Benzi Tenza vs The Star

Complainant: Benzi Tenza

Lodged by: Jabulane Gwebu and Thembelihle Ntombela

Article: Audit ordered as principal accused of misusing school funds; the follow-up story appeared on 15 November and was                    headlined Principal shrugs off ‘R1.7m bus’ accusation.

Date: 9 August 2012

Respondent: The Star
Complaint

Mr Benzi Tenza, the school principal of Ezibeleni School for the disabled in Kathlehong, complains about two stories in The Star. The first one was published on 25 October 2011 and headlined Audit ordered as principal accused of misusing school funds; the follow-up story appeared on 15 November and was headlined Principal shrugs off ‘R1.7m bus’ accusation.

Tenza complains that the first story contained unsubstantiated, inaccurate allegations, such as that he:

·         wasted R1.7 million on a worthless school bus and R11 000 on a private overseas trip;

·         was trying to shut down the school in an attempt to cover up the misuse of funds; and

·         could not find invoices to back up his claims.

He also complains that the journalist did not ask him for his response, failing to verify his information.

Tenza rejects the follow-up story as he says that it did not adequately address his concerns.

 
 
Background

On 11 November 2011 Tenza complained about the story. The office of the Ombudsman dismissed the matter on 19 March 2012 because he had not signed a waiver. He then signed it on March 22. I re-opened his complaint after it appeared that Tenza had not received correspondence from my office.

Analysis

The first story, written by Lebogang Seale, contains a range of allegations and accusations by unnamed parents and teachers against Tenza. The second one carries his denials.

The first story

Allegations, accusations

The story contains several accusations against Tenza, as outlined above.

I note with concern that The Star completely avoids responding to the detailed complaints set out Tenza.

Secondly, the story ascribed each and every accusation that Tenza complains about to a source and did not state it as fact. These sources had a right to their opinion, and the newspaper had the right to publish those opinions.

 

Not asked for comment

If the journalist has tried to contact Tenza, the story should have indicated such. The newspaper made no effort to show that it has tried to contact him – I therefore accept that this was not done, as it should have been.

Again, The Star did not find it necessary to explain this failure to the Ombudsman.

The second story

The question is whether this story adequately reflected Tenza’s views, which was necessary as the first story failed to do so.

In its two-paragraph response to the complaint the newspaper merely says: “I really do not understand Mr Tenza’s counsel’s response because as far as I am concerned the November 15 article sought to clarify the matter … I fail to understand why is it interpreted as tarnishing Mr Tenza’s reputation.”

This story addresses most of Tenza’s complaint about specific allegations. It says that he furnished the newspaper with copies of:

·         an invoice showing that the bus cost R1.147m and not R1.7m, as alleged;

·         his report on his trip to Canada which he submitted to the Department of Education’s Ekurhuleni South district; and

·         minutes showing that the school governing body agreed to subsidise half of the airfare.

The reportage portrays these documents not as someone’s opinion, but as fact – in which case the story met the demands set by Tenza.

The only aspect of the complaint that this follow-up story does not address is the allegation that Tenza tried to shut down the school in an attempt to cover up the misuse of funds. The story mentions this accusation again “to provide context” – but it does not investigate this matter, neither does it publish Tenza’s comment on it, as it should have done.

 
Finding
 
 
The first story

Allegations, accusations

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

Not asked for comment

The Star is in breach of Art. 1.5 of the Press Code that states: “A publication should seek the views of the subject of serious critical reportage in advance of publication… If the publication is unable to obtain such comment, this shall be stated in the report.”

The second story

The story does not address the allegation that Tenza tried to shut down the school in an attempt to cover up the misuse of funds, neither does it attempt to establish the veracity thereof.

This is in breach of:

·         Art. 1.5 of the Code; and

·         Art. 1.4 of the Code that states: “Where there is reason to doubt the accuracy of a report and it is practicable to verify the accuracy thereof, it shall be verified. Where it has not been practicable to verify the accuracy of a report, this shall be mentioned in such report.”

The complaint regarding the other accusations is dismissed.

 
Sanction
 

The Star is directed to:

·         apologise to Tenza for not getting his comment on the allegation that he tried to shut down the school in an attempt to cover up the misuse of funds, and for not attempting to verify this accusation; and

·         include his comment on the above in the text below, if indeed he wants to comment.

The newspaper is directed to publish the following text, using the word “apology” or “apologise” in the headline:

The Star apologises to Mr Benzi Tenza, school principal of Ezibeleni School for the disabled in Kathlehong, for twice not getting his comment on the allegation that he tried to shut down the school in an attempt to cover up the misuse of funds, and for twice not attempting to verify this accusation.

This came after Tenza lodged a complaint with the Press Ombudsman about a story that we published on 25 October last year, headlined Audit ordered as principal accused of misusing school funds; and a follow-up story on 15 November, headlined Principal shrugs off ‘R1.7m bus’  accusation.

 

The first story, written by Lebogang Seale, contained a range of allegations and accusations by unnamed parents and teachers against Tenza; the second one carried his denials of some of these accusations.

Deputy Press Ombudsman Johan Retief said that the follow-up story mentioned documents (fact, not comment), which proved that some allegations against Tenza were false. This met the justified demands set by Tenza.

However, he found that we neglected to adequately address the accusation that Tenza tried to shut down the school in an attempt to cover up the misuse of funds – for which we have now apologised.

TENZA SAID (if he wants to comment)…

Visit www.presscouncil.org.za (rulings, 2012) for the full finding.

End of text
 
Appeal

Please note that our Complaints Procedures lay down that within seven days of receipt of this decision, either party 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. He can be contacted at Khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.

Johan Retief
Deputy Press Ombudsman