Letlaka Media and Communications vs. Volksblad
Thu, Dec 14, 2017
Ruling by the Press Ombud
13 December 2017
This ruling is based on the written submissions of Tapera Chikuvira, editor of The Weekly newspaper, and those of Gert Coetzee, editor of Volksblad newspaper, as well as on a meeting held on 12 December 2017 in Bloemfontein. Coetzee and the journalist Marietjie Gericke represented Volksblad at the meeting. They brought witnesses from political parties (Mr Wouter Wessels, Mr Christiaan Steyl and Mr David van Vuuren). Chikuvira and Mr Solomon Ntsele represented the complainant.
Letlaka Media and Communications, the publisher of The Weekly newspaper, is complaining about a story in Volksblad of 8 November 2017, headlined Ace gee R95 m. aan webtuistes – Kontrak van R20 m. egter nou gekanselleer.
Letlaka complains the:
· story falsely stated that it had been awarded a contract, and had been paid R95-million;
· newspaper did not properly verify its information, especially since the journalist did not give it a right of reply;
· headline was false, misleading and not reflective of the content of the story; and
· reportage created the false impression that the publisher and its newspaper were involved in dubious business activities, which impression has a negative impact on The Weekly as a publication. This was deliberate misinformation aimed at tarnishing the good name of the company.
The company also complains about several other issues, but it does not have the standing to do so. These are complaints that the:
· reportage was “a mischievous and orchestrated move aimed at tarnishing [Magashule’s] image and good name politically”;
· journalist did not give the Hawks a right of reply; and
· municipalities’ websites collapsed and that the Premier discontinued the contract in 2013-2014 (as there was “an amicable settlement around December 2016 between the consortium and the provincial government”).
In these instances, Letlaka cannot complain on behalf of another party, except if it has permission to do so.
Also, this office takes note of Letlaka’s remark about past stories consistently disparaging its brand and name without proof – but this cannot be part of the complaint (at best, it can serve merely as background information).
The article said, “Under Premier Ace Magashule the Free State has already paid R95 million of the original contract of R120 million to the Letlaka Media and Communication Group – and now the contract has been cancelled.”
The contract reportedly was for the province’s controversial websites for its departments and municipalities.
The story said this information was made known at the Public Accounting and Finance Committee of the Free State legislature.
The story said, “Die Vrystaat het onder premier Ace Magashule reeds R95 miljoen van die oorspronklike kontrak van R120 miljoen aan die Letlaka-media en kommunikasiegroep betaal en nou is die kontrak gekanselleer.” (“Under Premier Ace Magashule the Free State has already paid R95 million of the original contract of R120 million to the Letlaka Media and Communication Group – and now the contract has been cancelled.”)
Letlaka denies it had been awarded any contract by the Free State provincial government to manage the so-called websites (Chikuvira says a consortium was contracted by the provincial government to handle the task).
Coetzee provided me with the following attachments which, he says, confirm the contract:
Attachments 1, 2, 5 and 6: Stories in Volksblad and other publications.
Attachment 3: “The contract for the public information platform of the Free State provincial government, Hlasela TV, was awarded to Bombenero Productions and not the Letlaka Group.” – issued by Mondli Mvambi, Director: Media Strategy & Liaison, Department of the Premier (undated).
Attachment 4: “The consortium of Cherry-Online-Ikamva-Jugganaut, in association with carious community radio stations, was appointed to deal with issues such as design, research, content development and generation during the first phase of the project” – Mvambi (undated).
Attachment 21: Report by Mchunu Attorneys (MA), partly headlined Investigation into the appointment of Letlaka Media Services cc by The Department of the Free State Premier… As part of its conclusion, MA wrote: “The appointment of Letlaka by the Premier’s Office did not adhere to the requirements of a transversal contract… The entire appointment is, therefore, contrary to the applicable Legislative Framework.”
Attachment 22: Report of the Auditor-General to the Free State Legislature, dated 8 August 2017. This report says that the department entered into a contract with a service provider – but it does not mention any names in this regard.
Attachment 23: Smarttrace – mentions Mr Setumo Ntsele as an “active” director of Letlaka Investments, Cherry-Online Designs and Letlaka Media – confirming a link between Letlaka and Cherry-Online.
Attachment 24: Consumer Profile Bureau – which largely confirms the above.
Apart from all these media reports, the editor also mentions the:
· AG report 2017 (attachment 22);
· Treasury Report 2013 (attachment 22): Under point 14 it states, “The department entered into a contract with a service provider for the development and maintenance of the Free State government website to a contract value of R119 320 142 during 2011-12. Payments of R74 659 565 were made in relation to the contract, of which R20 733 712 was paid by the Department of the Premier and R53 925 853 by the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (Cogta).” The editor says this amounts to R95-million; and
· Attachment 5: “Report by Gadget.Absol setting out amounts of total project based on document supplied by FS Director-General’s Office: Total cost over 3 years R98 million. Awarded to Cherry-Ikamva-Juggenaut.”
At the meeting
The central question was whether proper justification existed for stating that the contract had been awarded to Letlaka and that it had already been paid R95-million.
With regard to the news reports quoted by Coetzee, I explained I could not take those as evidence as the publications cannot be considered as primary sources. I took note of his response, which was that he had submitted those articles only to demonstrate that the matter had been in the public domain for quite some time.
Volksblad’s witnesses, who had been involved in the relevant meetings, testified that a number of institutions had indicated that the contract had been awarded to Letlaka. Those include:
· Mr Mokete Duma, head of Cogta;
· Mr Kopung Ralikontsane, a Free State director-general who had led a delegation to the Premier’s office;
· The Auditor-General (whose report did not mention Letlaka, but who responded to a question that Letlaka had been involved); and
· Provincial as well as National Treasury.
The witnesses stressed that some of these people had testified under oath, and that they therefore had no reason to suspect that the information about Letlaka was false.
Even in the face of this evidence, Ntsele maintained that this information was wrong – he said the contract had been awarded to Cherry and not to Letlaka.
This prompted some of the witnesses at the meeting to state that Letlaka never approached them in connection with this matter; one said the statement that Letlaka had been awarded the contract was never in question.
I asked whether The Weekly ever published the correct facts (according to the newspaper); Ntsele replied that it was not appropriate to defend oneself. He stressed that Volksblad also from time to time published that the contract had been awarded to Cherry – and concluded that the newspaper implicated Letlaka only when it suited them.
Be that as it may, as the people speaking for all the institutions cited above mentioned Letlaka as the company that received the contract, I cannot blame Volksblad for stating the same. If it was reasonable for the people involved in the Scopa meetings to believe that the Free State Government had awarded the contract to Letlaka, it follows that Volksblad had reasonable reason to follow suit.
It was noticeable that the figure of R95-million was not questioned at the meeting.
No proper verification
Letlaka complains that Volksblad did not properly verify its information; in particular, it says that the newspaper did not give it a right of reply.
Chikuvira says the source of the information which formed the basis of the story is the Public Accounting and Finance Committee of the Free State legislature. However, he asserts, any serious publication knows information presented there needs to be verified as it is based mainly on deliberations by the various political parties represented. This means material documents or evidence are needed to back or prove the claims contained in the story – which, he says, Volksblad did not do.
Coetzee replies that Volksblad was reporting from the Free State legislature about a common-cause matter in the public domain – and asks if Chikuvira was questioning the role of the legislature, media and the opposition.
The editor refers me to stories in the Volksblad where Letsele had declined to comment (in 2013). He adds that, even though the relevant people declined to comment all the time, Volksblad will publish their views when those are communicated to the newspaper.
At the meeting
I explained that, even if a subject declines to comment, that does not alleviate a newspaper’s obligation to give that person a right of reply.
The right of reply, in this instance, was about the statement that the provincial government had awarded a contract to Letlaka. The question, therefore, is whether the reporter had any reason to believe that her information was false – if so, she surely should have asked the company whether the information was correct or not.
I do not believe that Gericke had any reason to doubt the veracity of her information – not after it came from Duma, Ralikontsane, the Auditor-General, and from Provincial as well as from National Treasury.
I also do not believe that a newspaper is duty bound to verify information from governmental committees before reporting on it – that would make the media’s task unmanageable.
Letlaka complains that the headline was false, misleading and not reflective of the content of the story.
Chikuvira says it demonstrates Volksblad’s lack of functional knowledge, or deliberate ignorance of the Free State provincial government’s processes and procedures to be followed when awarding tenders. He says government normally goes through the process of advertising, which is followed by various internal committees such as adjudication and procurement – and political leaders like Magashule are not involved in these processes and therefore have no influence over their decisions.
He calls the headline mischievous, and says it was an orchestrated move aimed at tarnishing the Letlaka brand – it created a non-existent link between the two parties, while Magashule has never given R95-million to Letlaka Media.
The editor adds that the headline:
· was not supported by facts anywhere in the body of the story; and
· created an impression that the said R95-million came straight from Magashule’s pocket.
Coetzee replies that the first sentence of the story referred to Magashule – the implication was clear that the reference to him was in his capacity as head of the Free State Provincial Government.
Regarding the R95-million, the editor says that “someone” did pay Letlaka that amount of money.
The main headline read, Ace gee R95 m. aan webtuistes (Ace gives R95-m to websites).
The complaint that the headline did not reflect the content of the story does not hold water –the introductory sentence to the story stated that Magashule had already paid R95-million to Letlaka.
I also take into account that Magashule was the Premier, and therefore ultimately responsible for the payment. The allegation that the headline suggested the money came from the Premier’s personal pocket does not warrant serious consideration.
Deliberately tarnishing newspaper’s good name
Letlaka complains the reportage deliberately created the false impression that it and its newspaper were involved in dubious business activities, which impression has a negative impact on The Weekly as a publication. The editor adds that Volksblad calculatedly presented Letlaka Media as a corrupt citizen that used political influence to get business.
Given that I have dismissed all of the complaints above, it follows that I have no reason to believe that this part of the complaint can stand.
The complaint is dismissed.
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.