Julius Malema vs The Citizen

Complainant: Julius Malema
Article: Hawks silent on Malema arrest and ANC Youth League rejects reports on Malema’s arrest
Date: 11 April 2012
Respondent: The Citizen
COMPLAINT

Mr Julius Malema complains about two stories in The Citizen, published on 31 October and 1 November 2011 respectively. The stories were both published on the top of page 3 and were headlined Hawks silent on Malema arrest and ANC Youth League rejects reports on Malema’s arrest.

Regarding the first story, Malema complains the statement(s) that:

  • he “reportedly escaped being arrested by the Special Investigative Unit, the Hawks, when he jetted out to Mauritius for a friend’s wedding” is false, misleading and damaging to him;
  • “the Hawks had reportedly uncovered incriminating evidence of wrongdoing…” was false and came from an anonymous source, without stating such; and
  • the Sunday Independent reported that he had a case to answer, that he was to be arrested by the Hawks and that he was likely to be hauled before a court were unsubstantiated and unverified.

Regarding the second story, Malema complains the statement that a joint investigation by the Hawks and SARS into his financial affairs was “almost complete”, was unsubstantiated and unverified.

ANALYSIS

The first story, written by Musa Mohamed, says that the police remained mum on whether they were on the hunt for Malema “who is cooling his heels in Mauritius” and who “reportedly escaped being arrested by the…Hawks”. This came after Malema “jetted out” to Mauritius to attend a friend’s wedding. Mohamed writes that the police reportedly refused to say if Malema was going to be arrested upon his return.

The second story, authored by Sapa, says that the ANC Youth League denied newspaper reports of Malema facing arrest on charges relating to his financial affairs.

I shall now look at the merits of the complaint:

The first story

‘Reportedly escaped being arrested’

The sentence in dispute reads that Malema “reportedly escaped being arrested by the Special Investigative Unit, the Hawks, when he jetted out to Mauritius for a friend’s wedding after leading the ANC Youth League’s economic freedom march on Friday”.

Malema complains that this statement is false, misleading and damaging to him.

The journalist replies that he largely based his story on an article in the Sunday Independent. Wanting to take the story further, he then contacted the Hawks’ spokesperson, “who promptly refused to confirm or deny whether Malema is to be arrested upon his return to South Africa from Mauritius”. He adds that he knitted this response into his story and used the police’s response as the angle for the article.

Malema responds that a journalist should not rely on what other papers published without verifying unsubstantiated allegations “particularly where such allegations are controversial, defamatory and damaging to the individual”.
I note that:
  • the sentence in dispute is the second one in the story, while the reference to who “reportedly” said that Malema was going to be arrested (namely the Sunday Independent) only follows five paragraphs later. It is therefore not immediately clear who “reportedly” made the allegation in dispute – which could therefore have been confusing to readers; and
  • the words “escaped being arrested” does not appear in the sentence that refers to the Sunday Independent.
When I take both these considerations into account, I conclude that it was not reasonable to expect readers to understand that it was the Sunday Independent that reported that Malema escaped being arrested by jetting out to Mauritius.

But that is not all. I wondered why the journalist did not refer to the words “escaped being arrested” from the Sunday Independent’s story. So I checked the “original” article itself. This is what I found: Nothing. The Sunday Independent’s story does not use the words “escape being arrested” at all, or “escape” for that matter.

Yet the newspaper itself argues that it largely based its story on the one in the Sunday Independent.

If the journalist based it on some other information, he should have stated it. However, I doubt if he did, because of the newspaper’s own argument; I also could not find any other reference to the phrase in dispute on the internet.

I therefore conclude that the journalist sucked the phrase “reportedly escaped being arrested” (by going to Mauritius) out of his thumb – there was no such report.

Moreover, if Malema really “escaped being arrested” or tried to do so, I do not think that he would have returned to South Africa that quickly.

This reportage is:
  • inaccurate – he did not “reportedly” escape being arrested, nor did he (try to) “escape being arrested”; and therefore also
  • down-right unfair.

It could only have caused Malema unnecessary harm.

Uncovering incriminating evidence

Malema disputes the following sentence: “The Hawks had reportedly uncovered incriminating evidence of wrongdoing, including SMSs between Malema and businessmen related to the awarding of tenders to companies with close ties to him in Limpopo.”

He complains that Mohamed should have disclosed to readers that this information was obtained from an anonymous source “so that the veracity of the information would be seen in context”. He says the way that the sentence was worded implies that the Hawks reported this information, which would be untrue and misleading.

The newspaper does not respond to this part of the complaint, save to say that it based its story largely on an article by the Sunday Independent.

I have to say that the practice to base one’s story on another newspaper’s reportage is a rather dangerous one – if the original story was false, all it succeeds in doing is to perpetuate a lie. Especially when a subject of a story can be potentially and wrongfully harmed, the onus is on a publication to independently verify its information.

However, this practice is common and acceptable – as long as it is done responsibly. So my question becomes if the newspaper did use the Sunday Independent’s story responsibly.

These are my considerations:
  • It is not true that the Sunday Independent’s story regarding this specific issue was based on one anonymous source only – the article in question clearly states: “Sources (plural) close to the criminal investigation into Malema (credible) said he faced cases of corruption, fraud and money laundering…”;
  • When seen in isolation, the sentence in dispute can indeed be interpreted that the information comes from the Hawks, as Malema argues;
  • However, this sentence is immediately followed by the reference to story in the Sunday Independent, which makes it reasonable to interpret the information in that context (to mean that the information came from that newspaper, and not from the Hawks); and
  • The statement is indeed factually correct, as the story in the Sunday Independent does quote sources to this effect. (Note that this is not to say that the sources’ information was correct.

Likely to be arrested, appear in a court

The sentence in dispute reads: “The Sunday Independent reported that Malema had a case to answer, that he was to be arrested by the Hawks and was ‘likely to be hauled before a court’.”

Malema complains that this statement is unsubstantiated and unverified.

The newspaper does not respond to this part of the complaint, except to say that it based its story largely on an article by the Sunday Independent.

While Malema may be correct, there still is nothing wrong with the sentence in dispute. It does not say that it is true that Malema was likely to be arrested and hauled before a court; all it says, is that the Sunday Independent reported this information – which is true (whether the information is correct or not).

The second story

Joint investigation into Malema’s financial affairs ‘almost complete’

The statement in dispute reads: “The Times reported yesterday that a joint investigation by the Hawks and the revenue service (Sars) into Malema’s financial affairs was almost complete”.

Malema complains that this statement is unsubstantiated and unverified.

The Citizen replies that this story is from Sapa.

I note that the:
  • statement in dispute is accurate, as The Times did indeed report that information (rightly or wrongly);
  • story does not say that the report from The Times is truthful; and
  • story did come from Sapa – it would leave newspapers in an untenable position if this office expects of them to verify Sapa’s information.
FINDING
The first story

‘Reportedly escaped being arrested’

This sentence was invented by the journalist. It is therefore inaccurate and unfair reportage, causing Malema 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.”

This breach of the Code is unusually serious and completely unacceptable.

This reportage also makes a mockery of the preamble to the Press Code that says: “As journalists, we commit ourselves to the highest standards of excellence, to maintain credibility and keep the trust or readers. This means striving for maximum truth, avoiding unnecessary harm…”

Uncovering incriminating evidence
This part of the complaint is dismissed.

Likely to be arrested, appear in a court

This part of the complaint is dismissed.
The second story

Joint investigation into Malema’s financial affairs ‘almost complete’

This part of the complaint is dismissed.
SANCTION
The Citizen is directed to:
  • apologise to Malema for incorrectly stating that he reportedly escaped being arrested by going to Mauritius and for the unnecessary harm that this has caused him;
  • publish the text below on the very top of page 3;
  • include the word “apologise” or “apology”, as well as Malema’s name in the headline;
  • publish a kicker on its front page which refers to the story on page 3, using the same words mentioned above; and
  • publish this text before the end of April this year, if there is no appeal.
The newspaper is directed to publish the following text:
BEGINNING OF TEXT

The Citizen apologises to former president of the ANC Youth League Julius Malema for inaccurately and unfairly stating that he reportedly escaped being arrested when jetting off to Mauritius to attend a friend’s wedding – thereby causing him unnecessary harm.

This apology comes after Malema lodged a complaint with the Press Ombudsman about two stories that we published on 31 October and 1 November 2011 respectively. The stories were headlined Hawks silent on Malema arrest and ANC Youth League rejects reports on Malema’s arrest.

The first story, written by Musa Mohamed, says that the police remained mum on whether they were on the hunt for Malema “who is cooling his heels in Mauritius” and who “reportedly escaped being arrested by the…Hawks”. The second story, authored by Sapa, reported the ANC Youth League’s denials of reports of Malema facing arrest on charges relating to his financial affairs.

Both stories were published in the context of a “probe” into Malema’s affairs due to his alleged lavish lifestyle.

Deputy Press Ombudsman Johan Retief found the allegation that Malema “reportedly escaped being arrested” was invented by the journalist as it was never “reported”, neither was it true that he “escaped being arrested”. He said this reportage was in breach of the Press Code as it was inaccurate and “down-right” unfair, and that it caused Malema unnecessary harm.

He called this breach “unusually serious and completely unacceptable”, adding that this reportage makes a mockery of the preamble to the Code that says: “As journalists, we commit ourselves to the highest standards of excellence, to maintain credibility and keep the trust or readers. This means striving for maximum truth, avoiding unnecessary harm…”

Retief dismissed two other parts of Malema’s complaint about the first story, as well as the complaint about the second story.

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