Appeal Decision: Dr Gunvant Goolab vs News24


Thu, Jan 13, 2022

BEFORE THE APPEAL PANEL OF THE PRESS COUNCIL OF SOUTH AFRICA

In the matter between:

Dr Gunvant Goolab                                                                                                 Applicant

and

News24                                                                                                                Respondent

Matter No: 8837/03/2021

DECISION ON AN APPLICATION FOR LEAVE TO APPEAL

1. Dr Gunvant Goolab (applicant) brings this application for leave to appeal the Ruling of the Acting Press Ombud dated 18 August 2021 in which his complaint against News24 (respondent) was dismissed in its entirety. The complaint followed an article that was published by the respondent on 22 February 2021, with the headline “GEMS rocked by corruption investigation involving R300million.” The sub-headlines stated that GEMS was embroiled in a web of fraud and corruption claims totalling more than R300m; that over a period of five years, it had paid more than that amount to companies in which its own executives had direct financial interests. At all material times, the applicant was the Principal Officer of GEMS and the article suggested that the alleged malpractices happened under his watch. On his version, his term came to an end but he was asked to extend his period for a short while; in other words, he left because his term had come to an end. The article mentioned that instances of fraud and corruption were revealed after some forensic investigation, and this point is not in dispute. Disciplinary proceedings were in fact instituted during the leadership of the applicant against certain individuals. It is common cause that, but for the fact that irregularities occurred under his watch, the applicant was not accused of wrongdoing in the article. What then was his complaint?

2. In his Ruling, the Acting Ombud summarized the applicant’s complaint:

“1.1 The crux of Goolab’s complaint is that the article falsely, unfairly and misleadingly suggested that he had ‘left’ GEMS under a cloud.

1.2  He also complains that the:

  • statement that he had a role to play in the payment of R170-million to Teledirect was false;
  • story omitted several crucial issues ……
  • journalist failed to properly verify his information and also failed to state that it was based on limited information; and
  • headline and captions were misleading.

1.3  He asks for a public apology similar in prominence to the article, together with a summary of the adjudication.”

3. For the application to succeed, the applicant must show reasonable prospects of success before the Appeals Panel. This is what I must now determine. This warrants a close look at the analysis and reasons given in the Ruling. In this respect, it is important to note that the applicant did not respond to questions asked by the journalist.

3.1 Regarding the complaint that the article conveyed that the applicant left under dubious circumstances: The article did not say the applicant left under a cloud. But he argues that given the context, that is how the reader will understand the article. I think that would amount to a big jump. As the Ruling states, in contrast to the implicated people who left before the damming report came out, applicant left only some two years later; he can hardly be lumped together with the others; in this, the Ruling is correct.

3.2 Regarding the (irregular) payment of R170-million to Teledirect: The essence of the applicant’s complaint is that the article says that he had a role to play in that payment. But that was what the forensic report said, and that was what respondent reported, and, as the Ruling says, if the applicant had any issue with that, he should have taken that up with the authors of the report.

3.3 Alleged material omissions: The alleged omissions were not material in that they would not have caused a reader to think that the applicant was implicated in fraud and corruption; that is how the materiality of an omission is tested; that is, whether it results in the complainant being seen in a bad light. The Ruling gives other sound reasons for its conclusion.

3.4 The complaint that respondent’s article was based on limited information: This is problematic because the applicant failed to respond to questions. As far as the headline and sub-headlines were concerned, they were consistent with the contents of the article. On these two aspects the Ruling is also correct. As the respondent says in its submissions opposing the application, one may not choose to respond to questions and then later lodge a complaint.

4. The applicant’s submissions in his application did not take his case any further. I am afraid there are no reasonable prospects that the Appeal Panel would come to a different finding. The application is therefore dismissed.

Dated this 2nd day of December 2021

Judge B M Ngoepe, Chair, Appeals Panel