DRD Gold Ltd. vs Saturday Star

Complainant:  DRD Gold

Lodged by: Jaco Schoeman

Article: Life isn’t rosy as a prisoner to mine dust – Huffing and puffing, Riverlea resident still breathes fire in bid to end pollution

Author of article: Sheree Bega

Date: 31 October 2015

Respondent: Kashiefa Ajam, editor of the Saturday Star

Complaint

DRD Gold is complaining about an article in Saturday Star of 3 August 2015, headlined Life isn’t rosy as a prisoner to mine dust – Huffing and puffing, Riverlea resident still breathes fire in bid to end pollution.

It complains that the journalist:

·         presented inaccuracies and misrepresentations (air pollution, water pollution, in general – details below), and failed to indicate that the information was based on opinions and suppositions;

·         failed to verify the allegations and produced an unbalanced an unfair story; and

·         did not afford it reasonable time to respond to the allegations.

The text

The article, written by Sheree Bega, focused on water and air pollution in the Riverlea area (in the south-western reaches of Johannesburg, close to some gold mines) and mainly concentrated on the findings of Benchmark Foundation (BF, a non-profit, faith-based organisation). The journalist interviewed Ms Rosa Plaatjies (62), who suffered from a lung disease – which she believed to be caused by the mine dumps. Bega quoted Plaatjies as saying that it was time that “these mining companies are held responsible for the health problems they cause”.

The story also quoted Mr David van Wyk, lead researcher of BF, quite extensively on the seriousness of the problems in that area (details below).

The arguments in more detail

DRD Gold

Inaccuracies, misrepresentations; opinions, suppositions

Air pollution

DRD Gold quotes the following sentences: “Plaatjies looks outside to what she believes are the culprits of her insidious lung disease: the towering yellow mine dumps that encircle her neat, nondescript home in Riverlea…”; “Some [of the mine dumps]are being reprocessed by gold mining companies like DRD Gold to scour them for the remaining precious minerals they contain, which the community has opposed”; “[Plaatjies said] it’s time these mining companies are held responsible for the health problems they cause”.

Schoeman says that:

·         the story did not clarify the basis for Plaatjies’s belief that the mine dumps were the cause of her lung disease (there is no reference to a doctor’s report or to her living conditions) or indicate how long she had been living in the area;

·         the company only processed one mine dump in the area for precious metals – “All other activities of DRD relate directly to mine dump and foot print rehabilitation”;

·         DRD Gold holds, on record, continuous public consultation processes with the Riverlea community and all interested parties, in order to address and combat any possible grievances;

·         DRD Gold engages on a quarterly basis with interested and affected parties at a Dust Forum, which is chaired by an independent expert on dust pollution (Prof Harold Annegarn);

·         the Dust Forum receives the results of dust monitoring and physical examples of the dust, in order to determine the origins of the dust;

·         even though the Riverlea community has not yet attended the Dust Forum meetings, DRD Gold remains transparent with the community;

·         DRD Gold has released its “National Capital Review” report (2014), which is freely available on the internet;

·         not only did DRD Gold conform to legislation (according to the report), it also has numerous environmental management plans in place – and it did not receive any fines in respect of non-compliance with laws or regulations during that year;

·         several audits of the company were conducted in 2013 and 2014, only one of which found minor problems – and action plans to rectify these have already been implemented;

·         dust fall-out has been reduced significantly over the past three years due to measures DRD Gold had taken; and

·         in a door-to-door survey of Riverlea (initiated by DRD Gold and conducted by an independent researcher) some two years ago, it was found that health problems residents were experiencing could have been partly caused by their cooking habits (from smoke produced by coal and paraffin burners). DRD Gold then introduced a program in the Riverlea community to replace these burners with affordable gas stoves.

Schoeman cites several other examples to show that DRD Gold is doing much to curb air pollution.

He concludes that all the above information was readily available to the journalist. “This leads us to the simple conclusion that Bega intentionally did not gather this information.”

Water pollution

Bega quoted Van Wyk as follows:

·         “There are very few households that we’ve come across in Riverlea that are not affected by mining waste… We see symptoms of arsenic and cyanide poisoning, such as skin rashes and lesions, especially on the hands and the back of the head. Many households report cancers and respiratory illnesses”;

·         A badly deformed child found in the area “clearly had radiation poisoning”;

·         “All these rivers end up in the Hartebeespoortdam”; and

·         Bega describes a test carried out by Van Wyk in which he dipped a water-testing kit into “a lifeless stream feeding the Klipspruit that is flowing from a breached evaporation pond”. He concluded that this water contained uranium, cyanide, arsenic and possibly mercury and “goes straight into the Klipspruit, where people in Soweton baptize themselves and into the Klip River that eventually flows into the Vaal where all the North West towns get their water from”.

The reporter also wrote, “In Diepkloof, Van Wyk and his team trudge through a toxic mining wasteland where goats forage on poisoned grass from a ‘beautiful but deadly’ stream flanking the working-class suburb. Here, the Total Dissolved Solids count is at a record 2 252 parts per million.”

Schoeman says that Bega quoted Van Wyk’s views and (unscientific) suppositions as fact throughout the article, while these were “patently biased”. He points out that the rivers Van Wyk said ended in the Hartebeespoort Dam in fact flowed away from the dam.

He also contests the validity of Van Wyk’s water test, which he calls entirely inaccurate and misleading. “Again, [Bega] simply ignores the fact that the DRD is subject to stringent legislation regarding its water management practices” – to which, he says, the company does adhere. He claims that all heavy metals found in the surrounding rivers are in fact well below the allowed maximum parts per million – and not 1 950, as Van Wyk attests.

Schoeman says it is of crucial importance to note that Van Wyk took his water samples from the DRD’s “solution trenches”. These trenches were dug around the dam and allowed water to enter through the drainage systems built underneath the dam. “This water then flows from the trenches into a localized containment dam and thereafter pumped back into the DRD’s operations. There are a series of containment dams so that if one overflows, it flows into another before being pumped back into the DRD’s operation. These drainage canals and solution trenches are part of DRD’s Environmental Management Program which prevents any contaminated water from entering the river system.”

He adds that the reference to 2 252 parts per million also referred to water from a containment dam which formed part of the water reticulation system implemented by DRD Gold. He says the journalist did not report this fact. “[This] was done in an attempt to exaggerate and sensationalise the story. By doing so, Bega publishes a misleading and false article.”

Another issue, Schoeman contends, is a photograph the reporter sent to DRD Gold, regarding total dissolved solids measured at 195 per million – substantially below the drinking water standard of 600 per million. “Bega, however, falsely reported the findings as standing at 1950 parts per million, being significantly above the drinking water standard. Either Bega was negligent in recording such a blatant error or this false reporting was done intentionally.”

The journalist also failed to contextualize DRD Gold’s involvement of approximately twenty years in what has been an ongoing problem in the Riverlea area for over a century.

No verification; unfair, unbalanced

DRD Gold complains that Bega did not properly verify her information, as she did not:

·         put the vast majority of the allegations made against it to the company for its response, instead merely asking vague and non-specific questions;

·         provide it with the “results” of  the BF study, while asking whether it wanted to respond to that text; and

·         question either Plaatjies’s or Van Wyk’s opinion – instead, bald allegations went unchallenged throughout the article, including those of Van Wyk.

He adds that when the contents of her article are compared to the questions she posed, it is clear that the reporter misrepresented the text she was planning to publish.

Also see the relatively long list of examples Schoeman mentions in his complaint regarding matters he believes Bega should have reported (cited above, and partly also below).

Not enough time to respond

DRD Gold complains that the journalist failed to afford it reasonable time to respond to the allegations made against the company.

Schoeman explains Bega sent an e-mail to DRD Gold at 10:47on 30 July 2015, asking whether the company wanted to comment on the various allegations of pollution and on the study conducted by BF. The journalist added that her deadline was at 16:00 that same day.

When the journalist was informed that she had given the company too little time to respond, Bega extended the deadline to 10:00 the following morning – with the message that the story would be “put to bed” by 10:30 that day “with or without your comment”. This means, Schoeman argues, that Bega gave DRD Gold 24 hours to respond, which was insufficient.

As a result of the time constraints, DRD Gold provided the journalist with a brief statement, which was “insignificantly included by Bega at the very end of her article”.

In general

DRD Gold complains that the story portrayed it as an irresponsible mining house that was not regulated by numerous statues and regulations which govern the impact of its operations on the environment and/or as a mining house that disregarded its duty to observe these safeguards (picturing it as a heartless company with little or no regard to the well-being of the people who lived in the area).

This, Schoeman maintains, significantly impaired DRD Gold’s dignity and reputation – while the company went to “great lengths” to address the alleged plight of the Riverlea community.

The newspaper responds, twice

First response

Ajam says Bega did a follow-up story on an article in the British Guardian newspaper about an ongoing study by BF to determine the extent of mining pollution in and around Riverlea and Soweto.

The reporter subsequently spent a few hours with the BF team, visiting several mine dumps. That afternoon, she interviewed Plaatjies and her neighbour about their concerns regarding mining pollution.

The next day, Bega contacted two of the big miners in the area, DRD Gold and Central Rand Gold, to understand their perspective of the BF study – “which is what she was really writing about and the pollution claims, generally”.

She contacted DRD Gold spokesman James Duncan, and “[received]what we considered to be a surprisingly hostile response”.

Ajam adds that several articles on mining pollution in Riverlea have appeared in other media, “and we assumed that DRD Gold had the information at hand, as it had responded in preceding articles”.

The editor says that when Duncan indicated he needed more time, the reporter duly extended the deadline to 10:00 the next day. “We believe 24 hours is reasonable, and have used this as a standard with other contacts for many years.”

She adds that DRD Gold never provided Saturday Star with the kind of detail it has included in its complaint to this office, despite it having had the opportunity to do so. “Had Mr Duncan provided us with the kind of detail he included in this complaint, we would likely have taken more of that view into account.”

Ajam denies that the story contained inaccuracies – she says the story correctly reflected the community’s views and beliefs, as well as those of BF.

She also states it is important to note that:

·         residents of Riverlea are currently taking DRD Gold to court through Lawyers for Human Rights;

·         DRD Gold was not specifically mentioned in connection with the dust and water pollution; and

·         Bega witnessed the pollution herself and described it to her readers as she saw it.

The editor concludes, “We take absolute exception to DRD Gold’s insinuation that the journalist was ‘falsely reporting’ information ‘intentionally’. Sheree Bega’s record speaks for itself in covering mining and pollution issues with balance and fairness.”

She also says that DRD Gold never asked for a right of reply after the article was published. “We feel that, if the firm was genuinely concerned about the perceptions of readers, and the reputational harm it claims to have suffered, it would have sought this avenue of redress. This avenue is almost always effective, where there has been wrongdoing on our part. Instead, this complaint smacks of a personal attack against the journalist.”

Second response

Ajam adds that the story:

·         was in the public interest and newsworthy, and that it had not been covered locally;

·         was not an analysis of the entire situation of mining pollution and the mining legacy in Riverlea;

·         did not insinuate that Plaatjies’s lung disease was as a result of the mine dumps in the area, or that those mine dumps belonged to DRD Gold (the company was listed as one of several miners in the area) – Bega wrote that Plaatjies “believed” the dumps were the culprits of her insidious lung disease, and she did not single out DRD Gold in this regard. Plaatjies had a right to her opinion;

·         focused on Plaatjies, as hers was a compelling case; she served as an index of the community, having lived in Riverlea in the shadow of mine tailings all her life – and there were other people in Riverlea who were also on ventilators;

·         took into account that BF maintained that the most common ailments in the community other than diabetes were eye problems, eczema, and asthma, which, it said, could be attributed to pollution;

·         never named DRD Gold as the owner of the mine dumps visited by Bega, or in connection with radiation poisoning emanating from uranium;

·         placed “heavy weight” on Van Wyk’s views as the story was about him and his work in the community (tracking mining pollution), which was the purpose of the article; and

·         correctly reported the 1 950 parts per million, as could be seen from a supplied photograph from DRD Gold (the “pencil test” that Van Wyk used stood at 195 parts per million of total dissolved solids, but in the corner of the device it shows “x 10”).

In addition, Ajam says:

·         BF’s research was scientific, but it was incomplete – “(therefore) we could not send the research to the company”.

·         a mere 4.34% of the article referred to DRD Gold (not counting its response) – therefore, the reasonable reader would not have concluded that the article was about that company;

·         Plaatjies does not use a coal or paraffin stove for cooking. In fact, BF maintains that of the 125 houses in Riverlea it has surveyed so far, only 20 have coal stoves and not a single household with someone on an oxygen machine has a coal or paraffin stove;

·         it is a well-known fact that the community has opposed DRD’s reprocessing activities; and

·         the count of 2 252 parts per million was taken from a containment dam that had burst its banks and was flowing straight into the Klipspruit wetlands – and not from a site where municipal and industrial water converged as DRD Gold claims in its complaint.

The editor denies that there is any evidence of bias or misconduct on Bega’s part. “The reputation of the journalist cannot be brought into disrepute without evidence and such allegations will not be entertained in the absence of ethical or legal reasons.”

She adds the newspaper is more than willing to correct the fact that DRD Gold is reprocessing only one dump in the Riverlea area.

DRD Gold replies, also twice

First response

DRD Gold says the newspaper has failed to address the following:

·         Its continuous public processes with the Riverlea community;

·         The reports and results of the Dust Forum;

·         Its measures to limit the environmental effects of its mining operations and the evidence of reduced fall over the past three years;

·         The evidence of its door-to-door survey, including that some residents’ health problems could have been caused by cooking methods;

·         The fact that it has not exceeded the heavy metal limits as per the Department of Water Affairs’ (DWA’s) requirements;

·         The misleading tests performed by Van Wyk, on water taken from its solution trenches;

·         Bega’s false recording of the test result reading for total dissolved solids;

·         The failure to contextualize its involvement of approximately 20 years in an ongoing problem in the Riverlea area over more than a century; and

·         Bega’s vague questions to DRD Gold, and her misrepresentation of the contents of the story she intended publishing.

Schoeman adds that 24 hour hours were not nearly enough time to allow the company to respond adequately, and that it is untrue that there is any pending litigation against DRD Gold (as stated by Ajam).

Second response

In reaction to Ajam’s arguments about the BF study having been the focal point of the story and not the entire mining situation, the reference to 4.34% and that DRD Gold was not singled out as the cause of pollution in the area and therefore the health problems of some of the residents, Schoeman says that these arguments do not demonstrate that the newspaper was not in breach of the Press Code.

He attests, “The article specifically states that the BF is spearheading a battle against Central Rand Gold and DRD Gold. The article then goes on the explain and demonstrate the findings of [BF] and further states that ‘the foundation hopes to use its finding to ultimately launch a class action against the mining companies for water and dust pollution’. It is therefore unnecessary for the article to specifically single out DRD Gold in order to create the impression to the reader…that the DRD Gold is responsible for the…pollution and the consequential severe health problems experienced by members of the community. As DRD Gold was singled out, from the outset, as one of the mining companies in the area, it would be reasonable and logical for the reader to assume that the…pollution is being caused by DRD Gold, whether solely or collectively with other mines.”

Schoeman also argues that the number of words used in reference to DRD Gold (4.34% of the total story) “is simply irrelevant” – the mere fact that the company was mentioned (more than once) as one of the mining companies in the area created the false impression that its operations were severely harming the environment and the health of community members.

He argues that, while it was Plaatjies’s right to hold her own views, it was the journalist’s duty to ensure that views with such a damaging effect on the reputation and dignity of a third party did not go unsubstantiated or unchallenged.

My considerations

Inaccuracies, misrepresentations; opinions, suppositions

I do not buy the newspaper’s argument that DRD Gold was never named as the owner of the mine dumps visited by Bega, or in connection with radiation poisoning emanating from uranium, or any such similar argument (such as that the pollution had never been attributed to DRD Gold) – immediately following the sentence recording Plaatjies’s belief that the mine dumps were causing her lung problems, this sentence is stated as fact (and not attributed to a source): “Some [of these mine dumps]are being reprocessed by gold mining companies like DRD Gold to scour them for the remaining precious minerals they contain, which the community has opposed.” (Emphasis added.)

But that is not all. After Bega quoted Plaatjies as saying that “these mining companies” should be held responsible for the health problems they cause, the reporter went on to state, again as fact, “And there’s another battle against…DRD Gold…” (Emphases added.)

I find it disingenuous for Saturday Star to pretend that DRD Gold was not mentioned – or, at the very least, hinted at – as the cause of pollution in the area and therefore also as the cause of health problems in the community. This is the point: Even if there were no direct indication in the story in this regard, the context of the article left nothing to the imagination.

I also note that, notwithstanding all Ajam’s explanations to the effect that DRD Gold was never named as a culprit, Bega still found it necessary to ask the company for its views. Why did she do that, if DRD Gold was so relatively “unimportant” in the story – as the newspaper claims it to be?

The argument that DRD Gold never asked for a right of reply is neither here nor there – instead, it opted to lodge a complaint with this office, which was its right to do.

I have received two pictures of the water test, showing parts per million of total dissolved solids – one from DRD Gold, and the other from Ajam. The first showed 195 parts, as argued by Schoeman, but the “x 10” which Ajam claimed followed the “195”was not clearly visible. Ajam sent me the same picture, this time zoomed in – which clearly showed “x 10”

This justifies the reportage on this particular issue.

I am not in a position to decide who is right and who is wrong regarding the allegation that the count of 2 252 parts per million was taken from a containment dam that had burst its banks, and was flowing straight into the Klipspruit wetlands – and not from a site where municipal and industrial water converged, as DRD Gold claims in its complaint. Fortunately, this will not affect the gist of my finding.

The story quoted Van Wyk as saying that the rivers ended up in the Hartebeespoort Dam. Schoeman says they in fact flowed away from the dam. As the newspaper did not defend itself on this point, I have to accept Schoeman’s version on this issue.

I take into account the story did not state the above as fact, but attributed it to Van Wyk. (See another comment on this issue below.)

I differ with Schoeman that Bega has presented Van Wyk’s views as fact – she consistently ascribed his opinions to him.

There is no solid evidence on my desk as to misconduct on Bega’s part, or that the journalist intentionally reported false information.

I welcome Ajam’s willingness to correct the fact that DRD Gold was reprocessing only one mine dump in the Riverlea area.

No verification; unfair, unbalanced

Ajam’s “assumption” that DRD Gold had the information at hand (as it had responded in preceding articles on the topic, but without stating that these responses were to the BF document) is rather peculiar – a journalist should never “assume” anything.

Bega wrote DRD Gold the following e-mail, dated 30 June 2015:

“I’m following up on the three year research study by BF Foundation, which is halfway through a three year study assessing the health impacts of mining pollution in Soweto, including Riverlea.

“The foundation says the ultimate aim is to launch a class action lawsuit for damages against mining companies like DRD, and others operating in the Riverlea/Soweto area.

“We also spoke to residents in Riverlea, who maintained the company has failed to communicate with them about its re-mining activities, which I understand is part of a court case, and complained about dust pollution, which is making them ill.

“We also saw serious water pollution into the Klipriver from the mine dumps.

“Does DRD want to comment on this in any way – on the pollution claims, but also on this study by BF?”

Firstly, Bega is inconsistent when she says she could not send the results of the BF study to DRD Gold (because the research had not been finalised) – and yet she asked the company to comment on this issue. This does not make sense.

It was also not good enough to “assume” that the company had this document, albeit incomplete, at its disposal.

Schoeman complains that Bega never put the vast majority of the allegations made against DRD Gold to the company for its response. Her questions were indeed vague and non-specific – but she did ask about both water and air pollution, which formed part of the main focus of her article. While I do not expect a journalist to go into every detail in a request for a response, I submit that she should have been more specific regarding the rather serious allegations – which, as I have indicated above, could only have been understood to implicate DRD Gold.

Of course, Plaatjies had a right to her opinion (as did Van Wyk) but, as Schoeman rightly says, if such comments are likely to unnecessarily harm other people, the newspaper (in adherence to the Press Code) should verify such allegations, or, if unsuccessful in that attempt, say that it was not able to do so.

The article was not balanced enough – given the facts that DRD Gold’s response was limited to the last three paragraphs (at the very end of a rather long article) and the views of Van Wyk and Plaatjies were reported quite extensively. The reporter should have gone to more trouble to verify her facts.

She did indeed have reason to doubt the accuracy of the accusations, in line with Section 2.4 of the Press Code – Plaatjies’s opinion has not (yet?) been established scientifically, and BF’s study was nowhere near complete. Bega should have questioned the opinions of both Plaatjies and Van Wyk.

Even though the story did mention the “solution trenches”, the story should at least have stated the possibility that Van Wyk could have taken his water samples (at least some of them) from these trenches. Schoeman was correct in questioning the validity of Van Wyk’s water samples – as Bega should have done.

Another glaring omission is that Bega ignored the fact that DRD Gold was subject to stringent legislation regarding its water management practices. At least she should have asked the company the question, and followed it up on confirmation that the company did adhere to the legislation – upon which she would have been told that DRD Gold had not exceeded the heavy metal limits as per the DWA’s requirements.

It was Van Wyk’s opinion that the rivers ended up in the Hartebeespoort Dam. Schoeman says they in fact flow away from the dam. As it is likely that he could have been wrong (I have already accepted Schoeman’s version on this issue), Bega should at least have verified this statement.

Schoeman has mentioned other issues I believe should be published in the interest of fairness and balance. See this list under “Sanctions”.

Not enough time to respond

The following statement by Ajam is quite worrisome: “We believe 24 hours is reasonable, and have used this as a standard with other contacts for many years.”

Firstly, the extension of the deadline to 10:00 the following day did in effect not give the company 24 hours – unless, of course, the newspaper insinuates that it should have worked through the night to prepare a proper response.

Be that as it may, the worst thing a newspaper can do with regard to time afforded a subject of critical reportage is to have a blank “the-standard-time-to-wait-for-comment-is-24-hours-and-this-goes-for-all” attitude.

Situations vary! If you ask a mayor whether the car she drives is red, you do not have to wait 24 hours for an answer. However, if you ask her about sewage in the town’s dam, and she has no knowledge of it, surely it may take more than 24 hours to ascertain the facts and formulate a proper response.

The question whether the newspaper has afforded the subject of a critical story enough time is always determined by the nature of the enquiry.

Given the facts that Bega’s questions were vague and non-specific, and especially that she referred to the BF study, I do not believe that the time afforded DRD Gold to respond to the journalist’s questions was adequate.

In any case, why did Bega not give DRD Gold the newspaper’s “standard time” when she first asked for a response?

I also note that Ajam has argued that Bega could not provide the results of the BF study because it was incomplete (the three-year project was halfway) – and yet she herself attached much value to an incomplete study in her article.

In general

I agree with DRD Gold that the story portrayed the company and its management as an irresponsible, heartless mining house, and that it has unnecessarily tarnished the company’s dignity and reputation (due to the absence of verification).

Finding

Inaccuracies, misrepresentations; opinions, suppositions

As the matters complained about in this section were largely opinions, as Schoeman himself points out, I cannot find that these were either accurate or inaccurate.

That is why I cannot uphold this part of the complaint.

However, the matter of verification is a different kettle of fish, as I believe that DRD Gold was indeed implicated in some serious allegations about pollution and corresponding health issues. See below.

The complaint about the water test which showed 195 x 10 parts is dismissed, as is the complaint that that the journalist intentionally reported false information.

There is no finding regarding the matter of the 2 252 parts.

No verification; unfair, unbalanced

The questions put to DRD Gold were not specific enough, and the enquiry whether the company wanted to comment on the BF study was unfair – given the fact that the journalist did not provide Schoeman with the relevant text.

This is in breach of Section 2.5 of the Press Code that says, “A publication shall seek the views of the subject of critical reportage in advance of publication…” I take into account that the newspaper did do that – but, to my mind, not adequately so. This was unfair on several counts.

As the opinions of both Plaatjies and Van Wyk were likely to unnecessarily harm DRD Gold, the journalist should have verified their allegations (amongst many others, Van Wyk’s statement that the rivers “ended up” in the Hartebeespoort Dam). This is in breach of Section 2.4 of the Press 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 stated in such report.”

The absence of verification resulted in an unfair article (such as not stating that Van Wyk could have taken his water samples – at least some of them – from the trenches, and that DRD Gold was subject to stringent legislation). This is in breach of Section 2.1 of the Press Code: “The press shall take care to report news…fairly.”

I am including under “Sanctions” a list of issues to which Schoeman has referred – not because I believe all of them should have been included in Bega’s article, but in the interest of fairness.

Not enough time to respond

Given the fact that Bega’s questions were vague and non-specific, and especially that the journalist referred to the BF study, the time afforded DRD Gold to respond to her questions was inadequate. This is in breach of Section 2.5 of the Press Code: “[Reasonable] time should be afforded the subject for a response…”

In general

The story portrayed the company and its management as an irresponsible, heartless mining house (due to the absence of verification) and is in breach of Section 4.7 of the Press Code: “The press shall exercise care and consideration in matters involving dignity and reputation. The dignity or reputation of an individual should be overridden only by a legitimate public interest and in the following circumstances: (4.7.1) The facts reported are true or substantially true, or; (4.7.2) The article amounts to fair comment based on facts that are adequately referred to and that are true or substantially true, or; (4.7.3) The report amounts to a fair and accurate report of court proceedings, Parliamentary proceedings or the proceedings of any quasi-judicial tribunal or forum; or (4.7.4) It was reasonable for the article to be published because it was prepared in accordance with acceptable principles of journalistic conduct and in the public interest.”

I do not believe that any of the above-mentioned exceptions apply in this case.

Seriousness of breaches

Under the headline Hierarchy of sanctions, Section 8 of our Complaints Procedures distinguishes between minor breaches (Tier 1), serious breaches (Tier 2) and serious misconduct (Tier 3).

The breaches of the Press Code as indicated above are all Tier 2 offences.

Sanction

Saturday Star is directed to apologise to DRD Gold for not:

·         adequately seeking its views prior to publication;

·         providing it with the text of the BF study, while asking the company whether it wanted to comment on that text;

·         properly verifying allegations which implicated the company in various dubious practices – resulting in an unbalanced and unfair article;

·         affording the company adequate time to respond properly; and

·         giving enough care and consideration to the company’s dignity and reputation.

The fact that DRD Gold was reprocessing only one mine dump in the Riverlea area should be stated as a correction (as indicated by Ajam).

This text should be published on the same page as the original story and on the newspaper’s website (if indeed it was published there as well). It should be approved by me, and end with the sentence, “Visit www.presscouncil.org.za for the full finding”.

The headline to the apology should reflect the content of the text. A heading such as Matter of Fact, or something similar, is not acceptable.

In addition, a sidebar with a list of DRD Gold’s opinions should accompany the apology – not because I believe all of them should have been included in Bega’s article, but in the interest of fairness. This should be stated as the company’s opinion, and not as fact.

The list should include that DRD Gold:

·         holds, on record, continuous public consultation processes with the Riverlea community and all interested parties, in order to address and combat any possible grievances;

·         engages on a quarterly basis with interested and affected parties at a Dust Forum, which is chaired by an independent expert on dust pollution (Prof Harold Annegarn);

·         has released its “National Capital Review” report (2014), which is freely available on the internet;

·         has conformed to legislation (according to the report);

·         has numerous environmental management plans in place and received no fines in respect of non-compliance with laws or regulations during that year;

·         has undergone several audits of the company during 2013 and 2014 and only one of these found minor problems – and that action plans to rectify these have already been implemented;

·         took measures to mitigate fall-out results, which have been reduced significantly over the past three years;

·         has initiated a door-to-door survey of Riverlea (conducted by an independent researcher) some two years ago, in which it was found that health problems experienced by the residents could have been partly due to their cooking habits – the company then introduced a program in the Riverlea community to replace coal and paraffin burners with affordable gas stoves;

·         has not exceeded the heavy metal limits as per the DWA’s requirements; and

·         has been involved for approximately twenty years in what has been an ongoing problem in the Riverlea area for over a century.

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

 

 

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