Dudu Myeni vs Zululand Fever

Complainant: Dudu Myeni

Article: Former CEO lashes out at MW chairperson via parliament – Myeni continues to compromise the integrity of the                             President [Zuma] and [thinks]that she is ‘unstoppable, untouchable and immune’

Date: 29 July 2011

Respondent: Zululand Fever

Complaint

Ms Dudu Myeni, the former CEO of Mhlatuze Water (MW), complains about a story in the Zululand Fever, published on July 1, 2011 and headlined Former CEO lashes out at MW chairperson via parliament – Myeni continues to compromise the integrity of the President [Zuma] and [thinks]that she is ‘unstoppable, untouchable and immune’. She complains in her personal capacity and as the chairperson of the MW Board.

Myeni complains that:
• the word “embattled” does not appear in a letter that the story is based on;
• the journalist sensationalizes former CEO of MW Silas Mbedzi’s letter;
• the sub-heading can be interpreted as fact and not opinion, and that the balance of the story does not support it;
• the inclusion of Mbedzi’s statement that she (Myeni) held anyone at ransom to get what she wanted is subjective, comment and unsubstantiated;
• the journalist probably did not get comment from the “numerous other persons and/or entities mentioned in the report”;
• she was not given enough time to respond to the newspaper’s questions;
• the statement that spokesperson and advisor Nick Linnell failed to respond to questions within a week after numerous requests by the newspaper is disingenuous; and
• the story, when seen as a whole, the story presents allegations as facts.

Analysis

The story, written by Jonathan Erasmus, says that Myeni is abusing her relationship with President Jacob Zuma in order to “get her own way” regarding the “embattled” water provider called Mhlathuze Water. This information is reportedly based on Mbedzi’s 12 page written reply to various allegations against himself, which he addressed to the chairperson of the National Portfolio Committee on Water, Mr Johnny De Lange. In the process, he makes several allegations against Myeni. The story says Mbedzi wrote that Myeni, who is also the chairperson of the Jacob Zuma Foundation, sought “power, privilege and immunity” by “name dropping” her relationship with Zuma, “who she is believed to be close to”. She reportedly also used Zuma’s office to overturn ministerial decisions, attempted to suppress a forensic investigation into MW and sought protection from the ANC North Coast Regional Executive.

I shall now consider the merits of the complaint:

‘Embattled’ absent

The intro to the story calls MW “embattled”.

Myeni complains that this term does not appear in Mbedzi’s letter upon which the report is based. She says that nowhere does the story provide any support for this conclusion, other than the untested allegations of a journalist “who is clearly an interested party”. She says: “The term is derogatory and unfair in context and underscores the perception that the report is biased.”

The newspaper does not respond to this part of the complaint.

I do not know if the MW is “embattled” or not and neither is it my task to find out. My only question is whether the newspaper was justified in calling it such.

Given the serious nature of the allegations against the MW as contained in Mbedzi’s letter that the story reports on, I would think that the word “embattled” was indeed justified.

Letter sensationalized

Myeni says that the tone of Mbedzi’s letter is that of one who is personally aggrieved and who is “offloading”. She argues that Erasmus should therefore have been more cautious, enquiring and objective in his reporting – and yet the journalist “sensationalizes Mbedzi’s opinions”.

The newspaper does not respond to this part of the complaint.

Even if it was true that Mbedzi was personally aggrieved and was “offloading”, the newspaper still was justified to publish the contents of his letter.

“Sensationalism” can be described as a type of editorial bias in which events and topics in news stories and pieces are over-hyped to increase viewership or readership numbers.
When comparing the content of Mbedzi’s letter (to de Lange) to the story itself, there is nothing to suggest that this was sensationalist reportage.

Sub-heading

The sub-headline reads: Myeni continues to compromise the integrity of the President [Zuma] and [thinks]that she is ‘unstoppable, untouchable and immune’.

Myeni complains that while the sub-heading is an accurate extract from Mbedzi’s letter, it is clearly his opinion and not a fact. She argues: “Although reported in quotations marks the comment to an ordinary reader carries a factual connotation.” She adds that the balance of the story does not support this comment.

The newspaper does not respond to this part of the complaint.

Myeni is correct – the sub-heading is an accurate extract from Mbedzi’s letter and it is presented as his opinion and not as a fact. However, it is not true that the balance of the story does not support this comment. The intro already alleges that she was abusing her relationship with Zuma to get her own way; it later mentions that she was seeking power, privilege and immunity by “name dropping” her relationship with Zuma; it ends off by saying that she seemingly held everyone at ransom to get what she wants and that, for her, it is about power, privilege and the immunity.

These examples substantiate the sub-headline and therefore meets the requirements of the Press Code.

Subjective comment unsubstantiated

The story says: “She (Myeni) seems to hold everyone at ransom to attain her objectives. For Dudu it is about power, privilege and the immunity that goes with these.”

Myeni complains that the inclusion of Mbedzi’s opinion is subjective, comment and unsubstantiated, which makes it derogatory, unfair and unbalanced. She adds that the journalist knew about the libelous nature of the accusations as he himself acknowledges this in an email to her in which he says: “They (the accusations) could border on defamation against both yourself and the National President.” She argues that the onus was therefore on the newspaper to corroborate the allegations before reporting them.

The newspaper does not respond to this part of the complaint.

This part of the complaint is frivolous. Mbedzi is free to express his views, which were within the boundaries of the SA Constitution and law, and the newspaper is free to publish those opinions.

No comment from other subjects

Myeni questions whether Erasmus obtained comment from the “numerous other persons and/or entities” mentioned in the story to verify the allegations and to get the necessary balance.

The newspaper does not respond to this part of the complaint.

However, the purpose of the story was not to establish if these allegations were true or not, but to make public the fact of these allegations.

Not given enough time to respond

Myeni complains that the newspaper did not give her enough time to respond.

She said the journalist wrote to her on June 21, 2011 at 20:42. This meant, she argues, that she was effectively contacted on June 22. She says that the request for a reply was for the Thursday edition and that that deadline was the very same day (June 22). She concludes that this was an unreasonable request, as she needed more time to respond because it would have required some consideration and consultation.

She says that there was an agreement between Linnell and the journalist not to publish without comment.

Myeni outlines further correspondence between Linell and Erasmus:
• 14:27, June 28 – Erasmus requests when a response may be forthcoming;
• 17:51, June 28 – Linnell undertakes to respond by Thursday 30;
• 20:25, June 28 – the journalist says he requires a response by 16:00 on Wednesday 29;
• 20:52, June 28 – Linnell rejects the deadline and undertakes to provide a response by midday June 30;
• 09:25, June 29 – the journalist says that there was a agreement to meet the next publication date, stating that the story would be published with or without his comment;
• 14:30, June 29 – Linnell rejects the deadline, cautions the journalist about publication without comment, and references the complexity of the required response;
• 17:53, June 29 – the journalist says that the letter will be published without his comment; and
• 18:16, June 29 – the editor says that her advisors support publishing.

The Fever says that both Myeni and Linnell were notified of the story and that they were given ample time to reply. The newspaper says it encouraged them to do so “and yet neither was willing to respond to the actual accusations in the article”. It says that Linnell instead appeared to be using stalling tactics in the form of thinly veiled threats. It argues that the fact that Myeni did not respond to its questions is “a reflection on her, not (on) the integrity of the Zululand Fever”.

The newspaper also says that the matter was in the public interest, adding that it remains willing to interview Myeni face-to-face and to publish her views.

My task is to establish if the newspaper:
• undertook not to publish before it could get comment; and
• gave Myeni enough time to respond.

There are two references to a possible agreement in the documentation at my disposal. In the first case Linnell, on June 22, said: “I believe I have your undertaking not to publish the contents of the letter without first obtaining comment from Mhlathuze Water…”

I note that Erasmus did not respond to this statement.

On June 29 the journalist wrote: “Our agreement was that the response would be ready for our next publication.”

Based on the evidence at my disposal, I have no reason to believe that the journalist went back on his word – there is no evidence place that he gave his word not to publish without Linnell’s comment in the first place.

This leaves me with the question if Myeni had enough time to respond. For this, I need to take the amount of time as well as the complexity of the matter into account.

Firstly, Erasmus put his questions to Myeni in an email dated June 21, whilst the story was published on July 1. This gave MW six full working days in which to respond. This seems long enough a time.

So then: Was the matter was so complicated that 6 days (and an extra two weekend days, which may have been utilized) were not enough to come up with a considered response?

This leads me to the questions that Erasmus posed. In his email, the journalist first summarized eight key points contained in Mbedzi’s letter. This clearly was done to make a response easier. Then the journalist asked four questions. The last of these questions would have kept MW busy longer than the others. It read: “Of the entire report, what do you dispute…?”

Now the focus shifts to the 12-page letter.

After having taken a thorough look at this document, I am convinced that a considered response would have taken quite some time – Mbedzi’s document raised several issues that demanded some thorough investigation.

I also take into account the seriousness of the allegations against Myeni – the more serious they were, the more attention they deserved. And they were serious, all right.

However, when I weigh up all of these factors, I believe that the time that has elapsed from June 21 to June 29 should have afforded MW ample time to finalise its response. I therefore do not blame the newspaper for publishing without its comment.

‘Failed to respond’

The story ends by stating: “He (Linnell) failed to respond to the questions within a week after numerous requests by the Fever.”

Myeni complains that this is disingenuous, as it does not convey the documented communication between the parties. She argues: “An amplification of why he had ‘failed’ to respond would have placed an entirely different and objective context to the matter.”

The newspaper does not respond to this part of the complaint.

Based on my argumentation above, I believe the sentence in dispute was justified – even though Linnell did indicate to the journalist that he did not have enough time to respond.

In context, allegations presented as facts

Myeni says that the context of the allegations and the urgency for publication (or the lack thereof) are also relevant. She says that the minister’s reply to Parliament was eight months prior to publication and that Mbedzi’s allegations had been well aired in the newspaper over the last year. She argues that there was therefore “no pressingly urgent public interest that would outweigh the benefit of the journalist having the facts that would inform a balanced and fair report and importantly mitigate the risk of what he termed ‘defamation against both yourself and the National President’.”

She adds that, taking the story as a whole, there is a ring of “truth or fact” in Mbedzi’s allegations.

The newspaper does not respond to this part of the complaint.

I disagree with Myeni on this point. After having read the story several times, I believe that:
• it was balanced enough in that it does not confuse allegations with fact – and it presents the allegations as such; and
• the time that was afforded to MW was enough to negate the argument that there was no urgency in this matter – the decision to publish cannot be left in the hands of the public.

General

It is worrisome that the Fever responded to only one part of the complaint. This creates the impression that the newspaper did not take either the complaint/complainant or this office seriously enough.

Finding

The complaint is dismissed in its entirety.

Sanction

There is no sanction.

I am recommending, though, that Myeni takes up the newspaper’s offer to publish her views (with equal prominence).

Appeal

Please note that our Complaints Procedures lay down that within seven days of receipt of this decision, anyone of the parties 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 reached at khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.

Johan Retief
Deputy Press Ombudsman

 

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