Ismail Ayob vs Sunday Times

Complainant: Ismail Ayob

Article: oburg to force sale of Mandela building and sub-headlined Former law office worth less than half what owner wants,                     says city.

Date: 03 September 2010

Respondent: Sunday Times

Complaint
Mr Ismael Ayob complains about a story in Sunday Times, published on March 28 2010, headlined Joburg to force sale of Mandela building and sub-headlined Former law office worth less than half what owner wants, says city.
The complaint centers around the following passage in the story:
“In 2007 Ayob – who was (Mr Nelson) Mandela’s lawyer – was accused of disbursing R2.2-million from the Nelson Mandela Trust without consulting other trustees. He was removed as a trustee in 2005 after a court battle over the unauthorized sale of Mandela-themed artworks. Ayob also made claims that Mandela refused to pay taxes and approved the dodgy documents. The row came to an end in 2007 after Ayob agreed to pay back part of the R2.2-million.”
Ayob says that:
  • the section in dispute was gratuitous;
  • the passage was published without him having an opportunity to comment;
  • Sunday Times denied him his request to a right of reply; and
  • the newspaper is in contempt of an earlier ruling by the Press Ombudsman.
Analysis
The article tells the story of the planned expropriation of Chancellor House (where Mr Oliver Tambo and Mandela had their legal offices in the 1950s) by the City of Johannesburg. It is stated that the owner says that the building is worth R800 000, while the city maintains that the market value is R350 000. Ayob, the owner’s lawyer, was reportedly up in arms about the matter, calling the offer (of R350 000) “unreasonable” and saying that he had not been informed of the city’s plan to proceed with the expropriation.
It is within this context that the passage in dispute (cited above) appears.
We shall now consider the merits of the complaint:
Gratuitous
Ayob says the mentioning of the fact that he was accused of disbursing R2.2-million from the Nelson Mandela Trust without consulting other trustees was gratuitous.
In its defense Sunday Times says the disputed passage is “interesting to our readers” and that there is “no reasonable or valid reason why we should desist from sharing it with them”. The newspaper says the passage contains “statement of facts in public domain”.
It must be said that there is a difference between “interesting to the public” and “in the public’s interest”. However, even though Ayob is probably correct in calling the passage in question gratuitous (“interesting to the public”), what was written is true – and as such it cannot be found to be in breach of the Press Code.
No opportunity to comment
Ayob says Sunday Times did not give him an opportunity to comment.
The newspaper does not respond to this part of the complaint. It needn’t have – it is under no obligation to ask a subject of its reportage for comment when merely providing background information (albeit gratuitous).
Request to right of reply denied
After the story in dispute was published Ayob asked the newspaper for a right of reply – a request which he says the newspaper ignored.
Sunday Times again does not respond to this section of the complaint.
It may be considered as reasonable for the newspaper not to grant Ayob’s request to a right of reply, given:
  • the decision that Sunday Times was under no obligation to ask Ayob for comment about background information; and
  • the fact that the disputed passage indeed contains “statement of facts in public domain”.
In contempt of an earlier ruling by the Press Ombudsman
The earlier finding by the Press Ombudsman that Ayob refers to went mostly in favour of the newspaper. However, Sunday Times was reprimanded for not publishing Ayob’s explanation (in his affidavit) what the money was paid out for. That omission was found to be unbalanced and therefore unfair.
The newspaper says that it has “…avoided repeating the offence by excluding the one-sided detail and stating a bald fact”. It ads that there was no need to list amounts of money paid out by him because it is stated in the story that the row came to and end after Ayob agreed to pay back part of the R2.2-million. “Any reasonable reader would infer that if the money had not been repaid, the spat would have continued.”
This argument is reasonable – the matter was settled and there was no need to repeat the detail of that story.
Finding
 
The complaint is dismissed in its entirety.
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