Hlaudi Motsoeneng vs Sunday Independent

Compliant: Hlaudi Motsoeneng

Lodged by: Hlaudi Motsoeneng

Article:  SABC boss furore – Zuma man set for top SABC post, and he has no matric certificate (front page, January 29); Furore at SABC over COO appointment Critics say chairperson is pushing Hlaudi Motsoeneng, who is not qualified, into the COO position despite a court interdict (page 5, February 5); and Ngubane’s leadership deserves likes of Motsoeneng (editorial,page 16, February 5).

Author of article: 

Date: 17 April 2012

Respondent: Sunday Independent

COMPLAINT

Acting SABC COO Hlaudi Motsoeneng complains about two stories (both written by Moffet Mofokeng) and an editorial in the Sunday Independent, published on 29 January and 5 February 2012 respectively.

These were headlined:
  • SABC boss furore – Zuma man set for top SABC post, and he has no matric certificate (front page, January 29);
  • Furore at SABC over COO appointment Critics say chairperson is pushing Hlaudi Motsoeneng, who is not qualified, into the COO position despite a court interdict (page 5, February 5); and
  • Ngubane’s leadership deserves likes of Motsoeneng (editorial,page 16, February 5).
The first story

Motsoeneng complains the story falsely states that:

  • he has lied about having a matric certificate;
  • he has reached his position at the SABC as a result of political connections (being an ANC “deployee”); and
  • the move (to appoint him as acting COO) “has plunged workers in the financially struggling organization into panic”.

He also says that an incorrect picture was used.

The second story

Motsoeneng complains that the following statements are untrue, namely that he:

  • was promoted three times in a year;
  • attended board meetings despite not being authorized to so do; and
  • was sacked (for allegedly forging his matric certificate).

He adds that the story put words into CEO Lulama Mokhobo’s mouth.

The editorial

The gist of Motsoeneng’s complaint regarding the editorial is that it perpetuates the above-mentioned “inaccuracies” and that it bases its conclusions on falsehoods.

ANALYSIS

The first story says that a “top supporter” of President Jacob Zuma (Motsoeneng) was set to land the R2 million job as the SABC’s COO – without a matric certificate or top management experience. Mofokeng also writes that Motsoeneng was fingered by an internal SABC audit probe as having lied about possessing a matric certificate when he applied for a position at the SABC’s Bloemfontein’s office several years ago. The story adds that the SABC advertised the position of COO internally, that members of staff were only given three working days to apply, and that matric was not a requirement for the post.

The second story relates that senior SABC managers asked questions after “revelations” that the SABC’s board tried to “parachute” Motsoeneng into the position of COO permanently “despite a court interdict stopping the board from making the appointment” (the history behind this statement is not relevant to this complaint, which is in any case not disputed by Motsoeneng). Mofokeng repeats a few statements garnered from his first story. The journalist adds that allegations about Motsoeneng having lied about his education were well known, that the latter got promoted three times in a year, and that he was sacked for allegedly forging his matric certificate.

The editorial criticizes SABC chairman Ben Ngubane for trying to justify Motsoeneng’s possible appointment as COO. In this process, the editor calls Motsoeneng a “dodgy employee who has lied about his qualifications”, and says that the latter was fired for lying that he has passed matric (amongst other things).

I shall now look at the merits of the complaint:

The first story

Lying about having a matric certificate

The sentence in dispute says that Motsoeneng was “fingered by an SABC internal audit as having lied about having a matric certificate when he applied for a position at the broadcaster’s Bloemfontein office several years ago”. (The second story repeats this statement. It reads that he was fired “because he had lied that he had passed matric and was in possession of an undergraduate qualification – a requirement for that position”.)

Motsoeneng denies that he has lied about his matric qualification. He says that a “real effort” was made in 2006 and 2007 to get rid of him, but that he was never charged for lying about his matric. He adds that the newspaper’s information was probably “part of the desperate effort in 2006 to find charges to level against me”. He complains that the newspaper nevertheless published the allegation as though it was a fact. He adds that the allegation in question was “neither verified nor sourced”. He argues that, even if SABC employees claimed that they were afraid to go on record, the reporter could easily have verified this allegation with his former employees and colleagues.

I asked Sunday Independent for documentary proof to show that Motsoeneng submitted documents to the SABC in which he reflected and/or created the impression that he has a matric certificate.

The newspaper did just that.  In a letter by Ms Mari Swanepoel, HR Administrator of Radio News in Bloemfontein (dated 5 September 2000), she states that Motsoeneng did not hand in a matric certificate. He went to Pretoria “to see if he can get a matric certificate to combine his symbols”. She writes: “He informed me on the date of appointment that he was not sure of the symbols of his subjects and I informed him that it was fine.”

On an SABC Application for Employment form, however, Motsoeneng states his highest standard pass was “10”, which he says he obtained in 1991. His symbols are four Es and an F.

Based on this document, I cannot fault the newspaper on its reportage on this matter.

Position resulting from political connections

The story describes Motsoeneng as a “top supporter” of Zuma and calls the former “essentially an ANC deployee at the SABC”. (The second story repeats this last statement.) The suggestion is that he is in line for the job because of his political affiliations.

Motsoeneng denies that he is a political deployee – he says that he is “an experienced broadcaster with an acute understanding of the need for a public broadcaster to be available to all sectors of the public in the country and for news to be both independent and credible”. He adds that he fought his own battles in 2006 and enjoyed no support from any political party, nor did he seek that.

Sunday Independent says that Motsoeneng’s political influence (read: ANC) “is a matter of public knowledge”. The newspaper adds that Motsoeneng gloats about this to his own colleagues, and that he never disputed the Communication Workers Union’s claim that he used Zuma’s name to “terrorise” them.

I have done an internet search on this issue, and have discovered that many newspapers describe Motsoeneng as a Zuma loyalist. It seems that the newspaper is correct when it says that this issue is indeed a matter of public knowledge.

I realize, though, that the mere repetition of a statement does not make it right or wrong.

While I am in no position pronounce judgment on the merits or demerits of this matter, my first question is if it was reasonable for the newspaper to have called Motsoeneng a top Zuma supporter.

I conclude that a perception about Motsoeneng being a Zuma loyalist does exist and I therefore cannot fault the newspaper for its reportage on this matter.

The question now is if the newspaper was justified in calling Motsoeneng an ANC deployee based on his alleged support for Zuma.

I asked the newspaper about this, and it said that the story uses the word loosely and within a contextualized political lexicon “wherein such reference…is not strictly confined to the detonative meaning of the word”. The publication says that it may have used a lesser toned description, but argues that the intended meaning remains – that Motsoeneng’s use of political connections “enable politicians to rely on him to influence (whether successful or not) processes at the SABC”.

It is in order for a journalist to write that somebody is an ANC deployee in a column (if that journalist has taken all relevant facts into account). That reporter does not have to be right – as long as his/her opinion is based on all relevant facts and is expressed honestly and not maliciously.

However, a news story is a different kettle of fish (like the one in question) – a reporter must be able to prove whatever statement s/he makes, or at least ascribe it to a source. A statement without a proven basis is a big journalistic no-no in a news story. In this instance Mofokeng states it as a fact (the truth) that Motsoeneng is a deployed ANC cadre – but without substantiating it as he should have (save for calling him a top supporter of Zuma which, of course, does not necessarily mean that Motsoeneng was indeed deployed by the ANC).

Mofokeng should have left it to the readers to draw their own conclusions after he told the readers about Motsoeneng being a top Zuma supporter.

An unsubstantiated statement such as this one has the potential to do the subject of reportage unnecessary harm (as it casts a shadow of doubt over Motsoeneng’s integrity) – a situation that the Preamble to the Press Code warns about.

Plunging workers into panic

The sentence in dispute reads: “The move has plunged workers in the financially struggling organization into panic, asking how a person without an undergraduate qualification could be second in command of an organization with a R4.7 billion turnover.”

Motsoeneng denies that there was any panic. He says that, as far as he is aware, by far the majority of SABC workers who know him also support him. He says while the SABC might be struggling financially, he has been “important in stemming losses and fruitless expenditure”. He adds that he was recently applauded by attendees at a national staff meeting after having addressed them. He says: “I do not know what that really means but it certainly does not show panic.”

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

I have looked at some definitions of the word “panic”. Common to most/all of them seems to be the following: “To react with extreme fear or anxiety to a situation.”

Admittedly I am not an SABC insider, but I certainly think that the use of the word “panic” is an exaggeration. “Panic”, “extreme fear” and “extreme anxiety” are rather strong words.

Incorrect picture used

A picture of Justice Ndaba was erroneously used, with Motsoeneng’s name in the caption.

Motsoeneng complains about this, and (correctly) adds that the newspaper did apologise – but to Ndaba, and not to him.

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

The apology should have been to both parties.

The second story

Promoted thrice a year

The disputed phrase reads that Motsoeneng “got promoted three times in a year” when allegations about him lying about his education were well known. The story also quotes an anonymous source to this effect.

Motsoeneng complains that it is not true that he got promoted three times in a year. He says that he was promoted in 2010 and appointed Acting COO in 2011. He argues: “This is not a promotion as it is an acting position.”

The newspaper disagrees. It says that Motsoeneng was appointed Group Executive: Board and Stakeholder Relations in February 2011, Acting COO in November 2011, and Acting CEO in January 2012. It argues that acting positions are executive position appointments, which are subject to high level approval.

This is a matter of interpretation. The fact of the matter is that the newspaper does not state it as a fact that Motsoeneng got promoted three times in a year – the phrase is ascribed to a source. Surely, that source had a right to his/her opinion.

Attending board meetings without authorisation

The story says that Motsoeneng attended board meetings as the general manager “despite not being authorized to do so”.

Motsoening denies that this is true. He says the board passed a resolution in 2011, authorizing him to attend board meetings due to the nature of his job “as Group Executive Stakeholder and Board Relations”.

The newspaper says that it relied on the board rules and a single source (a board member). However, it states: “We are prepared to concede on this one because the board can, from time to time, invite non-members to attend its meetings.

Sacked

The story says that Motsoeneng was “sacked for allegedly forging his matric certificate” (when at Lesedi FM in 1999).

Motsoeneng denies that he was sacked (in 1999). He says that he became Executive Producer for Lesedi Current Affairs in 2003. “After a fall-out with one or two members of News management, I was charged and dismissed but re-instated after an appeals process.” He adds that “forging of a matric certificate” did not even appear on the charge sheet “despite the exhaustive search for reasons to fire me”.

Sunday Independent argues that Motsoeneng himself admits that he was “charged and dismissed but reinstated after an appeals process”. (emphasis added)

If Motsoeneng himself says that he was “dismissed”, as he does, he should not blame the newspaper for using the word “sacked” – even though he was re-instated.

Putting words into Mokhobo’s mouth

The story says that CEO Lulama Mokhobo “allegedly told staff at the SABC she ‘did not see why Hlaudi cannot be appointed because he has shown himself to be capable’.”

Motsoeneng complains that the newspaper quoted Mokhobo even though no reporter was present at the meeting. Besides, he continues, the quote was denied by Mr Kaizer Kganyago in the story – “yet nevertheless still appears in quotation marks, attributed to her, albeit with the weak disclaimer ‘allegedly’.” He argues that to put words into someone’s mouth “must be one of the worst ethical breaches of journalism possible” as it undermines the newspaper’s credibility and harms the person whose words are effectively invented.

Sunday Independent says that its reporter spoke to two staff members, independent of each other, who attended the meeting.

It states: “Given that this was an internal closed session meeting, it is possible that our sources’ and Kganyago’s interpretation of Mkhobo’s address could be different. This happens quite often with such closed meetings, especially where there are internal tensions and divisions. The ANC’s national executive committee meetings are a good example, wherein the same sentence could be interpreted differently (with a spin) by different factions.”

The newspaper adds that, since its sources were independent of each other, it would have been difficult if not impossible for them to fabricate a part of Mokhobo’s address. “We however accept that it is plausible that their interpretation could be different to that of Mr Kganyago.”

I have no reason to disbelieve the newspaper on this issue and I find its explanation reasonable.

The editorial

The parts of the editorial that Motsoeneng specifically complains about are that he:

  • was a dodgy employee who has lied about his qualifications;
  • was fired because he had lied about his matric qualification; and
  • twice tried to pass matric.

Motsoeneng complains that the editorial was malicious and did not take fair account of available facts; instead, it relied on untruths. He says that the editor is entitled to his opinion, “but not when it is based on inaccuracies, anonymous sources and rumours”. He adds that when serious allegations are consistently made, an editor should query those sources and ask what their interests are in discrediting particular people.

Based on the documentation that contains the reference to his highest qualification as being standard 10, together with symbols for each subject, as well as the fact that Motsoeneng himself admits that he was dismissed, I do not think that the editor was unreasonable in stating that he has lied about his qualifications and that he was fired because of that.

Of course, this is not to say that I accept that it is true.

The statement that Motsoeneng twice tried to pass matric may or may not be false. However, I do not think that this is material to the complaint.

FINDING
The first story

Lying about having a matric certificate

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

Position resulting from political connections

In the absence of proof and the lack of attribution, I cannot accept that the statement in question is accurate. It is also not fair to Motsoeneng as it casts a shadow of doubt over his integrity – and it has the potential to cause him unnecessary harm. This is in breach of Art. 1.1 of the Press Code that states: “The press shall be obliged to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly.”

Plunging workers into panic

The use of the phrase “the move has plunged workers…into panic” is an exaggeration and in breach of Art. 1.2 of the Press Code that states: “News shall be presented in context and in a balanced manner, without any intentional or negligent departure from the facts whether by…exaggeration…”

Incorrect picture used

The use of Justice Ndaba’s picture instead of Motsoeneng’s was inaccurate and in breach of Art. 1.1 of the Press Code that says: “The press shall be obliged to report news…accurately…”

The second story

Promoted thrice a year

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

Attending board meetings without authorisation

The statement of fact that Motsoeneng attended board meetings as the general manager “despite not being authorized to do so” is inaccurate. This is in breach of Art. 1.1 of the Press Code that states: “The press shall be obliged to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly.”

Sacked
This part of the complaint is dismissed.

Putting words into Mokhobo’s mouth

This part of the complaint is dismissed.
The editorial
This part of the complaint is dismissed.
SANCTION
Sunday Independent is directed to apologise to Motsoeneng for:
  • calling him an ANC deployee (implying that his position resulted from political connections and potentially causing him unnecessary harm by casting a shadow over his integrity); and
  • using Justice Ndaba’s picture instead of his.
The newspaper is also reprimanded for:
  • exaggerating the effect of Motsoeneng’s appointment in that it has reportedly plunged SABC workers “into panic”; and
  • inaccurately stating that Motsoeneng attended board meetings as the general manager “despite not being authorized to do so”.

The publication is directed to publish the following text on its front page (as it most serious offence also occurred on the front page) on either April 29 or May 6 (if there is no appeal):

Sunday Independent apologises to Acting COO of the SABC Hlaudi Motsoeneng for calling him an ANC deployee, implying that his position resulted from political connections and potentially causing him unnecessary harm by casting a shadow over his integrity.

We also apologise to him for using Justice Ndaba’s picture instead of his.

This comes after Motsoeneng lodged a complaint with the office of the Press Ombudsman regarding two stories (published on 29 January and 5 February this year) that were about him being in line for a top SABC post without matric to his name.

Deputy Press Ombudsman Johan Retief directed us to apologise, and also reprimanded us for exaggerating the effect of Motsoeneng’s possible appointment in that it has reportedly plunged SABC workers “into panic”, and for inaccurately stating that Motsoeneng attended board meetings as the general manager “despite not being authorized to do so”.

Motsoeneng also complained that he did not lie about having a matric certificate when he applied for a post at a radio station in Bloemfontein, that he was not sacked, that he was not promoted three times in one year (February 2011 to January 2012), that the journalist put words into CEO Lulama Mokhobo’s mouth, and about an editorial (published February 5).

Retief dismissed all of these complaints.

Visit www.presscouncil.org.za (rulings, 2012) for the full finding.

End of text
APPEAL

Please note that our Complaints Procedures lay down that within seven days of receipt of this decision, either party 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 contacted at Khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.

Johan Retief
Deputy Press Ombudsman

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