinformed and reckless, and adds that The Citizen is continuously reporting one-sidedly on the university.
The story, written by Rorisang Kgosana, quoted Giwusa as saying that the death of a UP worker, who had been killed when pulled into a chipper machine, had been due to inadequate training on how to use the powerful machinery.
Tree branches inserted in the machine reportedly hooked into his gloves and pulled him into the chipper, leading to his death.
It continued, “According to a co-worker who found [the man’s] body … workers had not received adequate training on how to use the machine, as the training session lasted only one day.”
The article ended with a joint statement by the company who employed the man and the UP, inter alia saying they were working with police and the labour department to finalise investigations as, so far, the investigative team could not identify the root cause of the incident.
Seery says The Citizen stands by its story, and asks:
· Where is it written that the newspaper should get comment only from unions or organisations which are registered with the UP?
· Is the university suggesting that the sources lied?
· What questions should the newspaper have put to the UP?
· If there was something to add, as the complaint implies, why did the university not say so in its media release? and
· What are the facts which are “approved” by the UP?
He also objects to The Citizen being called dishonest, and asserts that the complaint smacks of attempts to control the flow of information, seeking to chastise the newspaper for publishing stories which are “not approved”.
Khumalo replies that Seery is missing the point, and calls his attitude “untoward” and “unprofessional”. He says, “The story implies that the University bought new hazardous machinery and employed someone to operate the machinery without providing sufficient training…” – which is why the newspaper should have asked the UP for comment.
He also questions the motives of the source used in the story.
Seery says Khumalo is the one who misses the point, and whose response was unprofessional and defamatory. He argues that the newspaper reported the story fairly by describing what had happened, including the UP’s comment through its media release. The reporter also offered the other side of the story a right of reply – from someone “who had cause to offer comment”.
He also points out that Khumalo did not substantiate his questioning of the source’s motives – “And then he accuses us of deceit,” he adds.
Seery also says that Khumalo ignored the fact that the matter was still under investigation, which means that the UP’s media release was still in effect. “So any comment the university may or may not have offered, had we approached it for the ‘truth’, would be in the same category as that offered by the person we spoke to.”
I am trying to look past all the accusations which flew to and fro between the two parties, and to concentrate on the crux of the matter – the complaint that The Citizen did not ask the UP for comment on the allegations made in the article.
Firstly, there is nothing wrong with the story as it stands – the newspaper had the right to interview the person who was first on the death scene, and to report that person’s views.
There can also not be anything wrong with The Citizen asking Giwusa for comment – irrespective of the fact that the UP does not recognise it as a union. That does not matter in the least, as the newspaper cannot be dictated to regarding whom to speak to, and whom to ask for comment.
The only question is whether the publication of the UP’s media release was sufficient comment or not.
As it did not address the issues mentioned in the story, it was not. The allegations − that the university had bought hazardous equipment, and that the man’s death was caused by the lack of proper training – remained hanging in the air.
If the UP was confronted with these allegations, I am quite sure that it would have responded. To publish such potentially damaging allegations (which the newspaper was justified to do), it follows that The Citizen was duty-bound to ask for comment.
Seery asks what questions the newspaper should have asked the UP. Well, I reckon comment on the allegation of the lack of training, which was instrumental in someone’s death, would have sufficed.
On Khumalo’s allegation that The Citizen’s reporting on the UP was continuously one-sided, he (Khumalo) added, “It is really unacceptable that a complaint has to be lodged with the Ombud on every article published by the Citizen concerning the University of Pretoria.”
I have checked our archives – and could find only one such complaint. In that instance, the newspaper also did not ask for comment, but it rectified the situation on its own (which prompted me not to issue any sanction in that case).
If my records are not complete (I would be very surprised if they are incomplete), I invite Khumalo to enlighten me in this regard.
The Citizen was in breach of Section 1.8 of the Press Code which states, “The media shall seek the views of the subject of critical reportage in advance of publication…”
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 breach of the Press Code as indicated above is a Tier 2 offence.
The Citizen is directed to:
· apologise to the UP for not asking it for comment on the allegations that the university had bought hazardous equipment, and that a man’s death was caused by the lack of proper training in the use of that machinery; and
· ask the university for comment on this allegation (if indeed it still wants to comment).
The newspaper is requested to publish the apology, with the UP’s comment (if it materialises) on the same page as that of the offending article and, if it also appeared online, to publish the text on its website as well.
The headline should contain the words “apology” or “apologises”, and “UP”.
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, in accordance with 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”; and
· be prepared by the publication and be approved by me.
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.