Afrirent vs New24
Fri, Dec 2, 2022
Ruling by the Deputy Press Ombud
Date of publication: 10 October 2022, at https://www.news24.com/news24/investigations/city-of-crooks-luxury-cars-for-private-use-r500k-leaked-monthly-how-jmpd-officials-bled-city-of-joburg-20221010-2
Headline of publication: City of Crooks / Luxury cars for private use, R550k leaked monthly: how JMPD officials bled City of Joburg
Author: Azarrah Karrim
- The complaint was lodged by the legal firm Messina Inc on behalf of Afrirent (Pty) Ltd, a car rental company supplying vehicles to the City of Johannesburg.
- The complaint was laid against News24. The website’s responses were signed by the article’s author, Azarrah Karrim, the assistant editor for in-depth news, Pieter du Toit, and the public editor, George Claassen.
- The complaint was dealt with on the basis of the initial complaint, dated 18 October 2022, an undated response from News24 and a rejoinder from Afrirent filed on 21 November 2022.
- The report makes several allegations about the lease agreement between Afrirent and the City of Johannesburg, including that:
4.1 Senior officials made private use of vehicles rented by the city;
4.2 The company overcharged the city by invoicing twice or even three times for the same vehicle;
4.3 That the city lost around R500 000 a month as a result;
4.4 The contract was extended despite these and other anomalies.
- These are the most important claims made. The report relies strongly on two internal memos outlining problems with the contract.
- Afrirent complains against the article on a number of grounds, in terms of several clauses of the Press Code. I will outline the various elements of the complaint, together with the website’s response and give my view on each. I follow the structure of the complaint. Note that the headings are my own, drawing on the main element of each part of the complaint.
Complaint 1: Right of reply
- Afrirent says that the journalist, Karrim, failed to respond to the company’s request to be given sight of the memos which form a large part of the basis for the report. Her failure to do so was unreasonable and made it impossible for Afrirent to provide a proper response and thereby breached clause 1.8 of the Press Code.
- News24 responds by arguing that they could not share the memos because doing so might jeopardise their sources, who they have a duty to protect, and that they were not under obligation to share the documents.
- Afrirent’s rejoinder is that other documents could have been shared which would not expose sources.
- Afrirent has not demonstrated that it needed the full documents to formulate a response. Other documents, as suggested in the rejoinder, would not have assisted the company. Indeed, the company’s statement responded fully to the claims being made, even without having sight of the full documents. A news organisation is obliged to enable a full response by the subject of critical reportage, not necessarily to share its documents. I find News24 met this requirement.
- This element of the complaint is dismissed.
Complaint 2: Unfairness - the Avis issue
- Afrirent argues that News24’s failure to highlight problems with a competitor company, Avis, amounts to bias against Afrirent, as Avis is also mentioned in the memo. This contravenes clauses 1.1 and 1.2 of the Press Code, the company argues.
- News24 argues that there is only one fleeting reference to Avis in the memo(s), which deal almost entirely with Afrirent. The report accordingly concentrates on Afrirent, according to News24.
- Afrirent’s rejoinder points out that the reference is to the need for an investigation into contracts with both Afrirent and Avis. This indicates there were, in fact, problems with the Avis contract.
- In effect, the complainant is claiming bias by omission, arguing that News24 left out material implicating its competitor, Avis. For such an argument to succeed, more needs to be done than simply asserting that unspecified material has been ignored. There is nothing to contradict News24’s assertion that the only reference to Avis is the one quoted in the report. Though the reference suggests there may be grounds for an inquiry into the Avis contract, too, there does not seem to be any further indication of what might need investigating. In any event, arguing that another party is also guilty does not reduce one’s own culpability. I find that the relative weight News24 gave to the two companies was appropriate, being in line with the information before them.
- This element of the complaint is dismissed.
Complaint 3: Inaccuracy – overcharging and losses
- This part of the complaint comes to the heart of the matter, and has several aspects.
- Afrirent complains that the central claims levelled against it are untrue. The company says that it did not double- or triple-bill the City of Johannesburg. It says that some administrative errors led to the duplication of vehicle VIN numbers, which Afrirent says are common problems at the start of a large contract. Any errors were corrected, and so the city did not lose money – certainly not the R500 000 mentioned. In stating these claims as fact, Afrirent argues, the report breached clauses 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 and 1.7 of the Press Code.
- In addition, News24’s omission of sections of Afrirent’s response left out crucial information, and thereby breached clause 1.8 of the Press Code.
- News24 says an internal audit report at its disposal detailed incidents of duplication and provided the figure of R500 000 being lost. The report quoted the audit.
- Afrirent’s rejoinder accuses News24 of misquoting its response, and that it never said that vehicles were duplicated.
- The question whether Afrirent overcharged the city is obviously central to the report and to the complaint. In this regard, it seems to me that the complaint relies on fine distinctions that do not weigh as heavily as it makes out. According to the rejoinder, Afrirent makes a strong distinction between the duplication of Vehicle Identity Numbers (VIN) and of vehicles. Its original complaint concedes that there was “some duplication of VIN numbers” (par 28) and argues the number of vehicles was not increased as a result. At the same time, there are some inconsistencies in the complainant’s case. The company’s initial response to Karrim, attributed to CEO Senzo Tsabedze, clearly refers to the duplication of vehicles, where he refers to “…the same vehicle (being) billed in more than one department in one billing cycle …” It is perfectly clear from the company’s statement and its complaint that its position is that some mistakes were made but later rectified, and this was reflected in the report.
- Some administrative errors are indeed to be expected in a contract, particularly when it is a large one. In this case, News24 has documentary evidence of official concern that the problems were more substantial, and that in fact the total number of vehicles did increase and losses were sustained. Perhaps these documents were wrong, but they constituted enough basis to justify the report.
- Afrirent dismisses the figure of R500 000 being lost, arguing that the city lost no money at all. However, the figure comes from an audit opinion, as stated in the report’s third paragraph. Again, such a document constitutes enough basis for reporting. Afrirent has not addressed the existence of an audit opinion to this effect.
- Afrirent also argues that these claims constitute mere suspicion and should not have been reported as fact. It is true that the headline states the claims as fact, and I will return to this point. However, the first three paragraphs that summarise the main points of the article make the status of the claims clear, using the term “seemingly” and referring to an internal memo and other documents. It should be noted that the finger of accusation here points at city officials, not the complainant. Overall, the report makes the status of the allegations clear throughout. It is not necessary for the point to be made in every sentence.
- Afrirent also complains that its statement was not quoted in full, arguing that this distorted the company’s position. The complaint highlights the parts that were not included in the report. I have looked closely and cannot agree that the sentences excluded add significantly to understanding the company’s position. The fundamental point is clear in the published report: Afrirent argues that any issues with billing were administrative errors and were quickly rectified.
- I do feel that the News24 report should have been clearer on the nature of the documents quoted. Though two memos are mentioned, details are generally attributed to “the memo” as if there was only one. It would have been helpful to clarify which particular one is involved and to distinguish them. It would have been important to clarify where an “order” for an inquiry came from, as the alleged lack of response was an important element in the story. Articles of this kind need to do as much as possible to show the strength of evidence, while of course protecting sources. Though I feel the report could have been strengthened in this regard, I do not feel the weakness places the article in breach of the Press Code.
- This element of the complaint is dismissed.
Complaint 4: Inquiries
- Afrirent complains about the claim in the article that an inquiry was not held, though one of the memos called for one. The company says that an audit was in fact held, as evidenced by the fact that that it made a submission to the audit which was not queried. This part of the Afrirent response was not included in the article, and so the complainant argues that the report breached clause 1.1, 1.2 and 1.3 of the Press Code, in that the claim was untrue, was a distortion and unverified. The failure to report the company response on this point again breaches clause 1.8 of the code, the complaint says.
- News24 responds by calling for evidence of the audit and quoting an unnamed source as saying no inquiry was conducted. The news platform also points to various responses as bearing out the absence of an inquiry. Should Afrirent provide evidence of the audit, News24 says it will report on the matter.
- Afrirent’s rejoinder refers News24 to the City of Johannesburg for its submission to the audit, says it was never asked for clarification but that it has been informed the News24 claims are being investigated by the City.
- It is impossible to make sense of the conflicting claims about an investigation. It is noteworthy that Afrirent argues only that it was asked for a submission to an audit, and says nothing about the finalisation of such an audit. At the same time, some of the evidence provided by News24 about the lack of investigation is not very strong. The fact that the Johannesburg Metropolitan Police Department (JMPD) says they will investigate in response to a media inquiry does not clearly indicate there was no investigation before. It does seem investigations are now being held, with the JMPD and the Special Investigating Unit probing the claims.
- It seems reasonable for Afrirent to be recorded as saying they were asked to submit material to an audit. Just as they did not have to prove other parts of their response, they should not have to prove the statement.
- The complaint does not refer to clause 1.9 of the Press Code, which requires signatories to supplement a report when “new information becomes available”, but it seems to me that this clause can be applied in this context. News24 should update the report.
- News24 is found to be in breach of 1.8 of the Press Code. In addition, Clause 1.9 is applicable, requiring an update of the report. Other elements of the complaint arising out of this question are dismissed.
Complaint 5: Kickbacks
- Afrirent complains that the reference to earlier reporting about alleged kickbacks to a company linked to EFF leader Julius Malema was not put to them, was untruthful, presented claims as fact and was unverified. In this respect, the article was in breach of Clauses 1.1, 1.3, 1.7 and 1.8 of the Press Code
- News24 argues the reference was to earlier reporting which fully captured the Afrirent response, and was not the main point if the article
- The Afrirent rejoinder says its full denial should have been republished.
- In referring to the earlier report, the article refers to “allegations”, so cannot be said to have stated suppositions as facts. The reference also mentions Afrirent’s denial briefly. In this context, the brief reference was adequate. Readers could have gone back to the earlier article for full details, including the company’s position.
- This part of the complaint is dismissed.
Complaint 6: Luxury vehicles for private use
- Afrirent argues that it was not asked about claims around the private use of officially supplied vehicles and that some of the language used was exaggerated. Also, Afrirent again argues that ignoring Avis amounts to bias. Accordingly, the statements breach clauses 1.7 and 1.8 of the Press Code, says the complaint.
- News24 argues that the claims implicated city officials, not Afrirent, and that they did not therefore need to ask the company for response. The use of terms like “blighted” was justified by the details in the claims.
- The Afrirent rejoinder is that the article as a whole is critical of Afrirent, and that readers would believe the company was involved in the practice.
- The article as a whole levels accusations against both city officials and Afrirent. The weight of the claims against Afrirent is that the company overcharged, while the weight of claims against city officials is that they allowed the practice and misused vehicles for private use. There is a right of reply to the specific allegations levelled against each, but it is not clear readers would assume the company was involved in private misuse of vehicles.
- This part of the complaint is dismissed.
Complaint 7: Earlier anomalies
- Afrirent complains that the reference to irregularities identified earlier by the National Treasury were published as facts, and argues they should have been identified as claims. Also, again, the point was not put to them, and so the article is in breach of clauses 1.3, 1.7 and 1.8 of the Press Code.
- News24 argues the letter from Treasury that raised issues with the contract was widely reported and cannot be doubted. The claims are directed at city officials, not Afrirent, and so no response was required from the company. Questions were posed to the city and to JMPD, News24 says.
- The Afrirent rejoinder says that details of the Treasury letter were not given, and reiterates the point that the company should have been asked to comment.
- The article refers to concerns that were raised by National Treasury about the procurement process some two years ago, centring on the procurement process: escalation of costs, the drafting of tender specifications, and irregularities in the contracting process. Though the contract is with Afrirent, the party that needs to answer the concerns is the City of Johannesburg, and they were given an opportunity to respond. I do not feel Afrirent had to answer to these claims.
- This part of the complaint is dismissed.
Complaint 8 – “City of Crooks”
- Afrirent complains that the headline unfairly identifies Afrirent as “crooks”, and that it states the core allegations of the article as fact when they are merely accusations. As such, the headline breaches clauses 1.1, 1.2 and 1.3 of the Press Code. In addition, Afrirent argues the headline breaches 10.1 in that it does not reflect the contents of the article.
- News24 says that the reference to “City of Crooks”, with accompanying graphic, identifies the story as part of a series on irregular expenditure in the City of Johannesburg, and that the reference is primarily at a system that allows such abuse. The news platform argues that since the substance of the article refers to various kinds of dishonesty, the use of the term “crooks” is justified.
- The Afrirent rejoinder says News24 must have contemplated the negative implications for the company.
- The phrase “City of Crooks” is undoubtedly a strong and evocative one. A quick search for the phrase on the News24 website shows that it is indeed associated with an ongoing series of reports on financial irregularities in the City of Johannesburg. Plainly, it cannot be pleasant for any entity to be associated with such a heading. The question is whether the phrase oversteps the bounds of what is acceptable and whether it is in line with the substance of the report. The claims made in the report are undoubtedly serious and potentially criminal. I feel the series heading can be used in the context of the article that is the subject of the complaint.
- The question of the headline itself is somewhat different. The wording - “Luxury cars for private use, R500k leaked monthly: How JMPD officials bled the City of Joburg” – states as fact what are contested allegations. News24 says that the headline refers to a system, rather than Afrirent. That may be so, but there was still a need for the headline to point to the fact that these are allegations, and should have a relevant device to do so, such as quote marks or terms like claim.
- The headline is in breach of clause 10.1 of the Press Code. Other parts of this element of the complaint are dismissed.
- The complaint is mainly that the article states a number of points as fact when they are contested, and therefore cites clauses 1.1, 1.2 and 1.3 of the Press Code under most elements. In addition, the complainant is aggrieved at having been given an inadequate opportunity to respond, citing clause 1.8 of the code. Overall, I find that the article made its case and afforded the complainant enough opportunity to respond. The detailed reasoning is contained above.
- In one respect, News 24 is found to be in breach of clause 1.8, in that it failed to reflect the company’s response to the question of an inquiry being conducted. The news platform is ordered to publish a correction, reflecting Afrirent’s statement that it submitted a response to a JMPD audit inquiry.
- In addition, and in line with clause 1.9 of the Press Code, News24 is required to publish an update of the report to clarify what investigations were conducted earlier and which investigations are now underway, together with information on their status. The update must be dated so that it is clear it was added later, and must indicate that it is published in response to a ruling by the Press Ombud’s office of the SA Press Council.
- Finally, News24 is required to correct the headline to make it clear that the claims reflected are contested. Normally, this would require an apology, but since the headline does not make claims against the complainant, a correction will be sufficient.
- A single piece should be published to address these issues, including an explanation of the changed headline. The piece should be prominently linked to the main article, and its heading should include the term “correction”.
62. The above 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;
- be published online as well as on all platforms where the article complained about was published;
- refer to the complaint that was lodged with this office;
- end with the sentence, “Visit www.presscouncil.org.za for the full finding”;
- be published with the logo of the Press Council; and
- be approved by the Deputy Press Ombud.
63. 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
Deputy Press Ombud
28 November 2022