Fikile Mazibuko vs Zululand Observer

Complainant: Fikile Mazibuko

Lodged by: Fikile Mazibuko

Article: Unizulu staff protest

Author of article: Duschanka Hitzeroth

Date: 4 February 2014

Respondent: Zululand Observer

COMPLAINT

Mazibuko complains about a story headlined Unizulu staff protest, published in the Zululand Observer newspaper of 22 November 2013.

She complains that the:

  • story was factually incorrect on several counts (details below);
  • article was not properly verified (sources were “dubious”); and
  • journalist did not ask her for comment prior to publication.

She concludes that the above-mentioned issues have unnecessarily harmed her reputation as well as that of the university.

THE TEXT

The story, written by Duschanka Hitzeroth, said that angry student protestors at the University of Zululand have targeted Mazibuko “after rumours that she was about to implement mass dismissals”.

ANALYSIS

Factually incorrect

Mazibuko complains that the story falsely stated that:

  • she had intended to dismiss workers without consultation;
  • the university had hired another security company (which sparked job insecurity);
  • she fired “adequate staff to hire her relatives”;
  • she had treated the university as a spaza shop;
  • she had been involved in fraudulent activities totaling R11-million; and
  • the university’s council might protect her in a cover-up.

The editor replies that these statements were quoting what people said and were not the view of the journalist. “This is standard journalistic practice.”

Savides is correct in that the story indeed quoted sources – it presented the allegations as allegations, and not as fact. However, he is not altogether correct in stating that this was “standard journalistic practice”.

Let me explain: For a newspaper to print allegations of any serious kind, there has to be some sort of substance to it. The spirit of the Press Code is to ensure that the press reports accurately and fairly – the media are not free to publish any allegation just because someone had said something. If a source defames somebody and the press publishes that statement, it is also guilty of defamation. The repetition of defamation is also defamation.

There are boundaries.

I have little doubt that these allegations were potentially hugely harmful – which makes it all the more important for Hitzeroth to have strived to adhere to the letter and the spirit of the Code (and for this office to make sure that she did).

Let me be clear on this point: I do not know if these allegations are true or not, neither is it my job to determine the veracity of these statements. My only question is whether or not the newspaper was justified in publishing these accusations.

This will be determined by the rest of the argument which is to follow.

Not properly verified (‘dubious’ sources)

Mazibuko complains that the journalist relied on a student (who was not competent to comment on staff matters), as well as on a member of staff (who was not authorized to speak on her behalf). She argues that the reporter was therefore under a special duty to endeavor to properly verify the authenticity of the allegations “before rushing to print”.

Indeed.

In later correspondence, she says that the journalist only relied on “dubious sources”.

Savides says that the source who said that Mazibuko was “very upset at the false allegations and strongly objects to them” did not claim to be speaking on her behalf, “nor did the article imply that the respective person was speaking on her behalf”.

The confusing nature of the story is not helpful at all in this regard. Firstly, it ascribed some of these allegations to “angry protests”, then it switched to one source, then it mentioned “sources”, immediately after which it went back to the one source again, and then again back to the “protesters” – only to return to the single source.

This complicates matters – if a multitude of people protest about whatever, the press should be free to report on that. However, the same does not go for a single source whose motives may be questionable.

Therefore: While the credibility of the unnamed student may indeed questionable, the newspaper was justified in recording the protestations by the crowd. Also, I do not believe that the anonymous member of staff tried to speak on Mazibuko’s behalf.

Not asked for comment

Mazibuko complains that the journalist did not ask her for comment.

The editor says: “The normal channels of communication were followed in pursuing the article and … [the response of]the university communications department was tardy.”

The vice-chancellor replies that the story was published without any attempt to contact her prior to publication.

I asked the newspaper for correspondence between the parties prior to publication. It sent me a list of several questions that the journalist sent to Mr Bhekani Dlamini, the PR manager of the university. Dated 19 November 2013 and sent at 15:38, Hitzeroth listed six questions (all of which were relevant to the story), and stated: “We would appreciate comment by 10am on Wednesday (tomorrow) morning at the latest so that the article is objective and reflects the comments of all stakeholders involved.”

That is good enough, for me. At least on this score.

Unnecessarily harming her, the university’s reputation

Mazibuko complains that the reportage has harmed her reputation and that of the university.

The editor replies that the “poor reflection” on Mazibuko and the university was “by no means attributable to the reporter” – with or without the journalist, these allegations were still being made by the protestors. Savides adds that, while there is no need for any retraction or apology, the newspaper was willing to publish a “correct version of the events” – which it did on December 9 under the headline Unizulu refutes allegations.

Mazibuko replies that the follow-up story “some weeks later without the same publicity afforded to the disputed report hardly offers relief”. (emphasis added)

While I have little doubt that the story did Mazibuko and the university some harm, I am not convinced that – from a journalistic point of view – this harm was unfair or unnecessary. I am also satisfied that the follow-up story should have gone a far way to offer the relief that the Vice-Chancellor is seeking.

Conclusion

I believe that the journalist adhered to the relevant Sections of the Press Code (2.4, which asks for verification, as well as 2.5, which requires an effort to get comment prior to publication). I also quote Section 4.2 and 4.2.4 in this regard: “The press shall exercise care and consideration in matters involving dignity and reputation. The dignity and reputation of an individual should be only overridden [if]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.”

The publication adhered to these requirements.

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 Adjudication Panel, Judge Bernard Ngoepe, fully setting out the grounds of appeal. He can be contacted at Khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.

Johan Retief

Press Ombudsman