Thamsanqa Ngwenya vs. Sunday Times
Mon, Mar 4, 2019
Ruling by the Press Ombud
4 March 2019
Lodged by: Mr Thamsanqa Ngwenya, Head of Communications, Office of Deputy President David Mabuza
Date of article: 30 December 2018
Headline: Party animals? Not if you believe these party chiefs
Author of article: Zingisa Mvumvu
Respondent: Susan Smuts, internal ombud
The gist of Ngwenya’s complaint is that the journalist asked him, under false pretences, how Deputy President David Mabuza would usher in the new year, and then reported a statement that he did not ask him about.
The statement in question read: “Deputy President David Mabuza, still recovering from an illness that saw him jet off to Russia for treatment, will be relaxing at home in Mpumalanga with his family...” (My underlining)
The article was about how several prominent politicians would usher in the new year.
The (only) reference to Mabuza was: “Deputy President David Mabuza, still recovering from an illness that saw him jet off to Russia for treatment, will be relaxing at home in Mpumalanga with his family, says his spokesperson Thami Ngwenya.”
NGWENYA says Mvumu phoned him on Friday 28 December 2018, informing him that he was doing a light story about how various political leaders would be ushering in the new year. He wanted to know from him what Mabuza would be doing.
The spokesperson says he told the reporter that Mabuza would usher in 2019 “in the comfort of his home in Mpumalanga with family”.
However, the journalist put a different slant to the matter. He wrote, “Deputy President, still recovering from an illness that saw him jet off to Russia for treatment, will be relaxing at home in Mpumalanga with his family, says his spokesperson Thami Ngwenya”.
He complains that this reportage was untrue, misleading and mischievous, as the inference was that Mabuza would be at home because he was recovering from a supposed “illness”. He adds that this reportage was meant to undermine Mabuza’s standing in the eyes of the public.
He concludes: “It is malicious to use a pretext of what is termed ‘a light story’ when that was never the intention.”
He asks for an apology for “this piece of propaganda”.
SMUTS says there was no good reason why the newspaper should not have inserted the statement in question. She says Mabuza has himself publicly spoken about going to Russia for medical treatment and argues nothing in the Press Code or in established journalistic practice prevented the publication from referring to facts in the public domain – especially when they were put there by the subject of a story himself.
Be that as it may, she adds, the words in question caused no prejudice to Mabuza.
She denies the story said or implied that Mabuza was staying home because he was recovering from an illness. She adds the allegation that the reporting was aimed at undermining Mabuza’s standing in the eyes of the public cannot be substantiated. “No case has been made out for us to answer this part of the complaint,” she concludes.
NGWENYA replies he notes Smuts concedes that the response that had been sent to them was not in essence what they published: “In their own admission, they inserted words that had nothing to do with the question and the response provided.”
He repeats that the sentence in dispute meant that Mabuza stayed at home because he was recovering from an illness, and calls this a distortion.
He insists: “In the mind of the critical reader, it would suggest that in effect he did so because he was not in good health. Substantively, the story creates a different interpretation of reasons why he was spending time at home. The fact of the matter here, is that the publication wrote something that had nothing to do with the questions it had solicited a response of and the actual response it received. It is on this basis that that reporting must be corrected in the interest of fair reporting.”
These are my considerations:
· If the statement in question said that Mabuza would be “recuperating” at his home, Ngwenya’s argument that the Deputy President was spending time at his abode because of his illness would have had merit. However, the word “relaxing” was used;
· The statement that Mabuza went to Russia for treatment was accurate; and
· I am not convinced that the average reader would have thought that Ngwenya mentioned Russia to the reporter – for me, it was (and is) clear that this was context, whether appropriate or not, given by the journalist.
At best (or worst, depending on one’s perspective), it may be said that the reference to Russia was unnecessary – but in itself, that cannot constitute a breach of the Press Code.
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.