Appeal Decision: Shireen Ebrahim vs Sunday Times
Sat, Apr 29, 2023
BEFORE THE APPEALS PANEL OF THE PRESS COUNCIL OF SOUTH AFRICA
In the matter between:
SHIREEN EBRAHIM Applicant
SUNDAY TIMES Respondent
Matter No: 9625
DECISION ON AN APPLICATION FOR LEAVE TO APPEAL
Ms Shireen Ebrahim is the applicant in this matter, having lodged a complaint against the Sunday Times (respondent) in respect of an article published by the latter on 18 September 2022. The headline to the story read: “#ImStaying is still around – but the money’s gone”. The applicant was the CEO of #ImStaying, apparently a non-profit company whose objective was to help people, including victims of the Kwa-Zulu Natal flood victims. In his Ruling dated 20 March 2023, the Deputy Press Ombud summarized the contents of the report as follows:
“The report deals with #ImStaying, which was set up in 2019 as a Facebook group and as a non-profit company (NPC) to bring together all those ‘that choose to grow and improve South Africa’, as the group’s website says. The report essentially says that #ImStaying directors are unable to account for how donations raised from the public were used. The figure provided is around R2m. The report quotes the former CEO as saying he handed over the financials to Ms Ebrahim, who took over from him, and it says she was unable to produce a financial report or audit. Some former and current members are quoted as being unhappy with an alleged lack of accountability”.
The complaint was essentially that the contents of the article were inaccurate and false, thus contravening clauses of the Press Code. The applicant argued that the bulk of the inaccurate reporting could have been easily verified; that it has put the organization and the applicant at a huge risk of reputational damage in the eyes of their sponsors, volunteers and beneficiaries and tarnished their credibility in the market. In its response, the respondent argued that the article was an accurate reflection of the facts, and that the applicant and #ImStaying had been given adequate time to reply and explain how the money donated to the organization had been spent, but failed to do so; in any case, argued the respondent, care was taken to include responses given by the applicant.
As the complaint did not specify which clauses of the Code were contravened, the Deputy Ombud, based on the reformulated complaint, correctly identified the implicated clauses and formulated about 5 complaints accordingly:
Complaint 1: Inaccuracy – inability to account;
Complaint 2: Inaccuracy – no audit;
Complaint 3: Inaccuracy – an illegal organization;
Complaint 4: “No insurance, no contingency and no business cover”.
With regard to complaint 2, the Deputy Ombud said it was “partially upheld, in that the reference in the opening paragraph to an accusation that there never was an audit is overstated.” A sanction was imposed, namely, an apology to the applicant, #ImStaying and the readers, which apology had to be published as directed. The rest of the complaints were dismissed. The applicant now seeks leave to appeal the Ruling and the respondent opposes the application. It appears that the applicant is also not satisfied with the sanction imposed in respect of complaint 2. I must now determine whether the applicant has any reasonable prospects of success on appeal.
I do not intend to go into individual complaints which, as the Deputy Ombud correctly indicates, are essentially elements of one composite complaint, namely, inaccurate reporting; they are inter-related and must be considered within the same context, which I briefly set out below. As for the complaint that respondent was not given adequate time to respond, it was a non-starter: sufficient time was given, including an in-person consultation and discussion.
The context of the story is that #ImStaying collected money from donors for the benefit of the public. In doing so, I am afraid it brought onto itself the responsibility to ensure that the money is properly and transparently accounted for. I point out the following:
5.1 at the time of the interview, #ImStaying was said to be almost 31/2 years old but could not show financial statements;
5.2 a firm indicated by the applicant as their auditors denied that to the journalist;
5.3 no adequate explanation regarding alleged delayed submissions to SARS;
5.4 the respondent had brought to the attention of the applicant adverse comments from various people about the organization; these should have driven the respondent to diligently gather and present the information to refute them. This was particularly so as some of those adverse comments came from people who had previously worked with the organization.
I need not go into the respondent’s reply to the application. In her application, the applicant does not take her case any further. The inquiries made by the journalist were in the public interest considering that the organization was collecting money from the public supposedly for the benefit of the public; secondly, the journalist was in possession of some adverse comments by the people referred to above.
For the reasons given above, including those by the Deputy Ombud, I conclude that the applicant has no reasonable prospects of success on appeal; the application is therefore dismissed.
Dated this 29th day of April 2023
Judge B M Ngoepe, Chair, Appeals Panel