Vuslat Bayoglu vs. Rapport, City Press


Fri, Apr 21, 2017

Ruling by the Press Ombud

21 April 2017

This ruling is based on the written submissions of Ms Emma Sadleir of The Digital Law Co., on behalf of Mr Vuslat Bayoglu, and those of Alet Wichman, for the Rapport and City Press newspapers.

Bayoglu is complaining about almost identical stories in Rapport and City Press, both of 5 February 2017. The first was headlined Turkse ‘mafia’ glo in SA bedrywig, and the second, Turkish fugitives buy arms company.

Complaint                                            

Bayoglu objects to the use of the words “fugitives”, “mafia” and “terror group” / “terrorism” in the headlines and the articles, saying they were defamatory, unsubstantiated and untrue. He adds that the reportage has caused immeasurable harm to his dignity and reputation.

He mentions, in general, that the articles were not prepared in accordance with acceptable principles of journalism, without directly referring to a right of reply. In later correspondence, though, he belabors this issue – which is why I incorporate it in my adjudication.

The texts

The articles, written by Erika Gibson, said that Turkish citizens sought by their government for alleged terrorism back home, had managed to buy an arms manufacturer without the South African government knowing about it. She quoted Mr Jeff Radebe, Minister in the Presidency and chairman of the National Conventional Arms Control Committee, as saying that the government was not aware of the involvement of Turks in the arms manufacturer Milkor.

Gibson added that a storm broke out in Turkey when the government-friendly Daily Sabah newspaper reported that fugitives had managed to smuggle approximately R6.6-billion into South Africa.

She stated, “Kaan Esener, Turkey’s former ambassador to South Africa and the Turkish deputy minister of foreign affairs, told the Daily Sabah that a number of Turks based in South Africa, including Vuslat Bayoglu, were fugitives in that country and were wanted for their involvement in the alleged terror group. Bayoglu is the director of various coal mining companies. He has a South African ID number and has residency in the country.”

The journalist quoted Bayoglu’s legal adviser, Ms Emma Sadleir, as saying that the former was “surprised” by the “false allegations” made in Turkey. “[Bayoglu] has never heard of the terrorist organisation [Fetullah] that is named in the report. [He] rejects terrorism, terrorist organisations and acts of terror. He has never been involved in any form of terrorism and does not support it. [He] has also never been questioned by South African authorities,” Sadleir was quoted as saying.

The arguments

Before coming to the particulars of the complaint, I first document comments about the source of the stories.

Source of the stories

Bayoglu

The complainant says the source of the stories appears to be an article in a government-controlled Turkish newspaper called The Daily Sabah. He asserts, “To refer to someone in the terms mentioned above, using government propaganda as your only evidence, is entirely irresponsible. The allegations are unsubstantiated by any other evidence. I was not offered the right to reply in the Daily Sabah article (indeed I did not even know about the article until Erika Gibson brought it to my attention).”

Wichman

The newspapers reply that Rapport started investigating the story not because of any publication in Turkey, but because a South African arms manufacturer had apparently been taken over by a Turkish concern, without all the necessary approvals as required by the National Conventional Arms Control Act. When Daily Sabah’s article was published, she says, Rapport’s investigation into the entities in question, Milkor and Milkor Armoured Vehicles, was already well underway and questions had already been submitted to the National Arms Control Committee as well as to the National Prosecuting Authority’s (NPA’s) unit investigating Crimes against the State.

She says the Daily Sabah article attracted Gibson’s attention because Bayoglu, one of the main role players in the Milkor situation, had been mentioned by Esener.

 

Wichman continues that, subsequent to:

·         the Turkish article, Gibson contacted the embassy, unaware that Esener had already left South Africa to take up his new post in the Turkish government. His fellow diplomats were about to return to Turkey as well, but offered to meet with the newspaper to discuss the government’s official stance. “The most senior diplomats confirmed to [the newspaper] that Mr. Esener had indeed made the comments quoted in The Daily Sabah,” Wichman says, adding that Rapport has copies of all its emailed enquiries to the Turkish authorities, to Bayoglu, and the replies by Radebe (should this office require to peruse them);

·         Gibson’s story:

o   the NPA has confirmed that its investigation is progressing speedily because of the urgency with which the matter was being handled; and

o   Milkor had to adapt its website so as not to advertise its armoured vehicles because they had not been authorized to engage in such activities.

She concludes that the primary source of the articles was not the Daily Sabah, and asserts that the allegations were not repeated without Gibson’s verification of the accuracy of the statements. She adds that the focus of the story was a group of South African businessmen and that the story was in the public interest – which justified publication.

My considerations

The source of the story is not the critical issue – what is important, is how Gibson treated her information (read: whether she verified her information or not).

Having said that, Wichman’s arguments are credible and convincing, and I accept that the article in the Turkish newspaper should be seen as a secondary source.

It is possible that The Daily Sabah did not ask Bayoglu for comment – but in that case he should take up the matter with that newspaper, and not with Rapport or City Press.

Fugitive

The story said:

·         “A storm broke out in Turkey this week when the government-friendly Daily Sabah newspaper reported that fugitives had managed to smuggle $500 million (R6.6 billion) into South Africa”; and

·         “Kaan Esener, Turkey’s former ambassador to South Africa and the Turkish deputy minister of foreign affairs, told the Daily Sabah that a number of Turks based in South Africa, including Vuslat Bayoglu, were fugitives in that country and were wanted for their involvement in the alleged terror group.”

Bayoglu

He says the Oxford Dictionary defines “fugitive” as “a person who has escaped from captivity or is in hiding.” He says he is a permanent resident of South Africa, with an ID, and has lived here for 15 years. He has a family and children who also live in South Africa. “I am free to travel to Turkey as and when I please and have never had any restrictions imposed on my travel. I am not hiding from anything,” he submits.

Wichman

She replies that the word “fugitive” refers to “fugitive from the law/police”, according to the Pharos dictionary, and not just someone who escaped from captivity as the Oxford dictionary suggests.

Wichman says the Turkish businessmen referred to in the article – “fugitives” in plural and not referring to Bayoglu in particular – were indeed fugitives because the Turkish government wanted them to be extradited and prosecuted there. This was not the newspaper’s opinion, but a statement by the Turkish deputy minister of foreign affairs and former ambassador to South Africa. “We make no judgment on the merits of the Turkish government’s allegations or the fairness of process and Turkish law, but it is an objective fact that the government wants to secure their return to Turkey,” Wichman says.

Besides, she submits, the stories gave the context that the current government in Turkey was embarking on a massive “clean-up” operation, during which thousands of people were being incarcerated on the mere suspicion of terrorism.

She adds that the only specific reference to Bayoglu as a fugitive is a quote from Esener. Gibson also reported that Bayoglu was a long-standing permanent resident of South Africa. The story in City Press added that he had a South African ID number. Therefore, “[h]is explanation of why he does not see himself as a fugitive is fairly represented in the article,” Wichman submits.

It is undisputed that some of the other businesspeople identified in the report are Turkish citizens only, with no permanent status in South Africa, she asserts.

Bayoglu responds to Wichman

The complainant replies:

·         Even on Wichman’s definition, the allegation in question is untrue, inaccurate and unfair – he was not a fugitive, there has been no warrant of arrest or application for his extradition or any official statement issued to even suggest that he is “wanted” in Turkey under the law or by the police, and he is free to travel to Turkey as and when he pleases. “There is absolutely no evidence that [I am] a fugitive,” he asserts;

·         This allegation was never put to him in any of the questions sent by the journalist. He says Gibson did refer to Turkish “refugees”, but not to “fugitives”;

·         Esener is not the Turkish deputy minister of foreign affairs, as stated by Wichman, but rather the Deputy Undersecretary for General Political Affairs;

·         Gibson did not speak directly to Esener, but relied on hearsay from other unnamed diplomats and “churnalism” from a propaganda mouthpiece (the Daily Sabah). He says, “An indication of the extent to which the Daily Sabah newspaper is regarded as a propaganda mouthpiece under government control comes from the European Parliament having banned distribution of the newspaper in its building”;

·         An allegation as serious as this one (a “fugitive wanted for terrorism”) should, at the very least, have been confirmed with the original source of the allegation. He states, “In the context of the original article having been obtained from a source with as questionable reliability as The Daily Sabah, [I] would moreover propose that the allegation should have been confirmed with more than one source and corroborated by some other evidence. It is unacceptable that allegations with such hugely negative repercussions for the individuals concerned, are made based on mere churnalism, especially when the source of that churnalism is widely acknowledged as a propaganda mouthpiece for the Turkish government”;

·         Regardless of the source of the article itself, a diplomat or ambassador clearly under the control of a tyrannical regime responsible for arresting over 70,000 people does not have the authority to state that a person is a “fugitive”, especially in the absence of an arrest warrant, court order or any other corroborating evidence;

·         The allegation is not cured by the fact that the story referred to businessmen in plural. Only three Turkish businessmen are referred to in the article: He, Serhat Bayoglu, and Raci Yetis. (He attaches police clearance certificates for the other two businessmen as obtained from the Turkish Government during 2016, adding that he will supply his certificate to this office as soon as it becomes available); and

·         There has been no warrant of arrest for him or any of the other Turkish businessmen named, nor any application for their extradition, nor any official statement that they were “wanted”.                        

My considerations

I note, with appreciation, that Gibson did not state as fact that Bayoglu was a fugitive – she conveyed what the Turkish newspaper reported and stated it as such. I say “with appreciation”, because less experienced journalists often portray what was published in another newspaper as the plain truth, simply because it was reported.

Gibson did not fall into that trap.

Be that as it may, the arguments still leave me between a rock and a hard place – on the one hand, Gibson merely quoted Esener (I have no reason to disbelieve that the journalist quoted him correctly, with reference to the Daily Sabah); on the other hand, Bayoglu denies the allegation in question (in the absence of any substantive documentation, I also have no reason to disbelieve him).

I can understand Bayoglu’s objection, but he should take up the merits of the matter with Esener and / or The Daily Sabah, and not with Rapport or City Press.

However, Bayoglu’s arguments as to why Gibson should have asked him about this specific allegation (see the fifth bullet directly above) are convincing.

I shall return to this matter below.

‘Mafia’

Rapport’s headline referred to the “mafia”.

Bayoglu

The complainant says the Oxford Dictionary defines “mafia” as “an organized international body of criminals … having a complex and ruthless behavioural code”, and denies that he is a member of such a body. He therefore complains that the headline did not give a reasonable reflection of the content of the report.

Wichman

The newspapers reply that the word “mafia” in the headline, which was used in quotation marks, was a reference to the view of the senior diplomat quoted in the article, who alleged that the group was involved with organized international crime and operated with their own intelligence networks.

This word was also in the story, she explains, but it was inadvertently edited out of the Afrikaans version after the headline had been written.

Wichman argues, “However, we submit that the use of the word in quotation marks as an allegation is sufficiently supported by the allegations in the article.”

She adds that the headline did not refer to Bayoglu individually, but to a larger group of people.

Bayoglu responds to Wichman

He replies:

·         Because the word “mafia” was edited out of the Afrikaans version after the headline had been written, Wichman in fact admits that the headline did not reflect the content of the article;

·         Referring to a larger group of people in the headline that included him is no different from referring to him alone. He argues, “The word mafia is plural. There are three businessmen referred to in the article. The sting is that all three are members of the mafia”;

·         The quotation marks did not operate as a magic wand to absolve the newspaper of any responsibility for the publication of the unsubstantiated allegation;

·         The newspaper relied on an unidentified single source (a “senior diplomat”) who had no authority to allege that the businessmen were involved with organized international crime and operated with their own intelligence networks, especially in the absence of any evidence; and

·         If this allegation were to be part of the article, it should have been put to him, which did not happen. “The impression left in the mind of the reader is undoubtedly that [I am] part of the mafia.”

My considerations

It is indeed unfortunate that the word “mafia” had been edited out, given the fact that it was used in the headline. However, I agree with Wichman – the reference to an “alleged terror group” did sufficiently support the use of that word, especially as it was used in inverted commas.

Terrorism

The stories referred to Turkish citizens who were sought by their government for “alleged terrorism back home” and an “alleged terror group”.

Bayoglu

The complainant says he condemns terrorism in all its forms and has not supported any form of terrorism. He adds, “I have never heard of the terrorist group referred to, and have checked with various international organisations, none of which have any record of a terrorist group called ‘Fetullah’. I have never heard of such an organisation and am certainly not involved in it, if it exists.”

Wichman

Rapport and City Press submit the allegation of terrorism was made by the Turkish government officials and diplomats, and not by the newspaper. “We gave broad coverage of Mr. Bayoglu’s denial of the allegations – including his stance that he had ‘never heard’ of ‘Fetullah’, let alone being part of such a group ‘if it exists’,” she adds.

“The allegation was merely reported accurately and fairly with all the necessary caveats.”

Bayoglu responds to Wichman

The complainant says the reportage did not make it clear that the Turkish government had been incarcerating people on the “mere suspicion” of terrorism and did not in any way detail the current political situation in that country. He argues, “The average reader … is left with the impression that the Turkish businessmen mentioned in this article are wanted criminals that are hiding from the law in South Africa. This is in no way a fair reflection of the situation.”

My considerations

The same argument used above can be applied in this instance. Gibson did not state it as fact that Bayoglu was a terrorist or that he could be associated with a terror group – she merely quoted and stated that she was doing so.

I now turn to the question of comment prior to publication.

No proper right of reply

The question is whether Gibson adequately asked Bayoglu about the allegation that he was:

·         a fugitive;

·         a member of the “mafia”; and

·         involved in terrorist activities.

Fugitive: The story read, “A storm broke out in Turkey this week when the government-friendly Daily Sabah newspaper reported that fugitives had managed to smuggle $500 million (R6.6 billion) into South Africa.” Gibson also quoted Esener, saying that “a number of Turks based in South Africa, including Vuslat Bayoglu, were fugitives in that country”.

According to Gibson, Bayoglu telephonically denied that he was a fugitive – which implies, of course, that the journalist had asked him about this issue.

The reporter then sent him a list of questions, one of which read as follows: “What is your take on the story in general: is it indicative of the delicate political situation in Turkey after last year’s botched coup attempt with a lot of suspicion all around or why would it all of a sudden target the Turkish business community and ‘refugees’ in South Africa in particular?”

I note that Gibson did not use the word “fugitive”, but “refugee”.

On the face of it there is not a big difference between these two concepts – but don’t be mistaken, there is. A fugitive is someone who is running away to avoid being captured, usually because that person has done something wrong; in contrast, a refugee has been forced to flee his or her country for valid reasons.

That, I believe, was the exact reason for Gibson using the word “fugitive” instead of “refugee” in her article, as the allegation was that those people were involved in terrorist activities.

Yes, the story did not state it as fact that Bayoglu was a fugitive, but the headline and the rest of the story did not leave much doubt about that allegation – which is exactly why Gibson should specifically have asked him about the fugitive allegation (which she did not).

Even though Rapport translated the word “fugitive” with “voortvlugtige”, which in Afrikaans could mean either “fugitive” or “refugee”, the context of the story indicated that “fugitive” was intended – fleeing from his country because he was suspected of terrorism and / or crime.

Member of ‘mafia’: Gibson followed up her first list of questions, requesting Bayoglu to respond, inter alia, to the statement that Turkish diplomats in Pretoria had confirmed the allegations in the Daily Sabah. They have described the said grouping as “nothing but a criminal network”, she wrote. She also asked his comment on the statement that the NPA’s unit investigating priority crimes (crimes against the state) had confirmed that it was investigating the allegations with the assistance of the Hawks.

As I have indicated above, this reference to “a criminal network” was sufficient to justify the use of the word “mafia”, especially since it had been used between inverted commas.

Terrorist activities: In her first list of questions, Gibson asked Bayoglu if he had ever supported the Gülenist Terror Group in any way, if there was a pro-Gülen / anti-Erdogan sentiment amongst the Turkish business community in South Africa in general, and if it was possible to clear any misconceptions created by articles such as the one in question.

The story quoted Sadleir as saying that Bayoglu “has never heard of the terrorist organisation [Fetullah] that is named in the report. [He] rejects terrorism, terrorist organisations and acts of terror. He has never been involved in any form of terrorism and does not support it.”

These questions by the journalist, and this quote, I submit, adequately covered the allegation of terrorist activities, and was therefore in compliance with the Code.

In conclusion

Gibson has done nothing wrong – with reference to Bayoglu she portrayed the context of the situation in Turkey, quoted The Daily Sabah correctly, and attributed those quotes without stating anything contentious as fact.  

The only mistake she made was one of omission: she omitted asking Bayoglu about the fugitive issue.

Finding

Gibson did not ask Bayoglu about the implied allegation in her story that he was a fugitive. Her omission to do so was in breach of Section 1.8 of the Code of Ethics and Conduct that reads, “The media shall seek the views of the subject of critical reportage in advance of publication…”

The rest of the complaint 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 breach of the Code of Ethics and Conduct as indicated above is a Tier 2 offences.

Sanction

The newspapers are directed to apologise to Bayoglu for omitting to ask him to comment on the allegation that he was a fugitive, and to publish his denial to this effect.

The text should:

·         be published:

o   on the same pages as those used for the offending articles;

o   online as well, if the offending articles were carried on their websites;

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

The headlines should contain the words “apology” or “apologises”, and “Bayoglu”.

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