Dr Vishnu Abhilak2 vs Volksblad

Complainant: Vishnu Abhilak

Lodged by: Vishnu Abhilak

Article: Oudwerknemer praat oor onderwys-rasbom – Mense glo ‘soos honde behandel’ (Ex-employee comments on education race bomb – People allegedly ‘treated like dogs

Author of article: Mike van Rooyen

Date: 19 May 2015

Respondent:  Charles Smith, news editor and Mike van Rooyen, reporter of Volksblad

Complaint

Abhilak is complaining about a report in Volksblad of 20 April 2015, headlined Oudwerknemer praat oor onderwys-rasbom – Mense glo ‘soos honde behandel’ (Ex-employee comments on education race bomb – People allegedly ‘treated like dogs’).

He complains that the journalist advocated hatred that was based on race and tried to incite whites to cause other people harm, and that the unsubstantiated and unverified information has unnecessarily tarnished his reputation.

The text

The story in dispute is a follow-up article, written by Mike van Rooyen, to one that was published on 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).

The first story stated the following:

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) were accused by a subordinate, Ms Marinda Snyders, of repeated misconduct. She, in turn, was reportedly 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; that he was going to chase away all the whites in the bursary department and replace them with competent, black officials; that he hated Afrikaans-speaking people because they thought in Afrikaans and then tried to write in English; and that he 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 colleges, of illegal activities, and also said to her in a meeting that, had he been her, he would have committed suicide.

In his follow-up article, the reporter published comment by an ex-employee who had worked in the Department for 21 years, as well as by Ms Danielle Weimers, an ex-secretary of Abhilak. Weimers reiterated most of the allegations in the first story. She reportedly added that Abhilak treated people like dogs, and that his bosses just let it go.

The complaint in more detail

Abhilak says news should be obtained honestly and fairly, and it must be presented truthfully, impartially and without favouritism. In this case, though, Van Rooyen obtained mendacious information from a former employee (Weimers) who was out on bail and who had been dismissed for theft. He adds that she (a “compulsive liar”) was dismissed in 2014 – so why was she suddenly appearing in 2015 when Snyders was being tried in a serious case, he asks.

“These facts do not appear in the publication. This clearly demonstrates that the article is misleading, partisan and is detrimental to my image… The journalist is in violation of the aims and objectives of the Constitution [of the Press Council]by being one-sided and showing preference for a particular individual, [who is]Ms Snyders.”

He calls the information garnered from Weimers “conspirational, conniving and devious”, and states that the journalist has failed to corroborate his information.

He denies that there is a “race bomb” at the Department, and argues that the newspaper plays the race card to deflect attention from the fraud and corruption charges against its source(s). “It is also astounding that the Volksblad does not take fraud and corruption seriously when their own kind are involved and yet would give maximum attention when other groupings are involved. This is injustice of the worst kind.”

Abhilak adds that, had the journalist asked him for comment, he would have told him that he had whites and coloureds in his employ. He denies that he ever said that he hated coloureds – in fact, he employed two coloureds in the previous month. “The article is not based on facts and the journalist has formed an opinion by publishing unverified information… I am appalled at this journalist who is prepared to listen to someone who was charged for theft but would not want to talk to me.”

He also denies that two people have resigned because they have been humiliated, as stated in the story. “Both these men can testify to the effect that I appealed to them not to resign but they went ahead because of business interests. One of them, and Assistant Director, Johan Visagie requested to come back and I made a case on his behalf…” He wants to know why the reporter did not contact these two men to verify the information that Weimers had given him.

Abhilak notes the story appeared on the same day that Snyders was being tried for fraud and corruption, and concludes that it was aimed at diverting attention from her (in an attempt to protect her).

Volksblad’s response

Volksblad says 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 the day before publication, and twice from his landline. He also sent him an SMS message, stating that he wanted to speak to him and asking him to return his call. The journalist also says that he left a voice mail message on Ndaba’s phone, imploring him to return the call.

Because Ndaba did not reply, Van Rooyen says he also phoned Adv B.C. Ngwenya of the Department’s legal services – but again without any success.

Eventually the reporter contacted Mr Stanley Malope, Free State’s education boss, as well as Weimer, her attorney and the provincial manager of the Union of Civil Servants. Van Rooyen states Ndaba needed time to consult – and he assumes that one of the people whom Ndaba had to contact was Abhilak, as the questions were also about him.

He argues that he followed the correct channels to get comment. (He says 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.)

Smith says he perused the documentation before deciding to proceed with the article, adding that the anonymous source was clearly a person of integrity.

The journalist says he did report that Weimers had been dismissed and that she had been charged. However, “She has not yet been found guilty in any forum and waits for a date for her case about her dismissal to appear before the CCMA.”

Van Rooyen denies that he was protecting any of his sources.

Abhilak’s reply

Abhilak calls the newspaper’s response vague and perplexing, and mainly repeats his accusations as mentioned above.

My considerations

Volksblad followed the correct channels in asking the Department for its views.

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

Also, the story was a follow-up, in which the newspaper was justified to report the views of people who were involved in the matter in some or other way. The complaint about the information being unsubstantiated and unverified has no leg to stand on.

Regarding the statement in the story that two people resigned because they had been humiliated: The story attributed this assertion to Weimers, and did not state it as fact. Surely, she was entitled to her opinion, as was Volksblad to report it.

In conclusion, I have no reason whatsoever to believe that Van Rooyen has advocated hatred that was based on race or that he tried to incite whites to cause “other people” harm. In fact, I find such an accusation preposterous.

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