Ntsikelelo Michael Songatshu vs Kaapse Son


Wed, Feb 29, 2012

Ruling of the Press Ombudsman’s Panel, July 18, 2008

Panel:
Gerda Kruger, Press Appeals Panel (Press Representative);
Dr Peter Coetzee, Press Appeals Panel (Public Representative); and
Joe Thloloe, Press Ombudsman.
 
Complaint
 
Mr Songatshu, Superintendent Traffic Officer of the Saldanha Bay Municipality, complained about an article in Kaapse Son on November 30, 2007 headlined Vark-eershoof. The subhead read Traffic-hoof stamp glo vroulike kollega rond.
 
Songatshu argued that:
  • the headline was defamatory;
  • the newspaper had not sought and published his side of the story; and
  • the side bar to the story, a bulleted list of his “track record since 2004” headlined Saldanha se verkeershoof se ‘skandlys’, was not true.
 Analysis
 
The panel heard evidence and arguments in Cape Town on February 2, 2008.
 
Inus Bester, the reporter who wrote the story, is a councillor in the municipality but argued that he was impartial.
 
He conceded he was a member of the opposition party in the council and said he was proud that no position he holds now or will hold in the future would stop him from being consistently objective in his work as a freelance journalist.
 
By being a member of the council, Bester is in the uncomfortable position of being a party in the story and the newspaper should have stated this upfront for its readers or should have asked another journalist to cover it.
 
Headline
 
In his evidence to the panel, Bester said Myllison Saptou had called Songatshu a “vark” during an interview. Son editor Andrew Koopman argued that in the headline the sub-editor used his “artistic freedom” and it was a clever play on words. He said the intention was not to defame.
 
Nobody in the story, except for the newspaper itself, called Songatshu a Vark-eershoof. The quotation marks around it are an inadequate fig leaf for an expression that is obviously demeaning, however clever the newspaper thought it was.
 
The headline says Kaapse Son is finding Songatshu guilty of assaulting his junior, even before he has had a chance to defend himself.
 
Songatshu’s side of the story
 
Bester said the municipal manager of Saldanha had barred all employees from talking to the media. He said on November 28 he had written to Mr Snyder, the municipal manager, asking for comments on the story and also asking him to respond by noon the following day. Mr Snyder did not reply.
 
The irony is that the article is based on an interview with Saptou, who is also an employee of the council. Bester explains this by saying she told him the incident was not work related and that she was wronged as an individual. Bester says she spoke to Kaapse Son as of part of the 16 Days of Activism Against Violence Against Women And Children.
 
This too will not hold because the alleged incident happened at work and allegedly was between herself and her immediate superior.
 
The panel is not satisfied that the newspaper tried hard enough to get Songatshu’s side. He could have been alerted that questions had been sent to his superiors and have been asked to prod the municipal manager to ensure that his side was told.
 
Also, if one of the parties believed the matter was not work related, the newspaper should then have asked Songatshu for his version and printed it even if it was only to say he was not allowed to talk to the media.
 
Shame list
 
Bester said he stands by his “Shame list”. He told the panel that the same issues were reported in an article in a Media24 publication under the headline Vrae oor nuwe hoof van verkeer beantwoord. He asked why Songatshu had not taken action against that publication.
 
In the skandlys Die Son alleges that:
 
  • In January 2005 Annetjie Austin laid a charge of unprofessional conduct against Songatshu;
  • In April 2005 he forged the signature of the manager of the protection services;
  • In June 2005 the Langebaan police charged Songatshu with reckless driving and assault;
  • In 2006 he was a passenger in an unregistered taxi owned by a family friend of his when it was involved in an accident - the driver died and Songatshu broke a leg;
  • In August 2006 the Department of Transport investigated irregularities in the granting of licences for heavy duty vehicles;
  • In April 2007 Songatshu refused to allow a local school principal’s daughter to take her learner’s test after the principal had suspended Songatshu’s son from his school; 
  • In May 2007 Songatshu sent all his staff to a course and there was nobody to test licence applicants’ eyes and he blamed Saptou for the chaos that followed.
  • In August 2007 was absent from work without leave for 18 days and on his return no action was taken against him.
During the hearing Songatshu gave his version on each of these. The newspaper had not sought these before publication.
 
In any case, the list is made up of bland allegations and there does not seem to have been any attempt by the journalist to get the complete story: for example, the allegation that in January 2005, Annetjie Austin laid a charge of unprofessional conduct against Songatshu was not followed up. How did the matter end? Was Songatshu found guilty or acquitted?
 
Finding
 
The panel finds that Kaapse Son is in breach of: 
  • Sections 1.2.2 of the Press Code in that it omitted to mention that the reporter had a vested interest in the story;
  • Section 1.5 in that it did not seek the views of the subject of serious critical reportage in advance of the publication;
  • Section 4.1 in that the headline was a comment that was not made fairly and was defamatory.
Sanctions
 
The panel rules that Kaapse Son publish an apology to be provided by the Ombudsman’s office.
 
Appeal
 
In terms of the Complaints Procedures, within seven days of receipt of this decision, any one of the parties may apply to the Chairman of the Press Appeals Panel, Judge Ralph Zulman, for leave to appeal. The applicant shall fully set out the grounds of appeal.