Lakela Kaunda vs Mail & Guardian

Complainant: Lakela Kaunda

Article: Presidency crisis – what crisis?

Date: 18 August 2010

Respondent: Mail & Guardian

Complaint
Ms Lakela Kaunda complains about a story in the Mail & Guardian, published on July 9, 2010 and headlined Presidency crisis – what crisis?
The complaint is twofold:
  • The following blurb is said to be inaccurate: The Union Buildings was rocked this week by the resignation of several staff members in the communications department…; and
  • The illustration/pictures accompanying the story unfairly suggest that Kaunda forces people to resign or, alternatively, that she makes their lives unbearable.
Analysis
The story is about two resignations from Zuma’s office. The reporter, Mandy Rossouw, asked the President’s office what it makes of allegations that the head of the private office (Kaunda) played a role in prompting people to resign; she also wanted to know if the resignations reflect on Zuma’s leadership. Presidential communications advisor Zizi Kodwa is quoted as saying that the media have blown the resignations out of proportion. Kodwa reportedly denies that there is a crisis – hence the headline.
We shall now consider the merits of the complaint:
‘Several’ resignations
The complaint is that the word “several” is inaccurate, as there were only two resignations. Besides, Kaunda says these resignations both were “innocent” (my choice of word) – Vincent Magwenya had indicated that the public service is not for him; and Steyn Speed has already a year ago said that he was not staying for longer than a year because he wanted to study. Kaunda says several other people did not resign, but were in fact redeployed.
The M&G says the story itself mentions a third person (Vusi Mona) who was to move to the Government Communication and Information Systems. The newspaper adds that Government has since announced that presidential advisor Mandisi Mpahlwa has been appointed ambassador to Russia, and that former operations chief Jesse Duarte had already quit. The newspaper says it has 7 senior sources on this issue who said that Kaunda’s management style was a major factor in these departures.
Kaunda is correct – the story mentions only “resignations” and not any “redeployments”. I am sure that, in hindsight, the newspaper would agree that it should have added that the Union Buildings was rocked by “the resignation and (possible) redeployment of several staff members”. That, according to the M&G’s own defence, would have been more accurate.
The question now is whether or not the newspaper was justified in using the word “several”. The M&G admits that the use of the word “several” implies at least more than two, but not many (according to the Oxford English Dictionary).
Yes, the story mentions only two resignations. But the pictures of who is “in” and who is “out” also have to come into play. Six of those pictures are headlined Out. Of these, at least one of them, Jesse Duarte, did in fact resign.
The use of the word “several” therefore becomes justified.
Illustration/pictures
The graphics is headlined Clean-out at the Presidency – Who’s in and who’s out. It has 8 pictures, including Kaunda, Duarte, Magwenya and Speed. A woman’s foot (which must represent that of Kauna, as the graphics state that she is in charge) is stepping on a half-open dustbin. The insinuation is clear: Kaunda may be responsible for the “spate of resignations” (quoting from the story).
Kaunda denies that she forced people to resign or that she made their lives unbearable. This, Kaunda says, is unfair and harmful to her reputation. The M&G clearly thinks, she continues, that she runs the whole institution. She points out that only two people (Magwenya and Speed) report to her. She adds that the M&G’s seven sources misled the newspaper – who “…definitely did not independently verify the gossip it received from its sources.” She adds: “What…the seven sources said cannot be sufficient.”
The M&G argues that it has not implied that Kaunda effected the resignations as a line manager, but that her leadership style caused or substantially contributed to the resignations. The newspaper adds that “…this was put to us by those who resigned and other presidency sources…”
It is normal journalistic practice to verify the information a source gives a newspaper, especially if it is an unnamed one. If this cannot be done, the story should state that fact (Art. 1.4 of the Press Code). In this instance, the newspaper says it has 7 sources. Kaunda’s statement that 7 sources are not sufficient cannot be correct – the likelihood that at least two of these are independent is too much of a (reasonable) possibility.
This leaves us with three possibilities. Either:
  • It is true that (all of) these sources indicated that Kaunda’s style of leadership has been a contributing factor in their resignation or redeployment. Kaunda may have a different view on this matter (which she, of course, is entitled to), but that does not change the testimony of seven sources; or
  • The sources lied. This implies that they have conspired to put the blame on Kaunda as they all told the newspaper the same story; or
  • The M&G lied (sucking the so-called information out of its thumb). Yet even Kaunda herself does not suggest that this may be the case – according to her the newspaper was misled.
The first possibility mentioned above is the only logical and reasonable conclusion to come to.
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