Dr Vishnu Abhilak vs Volksblad

Complainant: Vishnu Abhilak

Lodged by: Vishnu Abhilak

Article: Rasbom bars in onderwys – Werknemer glo 3 jaar die teiken (Race bomb explodes in education – Employee allegedly targeted for 3 years

Author of article:  Mike van Rooyen

Date: 19 May 2015

Respondent: Gert Coetzee,acting editor; Charles Smith, news editor and Mike van Rooyen, reporter of Volksblad

Complaint

Abhilak is complaining about a report in Volksblad of 16 April 2015, headlined Rasbom bars in onderwys – Werknemer glo 3 jaar die teiken (Race bomb explodes in education – Employee allegedly targeted for 3 years).

 

He complains that Volksblad published a disparaging and judgmental article that has besmirched and tainted his character without giving him an opportunity to clarify the facts (due to ulterior motives).

Abhilak adds that the newspaper has not:

·         obtained its information legally, honestly and fairly (Section 1.1 of the Press Code);

·         reported its news truthfully, accurately and fairly (Section 2.1); and

·         corroborated the information with the main person in the equation (Ms Marinda Snyders), yet proceeded to publish unsubstantiated data.

He also complains that the story:

·         was unbalanced, out of context, biased, and that it omitted material information (2.2);

·         falsely stated that he did not appear in court; that he hated whites and Afrikaans-speaking people; and that Snyders refused to comment when asked to do so (2.1); and

·         protected a source from charges made against her.

The text

The story, written by Mike van Rooyen, said a can of worms had been opened in the Free State Department of Education by means of documents showing that two senior officials (Abhilak was one of them) had been accused by a subordinate, Ms Marinda Snyders, of repeated misconduct. She, in turn, had reportedly been charged with overstepping her authority in paying out bursaries.

According to some documents Abhilak reportedly said that he:

·         wanted to chase all the whites into the sea;

·         was going to chase away all the whites in the bursary department and replace them with competent, black officials;

·         hated Afrikaans-speaking people, because they thought in Afrikaans and then tried to write in English; and

·         would not appoint coloured people because they were crooks.

Van Rooyen also reported that, according to the documents, Abhilak had made life difficult for Snyders during the previous three years. He allegedly accused her, in the presence of her colleagues, of illegal activities and also said to her in a meeting that, had he been her, he would have committed suicide.

The complaint in more detail

The salient issues in the complaint are the following:

·         Because Volksblad did not ask him for comment, the newspaper was in breach of Sections 1.1 and 2.1 of the Press Code. They read, “News should be obtained legally, honestly and fairly, unless public interest dictates otherwise” and “The press shall take care to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly”;

·         The story said that the newspaper had contacted Snyders, but that she had declined to provide information. “[She] is the main actor in the entire equation and if she has not corroborated…or provided the information then how does a responsible and credible organisation publish information that is unsubstantiated”;

·         The story was unbalanced as it had denigrated and vilified him – and it did not say anything about Snyders having been investigated for fraud and corruption. He also alleges that the newspaper intentionally distorted the facts by saying that Snyders had overstepped her authority. “Any rational human being can see that the Volksblad is obviously biased and is seen to be protecting Ms Snyders. There is an intentional departure from the facts”;

·         Why did the story:

o   appear a few days before Snyders’s disciplinary hearing;

o   omit the fact that the protection order against him had already been issued in 2013?

·         The story falsely stated that he did not appear in court – he did, on 7 January 2014. The case was postponed, and he then arrived 10 minutes late due to some miscommunication; and

·         In eight years at the Department he was never accused of hating white or Afrikaans-speaking people – he did sometimes comment, on a lighter note, that somebody thinks in Afrikaans and writes in English, but that was meant to infuse humour in his daily dealings with his officials. “It is only when individuals (such as Snyders) are being charged for fraud and corruption [that]I am being accused of making unsavoury comments.”

Volksblad’s response

Volksblad replies that the main sources for the story were documents related to the matter.

The newspaper says that Van Rooyen asked the spokesman of the Department, Mr Howard Ndaba, for comment on the allegations against Abhilak. The journalist states that he phoned Ndaba four times between 12:00 and 17:00 from his cell phone, and twice from his landline. He also sent him an SMS message, stating that he wanted to speak to him and requesting him to return the calls. The journalist also says that he left a voice mail message on Ndaba’s phone, imploring him to return his call.

The reporter adds that, because Ndaba did not reply, he also phoned Adv B.C. Ngwenya of the Department’s legal services – but again without any success.

Eventually Van Rooyen contacted Mr Stanley Malope, Free State’s education boss, as well as Snyders herself. The story reflected both these actions.

The reporter concludes that he followed the correct channels, but the people he contacted either did not answer their phones or did not make use of the opportunity to comment they had been given.

Smith adds it is standard practice in the Free State government that journalists may not get information from officials, who may even be dismissed for speaking to the media. He also notes that the accusations about hating whites and Afrikaans-speaking people, and about coloured people being crooks, had been documented in the protection order that Snyders obtained against Abhilak.

Abhilak’s reply

Abhilak says neither Ndaba nor the Head of Department was involved in this matter, and insists that he should have been given an opportunity to respond.

My considerations

I have ascertained that Snyders did indeed document her grievances against Abhilak in a report to Adv B.C. Ngwenya (of legal services) as well as to the Chief Director of HRS&D. This report does make mention of Abhilak’s alleged statements about whites, Afrikaans-speaking people and so-called coloureds.

I also note that the story consistently ascribed these allegations to documents recording Snyders’s accusations and never stated them as fact. The matter was in the public interest, and the newspaper was obliged to report on the issue. I therefore conclude that the reportage was justified.

It is important to state that the information was not unsubstantiated, even if Snyders did not want to comment, as it was mainly sourced from documentation presented by her to the powers that be.

Also, I have no reason to believe that Volksblad did not follow the correct channels in asking the Department for its views – on the contrary, I need to commend the newspaper for going out of its way to get some comment and for following the right channels.

I therefore do not accept that Volksblad obtained its information illegally, dishonestly and unfairly, or that it reported its news untruthfully, inaccurately and unfairly.

I also do not have any reason to believe that the newspaper protected Snyders, that it was biased, or that the publication had ulterior motives which guided it in its reportage.

It is not true that the story said nothing about Snyders having been investigated for fraud and corruption – it did state that she was charged with overstepping her authority in paying out bursaries.

Abhilak’s argument that Volksblad has intentionally distorted the facts (the newspaper was “obviously biased” and “protected” Snyders) by saying that she had overstepped her authority makes no sense to me, as I do not have any idea of what he is referring to.

I have asked the newspaper for proof that the journalist did attempt to contact Ndaba. Smith sent me a picture of Van Rooyen’s listed cellphone calls to Ndaba the day before publication.

It follows that the rest of the complaint has no legs to stand on.

Finding

The complaint is dismissed.

Appeal

Our 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.

Johan Retief

Press Ombudsman