KwaDukuza Municipality vs North Coast Courier and iLembe Eyethu

Complainant: KwaDukuza Municipality

Lodged by: Sifiso Zulu

Article: Angry community promised houses. This story was announced on the front page, headlined We want houses – MEC forced to intervene in housing protest

Author of article: Jodi van Wyk and Nokuthula Ntuli

Date: 24 February 2014

Respondent: North Coast Courier and iLembe Eyethu

COMPLAINT

First story

The KwaDukuza Municipality (KM) complains about a story that appeared on page 2 in North Coast Courier on 16 August 2013, headlined Angry community promised houses. This story was announced on the front page, headlined We want houses – MEC forced to intervene in housing protest. The main picture on page 1 was about residents of Etete, “barricading the R102 and the railway and preventing commuters and school pupils from going to work and school”.

A similar article was published in iLembe Eyethu (a sister publication of the Courier) on the front page on the same day, headlined Ilanyulwe ungqongqoshe eyasethethe. Two related pictures accompanied this story.

Second story

KM also complains about a follow-up story on page 6 in the Courier, dated 30 August 2013 and headlined Dube Village residents copycat services protest.

Complaint, in general

KM complains (details below) that these stories misrepresented the facts and reported unfairly on protest action against poor housing and service delivery that had been held on August 12; it adds that story was deliberately inaccurate and tainted by political considerations.

THE FIRST STORY: Text, arguments

The story in the Courier, written by Jodi van Wyk and Nokuthula Ntuli, said that KZN housing MEC Ravi Pillay had promised “an angry mob of Etete residents” a project of 1 500 houses. These residents reportedly brought the township to a standstill because they were dissatisfied with poor housing and service delivery. The journalists wrote that Pillay’s intervention came after an emergency visit from KM mayor Ricardo Mthembu that “left residents dissatisfied, resulting in them allegedly going into a private property and setting a car alight”. The mayor reportedly felt unsafe as people threatened to overturn his car and break the windows if he refused to address them.

The part in dispute reads: “Mthembu was escorted into the area on Monday under police guard and refused to get out of the police vehicle until his safety could be guaranteed. Residents started to shake the car and threatened to turn it upside down and break the windows if he did not address them.”

Zulu denies that the mayor boarded a police vehicle on that particular day, nor was the mayor’s vehicle or that of the police touched or shaken by anybody. He argues, “It only serves to paint a picture of a head of an institution who is not accepted by the community he serves.” He adds that the story was deliberately inaccurate and “tainted by political considerations”.

Stephenson said (on November 28) that many members of the community confirmed the newspaper’s story, but they were afraid to give their names for fear of reprisal. However, he did obtain sworn statement from four eye-witnesses (and asks this office not to reveal their names to KM) who substantiated the story.

On his part, Zulu also provides me with sworn affidavits (on January 31), all of which contradict the above.

On February 7 Stephenson explains that the protests took place over two days (August 12 and 13). He argues that his journalist reported on happenings on August 12, where his sources were present. On that day, the mayor arrived in a white twin double cab, and Pillay was not there.

Zulu’s eye-witnesses, however, reported that Mthembu had arrived in a silver Mercedes and that the MEC attended the meeting. This took place on August 13.

The editor says that, clearly, Ntuli’s story was about what had happened on August 12 (as supported by her eye-witnesses), while Zulu and his sources referred to August 13.

“I would suggest that the complainant and his witnesses are confusing the events of the two days. They are testifying to the events of Tuesday, August 13. My reporter wrote about the events of Monday, August 12.”

He concedes, though, that the vehicle (the white double cab) was not police property. “My reporter took it for a police vehicle as it arrived in a group of police vehicles, including similar double cabs carrying policemen. We will concede that it may not have been police property.”

Stephenson categorically rejects the accusation that the story was intended to harm the mayor. “It would serve no benefit to the credibility of the newspaper to fabricate news reports.”

Zulu does not materially respond to this explanation, but merely says: “I have noted the remarks by Mr Stephenson.”

My considerations

So: I have a group of eye-witnesses testifying that the reporting was correct, and another swearing that it was incorrect.

This leaves me with the following “academic” possibilities:

  • Both parties are wrong – but common sense dictates that this is highly unlikely;
  • One party is correct and the other not – but this is problematic as well, as it is unlikely (not impossible, though) that a group of eye-witnesses would lie under oath; or
  • Both parties are correct – which seems contradictory, but not so if the one group focused on August 12, and the other on the following day.

Although the story started with Pillay’s promise to the crowd (which apparently happened on August 13), I note that the passage in dispute specifically mentioned “Monday” (August 12). I also take into account that Zulu merely noted the editor’s explanation to this effect, and did not contest it.

Based on my arguments, I submit that it is reasonable to opt for the third “academic” possibility mentioned above, and to accept Stephenson’s explanation – which means that I believe the story was essentially correct.

Having decided this, it follows that I do not believe that the publication intended to harm the mayor, nor do I think that there was a political agenda behind the reporting.

The mistake about the mayor having been in a police vehicle was understandable, taking the reasons for this error into account. However, it remains a fault which needs to be corrected.

THE SECOND STORY: Text, arguments

This story, also authored by Jodi van Wyk, said that Dube residents “followed suit” two weeks after their neighbours (from Etete) had protested about poor housing and service delivery.

In the second part of this story, van Wyk reported that KM denied that the Courier’s first story had been accurate (see the complaint above). The story then stated: “However, Courier journalist Nokuthula Ntuli stands by her story. ‘I was in the crowd when the mayor arrived. [The residents] were angry and surrounded the vehicle, shouting and threatening to turn the white twin cab van upside down if he did not get out. The police moved the crowd to a safe distance. It was only then that Mthembu climbed out and addressed the protesters’.”

Zulu complains that the newspaper repeated its false reporting from two weeks before. He refers to a meeting on August 23 between his department and the Courier. “At this meeting it was clear that there is no proof to support the report”, yet the newspaper “saw it fit to continue peddling this falsehood”. He adds that some prominent provincial and national newspapers also reported on this event, but “none of them carried a report on this alleged incident.”

My considerations

Given my decision that the first story was in the main justified, it follows that this goes for the second story as well.

I also note that this story did not repeat the mistake about the mayor having been in a police vehicle.

FINDING

The complaint is dismissed in its totality, except for the false statement in the first story that the mayor travelled in a police vehicle. This was in breach of Section 1.2 of the Press Code that says: “The press shall take care to report news…accurately…”

SANCTION

The newspapers are cautioned for the mistake mentioned above, and directed to publish a correction to this effect. This text should be furnished to our office prior to publication, ending with the sentence: “Visit www.presscouncil.org.za for the full finding.”

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

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