Volksblad vs. The Weekly


Thu, Dec 14, 2017

Ruling by the Press Ombud

13 December 2017

This ruling is based on the written submissions of Gert Coetzee, editor of the Volksblad newspaper, and those of Tapera Chikuvira, editor of The Weekly newspaper, as well as on a meeting held on 12 December 2017 in Bloemfontein. Coetzee and the journalist Marietjie Gericke represented Volksblad at the meeting. They brought witnesses from political parties (Mr Wouter Wessels, Mr Christiaan Steyl and Mr David van Vuuren). Chikuvira and Mr Solomon Ntsele represented the complainant.

Volksblad is complaining about a front-page story, with accompanying posters, in The Weekly of 10 – 16 November 2017 headlined, Volksblad clandestine agenda exposed – A covert cloak and dagger smear campaign against Dr Ace Magashule looms... The posters read, Volksblad covert agenda exposed.

Complaint                                            

Volksblad complains that the:

·         story falsely accused it of driving a racist and a political agenda;

·         journalist did not ask it for a response; and

·         publication misunderstood the watchdog role of the media and the importance of freedom of speech.

The text

The article announced that the newspaper had exposed a camouflaged “cloak and dagger” campaign by Volksblad aimed at leaking confidential information about the Free State provincial government and Premier Dr Ace Magashule. It stated, “According to investigations carried out by this newspaper it has emerged that very senior white officials in the office of the Premier, under the pretext of being loyal to him, are intercepting government information and passing it on to Volksblad newspaper.”

A well-known MEC in the provincial cabinet was reportedly implicated and has been “confirmed” by sources as the “mastermind” behind the “dirty leaks”.

Sources reportedly:

·         said that the leaks were meant to undermine Magashule’s popularity and standing in society, while casting doubt on his integrity and suitability to lead the ANC after the December elective conference; and

·         confirmed that the provincial government had been inundated with media enquiries related to the activities of various departments as a result of the leaks.

The story continued, “The intentions of the conspirators in this agenda is to attack identified black business people who had been getting jobs from government and fuelling an impression that all business allocated to blacks is not legitimate and was awarded through corrupt means. Ultimately, said our sources, the goal is to project Premier Magashule himself as corrupt through a smear campaign targeting loyal politicians, black business and government departments.”

The article also stated that Volksblad had been used as an “anti-Dr Magashule mouthpiece”, being fed leaked information as a way of tainting the province’s image by targeting the Premier in particular.

It added that Letlaka Media, as publishers of The Weekly and other businesses owned by the company, had been “identified as a major threat to the anti-government agenda driven by the white owned media; meanwhile, Volksblad had been identified as a vehicle to discredit The Weekly and all other businesses of the Letlaka Media group to ensure that no business came their way”.

The arguments

Coetzee complains that the article accused Volksblad of a racist agenda in that it implicates the newspaper in a conspiracy and a smear campaign against black business people.

He adds that the story mentioned leaks to “the white media”, an “anti-government agenda driven by white-owned media houses”, “white propaganda working against us”, “white monopoly forces”, and a “white media monopoly propaganda arm”.

The editor also says that The Weekly made an obvious, albeit clumsy, effort to harm Volksblad, its credibility and its brand, having sledged the newspaper in general terms without citing specific examples of where the newspaper has reported wrongfully or inaccurately.

He says it also seems The Weekly has a grudge against Volksblad because it reports maladministration, tender and other corruption and poor governance – while, in fact, it merely did its job, as a proper news medium should. “Also obvious is that The Weekly does not make any effort to prove any reportage by Volksblad wrong…but that the main qualm is that apparently there are whistleblowers who provide information,” he remarks.

The editor denies that the newspaper’s information came from any MEC, or from white people in the premier’s office – hence there was no “clandestine agenda” which could have been exposed.

Coetzee adds that The Weekly’s main, or maybe only source of income, is direct government funding – which clashes with Section 3 of the Press Code “…inasmuch that The Weekly becomes a prostitute for the ANC-led Free State Government of premier Ace Magashule”.

He argues that a political agenda is at work, driving to a head political in-fighting and leadership battles in the ANC, in the Free State and nationally (which is also a transgression of Section 3 of the Press Code, he says).

Coetzee concludes that The Weekly does not understand the constitutional values of freedom of speech, the fourth-estate role of the media as a watchdog of government, and the nature of democracy.

Chikuvira replies that, according to his sources in the Free State provincial government, the intentions of the conspirators were to attack some black business people.

He says that Volksblad has consistently used leaked information for that purpose. Also, the newspaper’s coverage of Letlaka Media has left him convinced the paper has an agenda to attack black business people, including the owner of The Weekly (Ntsele). He adds the fact that Volksblad is white-owned does not denote that it is racist. “We never said that. Every media house is informed by its founding statement and editorial policy and this does not make them racist,” he argues.

Regarding the statement about a smear campaign, in which loyal politicians, black business people and government departments were targeted, the editor says stories should be based on facts. He attests, “Sources have confirmed the provincial government has been inundated with media enquiries related to activities of various government departments as a result of the leaks.”

Chikuvira says the reference to “white-owned media” was not meant to target Volksblad. He says Volksblad is not white-owned – it falls under News24, which has black shareholding. He argues, “The phrase is simply used to describe ownership and we find nothing wrong with this. ‘Another leak to white media’ is just a historical reference on how sources in our probe were defining the linkage some mainstream media. In our view, white media doesn’t equate to racism.”

He adds that the phrase “anti-government agenda driven by white-owned media houses” is a generic statement influenced by information given to The Weekly, and claims it does not have a direct bearing on Volksblad.

The editor says while he does not believe in the terminology “white monopoly capital”, he also does not find this offensive. He argues, “This phrase is used as a political term and as a publication The Weekly does not believe in it as we see it as being against social cohesion in the country. But the fact that we don’t believe in it does not mean we can’t quote it when someone says it. That also doesn’t mean we support it.”

Chikuvira says the phrase “white media monopoly propaganda arm” was a direct quote of ANC Youth League Free State provincial spokesperson, Mr Sello Pietersen.

He also says, “Volksblad’s coverage of stories on … Letlaka media shows there is a pattern to write negative stories about black people in high places and government departments.”

He says the story was factual and has been a subject of extensive investigation based on information provided by a source within the Office of the Premier. This was confirmed by another source who referred to several leakages of confidential information to Volksblad from the Office of the Premier.

The editor adds, “We have it on authority from our two independent sources that the information is being deliberately leaked in a said office with the sole aim of embarrassing the premier and his government. All this points out that there is a political agenda and Volksblad by publishing the leaks, acts as a platform to discredit government unwarrantedly. While Volksblad has got a right as a watchdog it should not propagate falsehood and slant reporting.”

He denies any agenda, political or otherwise – the newspaper only sought to place in the public domain the reality that there was deliberate leakage of information on activities of the FS provincial government, with Magashule as the target.

The editor adds that Volksblad has on several occasions published information that could only have been leaked to the newspaper.

It is extremely worrying and of deep concern for the Volksblad to believe and to insinuate that it is the only credible newspaper in the province.

Chikuvira says that, for many successive years, Volksblad has consistently attacked the integrity of The Weekly. He adds, “The newspaper has even bemoaned that government advertising is given to our newspaper, a fact that is not determined by us, but advertising clients themselves. Amid all these consistent attacks on our credibility, without even been given the mandatory opportunity to respond to any of these articles, we soldiered on with our business.”

He emphasises that The Weekly has no intention to harm any newspaper’s integrity and has never done so in its 10-year existence – “until facts based on confirmed information necessitated us to publish this story”.

Chikuvira calls Coetzee’s accusation that the article was attacking Volksblad in general terms without citing specific examples “baffling”. He says the story referred to:

·         the CEO of Letlaka Media, who confirmed that information about his business dealings with government were leaked to the Volksblad and used without giving him the right to reply;

·         the Vrede dairy farm which Volksblad had written about on several occasions; and

·         other incidents that corroborated and confirmed an agenda to tarnish and attack Magashule. 

The editor says that, while Volksblad complains about not being given an opportunity to comment, it did the same to The Weekly. “This begs the question of why is The Weekly compelled to give Volksblad an opportunity to respond when Volksblad can write articles without giving us our due rights to respond,” he argues.

If Volksblad sought to suggest that The Weekly did not have sources, then most of its articles would be based on innuendo, which would be flaunting the Press Code.

He says The Weekly bears no grudge towards any newspaper, and believes that the fourth estate plays a critical role to keep the powers that be accountable and that any healthy democracy is dependent on the freedom and independence of the media.

The Weekly has on several occasions exposed corruption in the Free State provincial government and this was done without any ulterior motive or a particular agenda.

Chikuvira attests, “To suggest without proof that Letlaka Media and other companies owned by Mr Tumi Ntsele are associated with Magashule is not only shoddy, but amounts to a desperate and deliberate attempt to tarnish our good name. This desperation has compelled Volksblad to term our newspaper a ‘propaganda mouthpiece’ but to also allege that our company had been allocated contracts that we had nothing to do with.”

He cites as examples the statement / allegation that Letlaka Media:

·         owns Hlasela TV (while none of its companies has anything to do with Hlasela TV; instead, the relevant contract was awarded to a company called Bombenero, which also has nothing to do with Letlaka);

·         was involved in a new community station, “something that is unknown to us”;

·         received R95-million from Magashule; and

·         has been paid R95-million, while the company had nothing to do with the relevant website contract.

Regarding government advertising, Chikuvira says Volksblad’s complaint reveals that it is jealous and envious of the posture of the Weekly, and it exposes his suspicion on consistently and desperately relentless attacks on his newspaper’s good name.

He says his newspaper does not decide where government advertising should be placed. “To place the blame of advertisement on The Weekly, while government also uses Dumelang News and other community newspapers is baffling. Nonetheless it is obvious that the bashing of our publication and companies is as a result of advertising,” he attests.

Chikuvira also says writing about the upcoming ANC elective conference does not in any way flaunt Section 3 of the Press Code. He denies any political agenda that favours any of the parties to the ANC conference. “The upcoming Free State provincial conference is a topical issue and matter of interest and we can’t shy away from it,” he says.

In conclusion, the editor states, “We have no problems with Volksblad’s role as watchdog of the Free State provincial government but we can’t be lectured by the newspaper when over time it has shown total disregard of the Press Code and its dictates.”

Coetzee replies

Coetzee says Chikuvira’s response confirms that The Weekly’s “investigation” was about finding “leakages” from the Premier’s office to Volksblad – and not about maladministration, tender and other corruption, etc., which are the real public watchdog issues. “This reminds of the witch-hunting in the Watergate Scandal and other similar cover-ups,” he says.

The editor adds that “sources” and “whistle-blowers” are part and parcel of journalistic work. However, he says Volksblad does not have sources in Magashule’s office because of the tight hegemony (unlike the complainant wishes to believe). “However, had such information been forthcoming, it would have been corroborated with the information from the legislature, opposition parties etc, as Volksblad does in its reportage,” he adds.

He alleges that The Weekly’s reason for being is to be a propaganda mouthpiece, “whistling its master’s tune. Instead of exposing real issues, it attacks the messenger who does”.

The editor agrees that reporting about the upcoming ANC election is topical and news-relevant. “However, backing your paying political masters in such an obvious way as The Weekly in its so-called exposé is hardly objective, but a staggering of selective sources driving home its bias. It is riddled with the opinion of the (real) writer of the piece (the editor?), without quoting sources,” he says.

Reflecting on the situation as a whole, Coetzee asks why an “independent” newspaper would investigate “leaks” of information from its paymaster’s office – and why it would have a problem with that at all.

At the meeting

I stressed that the allegations against Volksblad were of an extremely serious nature. I therefore asked for evidence of the accusation that Volksblad has a covert or clandestine agenda, aimed at black people and black businesses.

Ntsele was not willing to disclose his sources to me in confidence – which I have accepted, of course. However, it did complicate my adjudication of the complaint, as I had no evidence on the table supporting a decision on whether the reportage was fair and justified, or not.

 

This was important, as it is not in order to publish an allegation just because someone has made it – there has to be some reasonable ground to support such a statement. If for example, someone commits slander, the media would be guilty of defamation if such a statement is published.

Be that as it may, I now need to focus on the complaint at hand.

We discussed the complaint about a racist and political agenda on Volksblad’s part in quite some depth.

At the meeting, Ntsele denied that the story accused Volksblad of a racist agenda. Even after I said that, as a reasonable reader (which I hope I am), my impression of the story was indeed that it accused Volksblad of having such an agenda, Ntsele maintained that that was not the case. Another reasonable reader may come to a different conclusion, he argued.

Chikuvira, in his response to this complaint, also denied that The Weekly has accused Volksblad of racism.

However, he also stated:

·         According to his sources in the Free State provincial government, the intentions of the conspirators (which allegedly included Volksblad) were to attack some black business people; and

·         The newspaper’s coverage of Letlaka Media had left him convinced the paper had an agenda to attack black business people. There was a “pattern to write negative stories about black people in high places and government departments,” he stated.

Surely it would be racist if such a pattern does exist?

Let me now take a closer look at how the article presented this issue. What matters, in the end, is not The Weekly’s interpretation of the story (or Volksblad’s interpretation, for that matter) – under scrutiny is the text which was published.

Firstly, except for a small story in the bottom right-hand corner of the front page, the article in dispute covered the whole of the editorial space on that page.

Above the fold the headline read, Volksblad clandestine agenda exposed – A covert cloak and dagger smear campaign against Dr Ace Magashule looms...

Those statements were presented as fact, without any attribution. No names were mentioned; no sources were implied; no inverted commas were used.

The story was permeated with the contrast between white and black – most of which was again presented as statements of fact. For example, the article stated:

·         From an investigation by The Weekly it “emerged” that senior “white officials” were intercepting government information and passing it on to Volksblad;

·         The intentions of the conspirators in this agenda was “to attack identified black business people”, fuelling an impression that “all businesses allocated to blacks is not legitimate and was awarded through corrupt means”;

·         The newspaper’s probe revealed that Letlaka Media, as publishers of The Weekly, as well as other businesses owned by the company, “have been identified as a major threat to the anti-government agenda driven by white owned media houses”; and

·         “Another leak to the white media relates to...”

Firstly, one would not have expected that a member of the Fourth Estate would be concerned about the leaking of information as such – surely, if such data were in the public interest, it should rather be applauded?

However, The Weekly’s concern clearly was not about the leaking of information, but rather because that data were used by white-owned media houses to discredit Magashule, and to “attack identified black business people”.

Both Ntsele and Chikuvira were at pains to deny that the reference to “white-owned media” was meant to target Volksblad. They emphasised that Volksblad was not white-owned – it fell under News24, they said, which had black shareholding.

True (well, Media24, not News24), but the question then is, to which “white-owned media house” did the story refer? Any reasonable reader would be forgiven for believing that it was Media24, with Volksblad all over the story, in the headline and on posters.

Also consider the following sentence: “Meanwhile Volksblad has also been identified as a vehicle to discredit The Weekly and all other businesses allocated to the Letlaka Group in an attempt to ferment animosity between the Premier and the company and ensure no government business is given to Letlaka Media and its subsidiaries in future.”

However much The Weekly tried to explain this away, their published words conveyed the meaning: White officials were leaking information to white-owned media houses (of which Volksblad was a part) to discredit Magashule and to attack black business people.

Surely, words have meaning.

I cannot but conclude that this amounted to an allegation of a racist agenda – hence The Weekly’s concern about the leaking of information (which otherwise, should not have concerned it).

Because the identity of The Weekly’s sources were kept from me, and I could not interview them, I have no basis on which to decide how justified it was to publish this allegation – I have no evidence to either prove or disprove it.

I accept that The Weekly came to believe it had reason to publish the allegations and that, in the interest of freedom of speech, I should not do anything to prevent the newspaper from reporting on this matter. How valid that reason is, though, I do not know.

However, while The Weekly was free to publish the allegation of a racist agenda (on condition it had reason to believe it was reasonably true), it should be careful just how this is presented – as fact, or as an opinion.

I have already indicated that much of the reportage was presented as fact, not as opinion. However, from the sixth paragraph the article (thankfully) did attribute the information to sources. But still, by then the damage had already been done by the posters, the headline and the first few paragraphs, which all stated this alleged campaign as fact.

It is also noticeable how The Weekly treated the information garnered from its sources – it clearly believed them. At least, that is the impression I gained while reading the story. This impression was confirmed by the use of the word “disinformation” later on in the story. The only way one could make a statement to the effect that the leaked information was false, was if one believed the sources.

If The Weekly has any concrete evidence of such a campaign, with Volksblad being part of it, it is free to publish such information – as fact; if not, it should clarify that the allegation was the view of some unnamed sources.

With reference to Section 5.1 of the Press Code (“Except where it is strictly relevant to the matter reported and it is in the public interest to do so, the media shall avoid discriminatory or denigratory references to people’s race … nor shall it refer to people’s status in a prejudicial or pejorative context”), I asked The Weekly why it was necessary to mention the race of the people who allegedly leaked information, and to refer to white-owned media houses and black business people in the first place.

Neither Ntsele nor Chikuvira could say it was “strictly relevant” to the matter, because then they would have admitted it was a racial issue. They responded by saying that their sources used those words.

This, of course, cannot in itself be enough justification for playing the race card. A newspaper is not by default justified to repeat whatever a source says, as I have already indicated.

In the end, I believe that the references to colour was unnecessary and merely served to sensationalise the matter – unless, of course, The Weekly’s intention was to accuse Volksblad of being part of a racist campaign (which Ntsele emphatically denies), and if it had concrete evidence to this effect. (Such evidence was not presented to me, neither on paper, nor at our meeting.)

On the issue of a right of reply, Ntsele admitted that the newspaper did not ask Volksblad for comment, as it should have. He explained that this was rather a matter of tit for tat, as Volksblad habitually has not asked it for comment either.

He indicated, though, he understood that such an attitude was going against the letter and spirit of the Press Code.

In the end, I need to conclude that the reportage had the potential of unnecessarily causing huge harm to Volksblad’s reputation.

At the meeting, I have voiced my deep concern about the unhealthy tension which clearly exists between the two newspapers. Where two elephants fight, the grass under their feet will die (as Ntsele correctly commented). While the two publications are opponents in the market, they should keep in mind that that they are also swimming in the same pond – both are members of the Fourth Estate, and as such are working towards realising the promise of democracy.

I am relieved to say that, while no party has pulled its punches at the meeting, there was also a willingness by all to at least try and rectify the situation. For example, both parties have pledged to contact each other for comment when necessary – which, to my mind, represents a huge step in the right direction.

I wish to express my sincere wish that our meeting, together with this finding (as well as the one on Volksblad’s complaint) would go a long way in changing the unhealthy tension into a healthy one.

All parties should know that the intention with these findings are not to punish, but to educate and to uplift. The editors from both sides have clearly accepted this, which also represents a healthy development.

Finding

The posters, the headline and the first few paragraphs of the article all presented the allegation of a smear campaign against Magashule as fact. In the absence of any evidence being placed before this office, I am not convinced that The Weekly was justified to make such a statement of fact, or that the references to sources lower down in the story were enough to put matters into perspective. The newspaper should have been careful to present its claim for what it was – an allegation, based on the opinion of some unnamed sources.

This was in breach of Section 1.3 of the Press Code which states, “[Where] a report is not based on facts or is founded on opinion, allegation, rumour or supposition, it shall be presented in such manner as to indicate this clearly.”

If it was The Weekly’s intention to allege that Volksblad had a racist agenda, the references to race in the article would have been justified as they then would have been relevant and in the public interest. Having indicated that it was not its intention to portray Volksblad as having had a racist agenda, though, the references to race was not relevant or in the public interest. This was in breach of Section 1.5 of the Code that says, “Except where it is strictly relevant to the matter reported and it is in the public interest to do so, the media shall avoid discriminatory or denigratory references to people’s race… [and shall not] refer to people’s status in a prejudicial or pejorative context.”

The potential for causing Volksblad unnecessary harm was huge, which was in breach of Section 3.1 of the Code that states, “The media shall exercise care and consideration in matters involving … reputation…”

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

Sanction

The Weekly is directed to apologise to Volksblad for:

·         stating as fact − on its posters, in the headline and in the first few paragraphs of the article − the allegation of a “clandestine agenda”, and a “covert cloak and dagger smear campaign” against Magashule; it is also asked to clarify that those were merely opinions of a few unnamed sources;

·         creating the impression, by continuously referring to race, that this alleged “campaign” was driven by a racist agenda – even though the newspaper, by its own admission, did not set out to do that; and

·         unnecessarily causing Volksblad reputational harm.

The newspaper is requested to publish:

·         the apology on its front page, with a headline containing the words “apology” or “apologises”, and “Volksblad”; and

·         online (at the top of that page), if indeed it was published on its website as well.

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.

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