Zibele Limani and KSD Municipality vs. Daily Dispatch


Thu, Jan 11, 2018

Ruling by the Press Ombud

11 January 2018

PARTICULARS

 

Complainants

 

Mr Zibele Limani, acting head of communication at King Sabata Dalindyebo (KSD) Municipality; and

the KSD municipality itself

 

On behalf of complainant

 

 

Zibele Limani

 

Publication

 

Daily Dispatch

 

Date of article

 

29 November 2017

 

Headline

 

Ratepayers accuse KSD of ‘ambush’ – 3 600 residents in arrears unable to buy electricity

 

Page

 

Front page

 

Author of article

 

Sikho Ntshobane

 

Respondent

 

Kariem Hassan, internal ombud of the Daily Dispatch; and Ntshobane

Complaint                                            

Limani complains that the journalist has:

·         misquoted him in the sentence which read, “KSD has denied blocking accounts, and … Limani yesterday blamed a ‘glitch’ in the system”; and

·         mischievously referred to the KSD municipality as “cash-trapped” (the word used in the story was “cash-strapped”).

He concludes that the reportage was aimed at causing a division between the KSD and local residents, and asks for a retraction and a correction.

The text

The article quoted “angry Mthatha ratepayers” as saying they had been “ambushed” by the “cash-strapped” KSD local municipality, which had been accused of preventing 3 600 residents from purchasing electricity.

According to DA councillor Raymond Knock, who served on the municipality’s finance committee, council had resolved to initiate a “blockage system” on all accounts that were in arrears in order to enforce debt repayment.

However, UDM councillor Mabandla Gogo denied that such a resolution had been taken, and instead accused the municipality of “ambushing ratepayers”.

The reporter then quoted Limani in this regard, stating that KSD had denied blocking accounts, and blaming a “glitch” in the system for the problems.

The arguments

Limani explains that the KSD municipality indeed blocked accounts which were in arrears, which is provided for in its Credit Control and Debt Collection Policy document.

He argues that the reporter in fact contradicted his own story by stating that he (Limani) had urged the “affected” (and not all) ratepayers to approach the municipality’s finance department with proof that they had been paying their outstanding debts.

This statement, he says, confirms he has never admitted that the blocking of accounts was due to a technical glitch.

Limani adds he told Ntshobane that the blocking of accounts which were up-to-date was due to the late capturing or updating of those accounts.

He also queries why it was necessary to refer to the KSD Municipality as “cash-trapped”. He calls this reference “mischievous”; he denies this accusation, and provides “proof” to this effect in the form of a newspaper report.

He adds that KSD has ties with Canada, which may be endangered by such false reporting – to the detriment of local people.

Ntshobane says he was the one who used the word “glitch” when enquiring from Limani as to why so many accounts were blocked. He says the latter responded that the problem had arisen when they had been updating the accounts on their system. The reporter then asked him why the municipality could not have foreseen the problem and warn ratepayers to this effect (as he had assumed that the municipality had updated the accounts before). “[Limani] said there is no way that they could have anticipated it could happen,” he says.

In an earlier response to his news editor (Mike Loewe), Ntshobane said he had repeatedly used the word “glitch” and that Limani never objected to the use of that term.

The reporter added:

·         Limani told him that:

o   the accounts were not blocked, but that problems had arisen when updating the names of the people on that system;

o   he had been aware that only people who were in arrears were affected;

o   he had been unaware of a council resolution which allowed the municipality to block people’s accounts while updating them (he said the day after publication Limani “suddenly” confirmed that there had been such a council resolution);

·         he approached councillors from various political parties and that:

o   Gogo told him he did not remember such a resolution (adding that it could have been taken in his absence); and

o   Knock confirmed that a resolution was taken to block accounts until such accounts were paid up.

Hassan concludes that Ntshobane did everything which was expected of him. He says he used the word “glitch” many times, and Limani apparently accepted his use of that term. “It is clear that the report, on the version of the reporter, was factual and accurate and cannot be faulted re the Press Code. There was no intent in the least to mislead Mr Limani and he should concede that was the case,” he argues.

Limani asks for a recording or any piece of evidence which would indicate that he said the blocking of accounts had been due to a technical glitch – he says he merely stated there were some delays in the capturing of details of ratepayers who have made arrangements with the municipality.

He adds the fact that he mistakenly mentioned the word “cash-trapped”, instead of “cash-strapped”, did not relieve the newspaper of its responsibility to respond to this part of his complaint.

Analysis

There is no recording of any conversation between the journalist and Limani. I have, however, been provided with Ntshobane’s notes – which seem quite credible.

I can understand the argument from both sides regarding the use of the word “glitch”:

·         I accept that Limani never repudiated Ntshobane for using the word “glitch” – which made the reporter believe he was justified in using that word; and

·         By the reporter’s own admission he, and not Limani, has used the word in question – which made the latter feel that the journalist had put that word in his mouth.

The real issue, however, is not the use of the word “glitch” as such – it is rather about the suggestion which it carried, namely that the blocking of accounts had not been intentional.

This went against the grain of the story.

All things considered, I believe that a misunderstanding between the parties lies at the heart of this problem (the journalist thought his story accurately reflected Limani’s views which, according to the latter, he did not).

Moreover, both parties can be blamed for this situation – not having repudiated the reporter’s repeated use of the word “glitch”, Limani should not be surprised that it ended up in the story; and Ntshobane should not have portrayed him as suggesting that the blocking of accounts were unintentional as, in fact, it contradicted other aspects of the story.

Having concluded that this was a mere misunderstanding, it follows that I do not believe that Ntshobane “aimed” at causing a division between the KSD municipality and local residents – a misunderstanding can hardly be intentional.

On the other hand, though, I also cannot close my eyes to the possibility that Limani had been misquoted, which in turn might have caused him and the municipality some unnecessary damage.

In the end, then, fairness dictates that Limani’s views should be communicated – but not in such a way that the newspaper is blamed for its reportage in that process. (It is difficult to blame a publication for a misunderstanding, especially when the subject quoted was partly responsible for that misunderstanding).

This opinion will be reflected in the solution and the sanction below.

Regarding the use of the term “cash-strapped”: However much Limani argues that the municipality’s track record proved it was not “cash-strapped” (by referring me to a single newspaper report), an internet search of reports on the KSD” financial situation also indicates the opposite.

Be that as it may, I am not in a position to decide whether the municipality was “cash-strapped” or not – I am only mandated to decide if it was reasonable for the journalist to have used those words. Based on the evidence to which I have referred above, I believe that he was.

On a different note I need to add, though, that I am worried about how Ntshobane quoted Gogo. The journalist says the latter told him he was “not aware” of a council resolution to block accounts which were in arrears (admitting that such a decision could have been taken in his absence), while he reported in his article that Gogo had “denied” that such a resolution had been taken.

Gogo did not deny that such a decision was taken – he merely denied that he knew about it.

The reporter should have been more circumspect in this regard.

Solution

Based on my argumentation above, it would not be appropriate to find that Daily Dispatch was in breach of the Press Code.

At the same time Limani deserves a right of reply, which would go a long way in correcting any possible misunderstanding which might have been created by the reportage.

In this regard I believe that we should steer clear from the blame game as that would merely serve to cloud the issue.

Sanction

Daily Dispatch is directed to give Limani a right of reply of no more than 400 words (if in fact he wants to comment), to be published inside the newspaper, but with a kicker on the front page to indicate this.

Limani should not use this opportunity to accuse the newspaper of unethical reportage.

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, after that ruling;

·         prepared by the newspaper, while incorporating Limani’s views; and

·         approved by me, after input from both parties.

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