Rev Frank Chikane vs Business Day
Wed, Feb 29, 2012
Ruling by Press Ombudsman’s Panel:
Ronnie Taurog, public representative on the Press Appeals Panel, who died recently and whose contributions to the PAP and the press self-regulatory system were enormous;
Peter Mann, Press representative on the Press Appeals Panel; and
Joe Thloloe, Press Ombudsman.
August 3, 2009
Rev Frank Chikane, who was director-general in President Mbeki’s presidency, complained that on December 12, 2007 Business Day published an article by its Political Editor Karima Brown headlined ANC tries to juggle state-party tension in which references to him were not true and were distorted.
He also complained that the newspaper did not give him the opportunity to comment on the story before publication.
In the article the newspaper alleged that the ANC had “chastised” and “gagged” him from speaking about party matters in public.
In correspondence with Editor Peter Bruce, starting on the day the article was published, and in the evidence he has given at the hearing, Chikane has asserted: “The ANC has neither chastised nor gagged me…
“Brown’s disinformation is based on a letter I wrote (to the National Executive Committee) urging the ANC to take action against ill-discipline I had observed among some members of the organisation…
“More importantly, my letter had nothing to do with the relationship between the ANC and government. I wrote it in my capacity as an NEC member and it was strictly about ANC party matters.”
He told the Panel that after the letter was tabled at an NEC meeting, it was leaked to the media. He then wrote to the ANC’s secretary-general saying that in line with ANC policy, his office should respond to media queries as the organisation’s policy prevented him (Chikane) from responding.
The organisation then issued a statement on December 10 stating: “The African National Congress has noted a number of media reports regarding a letter written by ...Chikane directed to the NEC relating to organisational matters.
“The ANC wishes to reiterate that this matter was raised as an issue for internal discussion in a manner consistent with the practices of the organisation.
“Rev Chikane has indicated that, respecting internal ANC processes, he will not make any public comment on the letter or any related matters.”
In its defence, the newspaper raised three points: that it was within its right to interpret the events the way it did; that instead of continuing to talk to it, Chikane had chosen to attack it through a statement to the South African Press Association and The Star newspaper; that the article was not about Chikane and he was mentioned just twice in it.
The article argues that “the ANC has asserted itself over the State, undoing its 1997 decision to vest enormous powers in President Mbeki” and says the chastisement and gagging of Chikane were an example of this. It is the only example used in the story.
It is clear to the panel that using Chikane as the only example on which to rest its argument is not just a tangential mention: it is its pillar. If the story had omitted the example of Chikane, it would have been pointless.
Was Business Day within its right to interpret the ANC press statement as chastisement and gagging?
The statement is categorical: “Rev Chikane has indicated that, respecting internal ANC processes, he will not make any public comment on the letter or related matters.” (Our emphasis). It does not say the ANC has done anything. If Chikane had previously made a statement on the letter and suddenly remembered internal processes, it would have been correct to read this as a diplomatically worded rebuke. There was no reason to conclude that he had been rebuked or gagged.
Paragraph 4.3 of the code states: “Comment by the press…shall take fair account of all available facts which are material to the matter commented upon.” The newspaper did not give evidence on any facts that could have led to its conclusion.
All that Editor Bruce could offer was: “Brown is surely entitled to have drawn her own conclusions…from the ANC statement.” Her conclusions were a result of stretching the meaning of the statement too far.
This stretch would have been obvious to the reader if the premise of the argument, the ANC press statement of December 10, had been quoted in full in the story. Very few people, if any, would have read it to indicate “chastised and gagged”. The newspaper chose to not even mention that it had reached this conclusion after reading the statement.
Business Day, by its own evidence, never even attempted to give Chikane a chance to comment.
Had it done so, he might have advanced the paper’s knowledge – for example, by giving it a copy of his letter and by explaining why he thought the so-called gag was not a gag.
Even if BD rejected his response or interpreted it differently – it should have asked him for it.
Paragraph 1.6 of the code says: “A publication should make amends for publishing information or comment that is found to be inaccurate by printing, promptly and with appropriate prominence, a retraction, correction or explanation.”
A newspaper cannot delegate the requirement to be accurate by claiming someone else has done the job for it. It does seem to be petulant and unbecoming to be pointing to Chikane’s statement to SAPA and to The Star.
During the hearing Business Day deputy editor Pearl Sebolao, for the newspaper in the absence of the editor and the political editor, argued that Chikane had filed his complaint with the Ombudsman’s office seven weeks after the publication of the story and it was unfair for the Panel to accept it.
The article appeared on December 12, Chikane wrote to Business Day on December 13, Business Day wrote to Chikane on 11 January and he complained to the Ombudsman on 28 February. It therefore appears that the timeline is reasonable.
And, from the time that the Ombudsman indicated that he was condoning the delay by processing the complaint and writing to the newspaper for its response to it, to the time of the hearing, the question of the delay was not raised.
The panel dismisses this argument. This system is not about bureaucracy – it is about “excellence in journalistic practice and ethics”. It tries to answer the question Did we get the story right?
Business Day’s story was in breach of the Press Code:
Ø Paragraph 1.1, in that it was not true that the ANC had chastised and gagged Chikane;
Ø Paragraph 1.2, in that the wording of the ANC press statement was not published, leading to a distorted conclusion.
Ø Paragraph 1.5, in that Chikane’s comments were not sought;
Ø Paragraph 1.6, in that the newspaper did not publish a retraction, correction or apology after Chikane complained to the editor.
The panel has decided to caution Business Day and rules that the newspaper carry an apology to be provided by the Ombudsman.
Please note that our Complaints Procedures lays down that within seven days of receipt of this decision, anyone of the parties may apply for leave to appeal to the Chairperson of the SA Press Appeals Panel, Judge Ralph Zulman, fully setting out the grounds of appeal.
Advocate Kameshi Pillay, instructed by Webster Sekwati, State Attorney, represented Rev Chikane; and Pearl Sebolao represented Business Day.