Madibeng Local Municipality vs Madibeng Times

Complainant: Madibeng Local Municipality

Lodged by: Monde Juta

Article: Where is the rest of the Bridge?

Date: 1 July 2015

Respondent: Russel De Beer, director of the Madibeng Times

Complaint

Madibeng Local Municipality is complaining about several stories in the Madibeng Times of 28 May 2015 – an article on the front page, headlined Where is the rest of the Bridge?; and stories on page 3 (Water and Sanitation report in Madibeng and Youth unemployment destroying Madibeng Youth), page 4 (Madibeng Public Toilets disgusting), and page 8 (Bring back hanging).

The municipality complains that the newspaper’s reportage was prejudicial, untruthful, inaccurate, out of context, presenting opinion as fact, and unfair by accusing it of failing the community for not repairing broken bridges in Hebron and Klipgat – despite its explanation that the bridges were not its responsibility, but rather that of Public Works (the provincial government).

It adds that the story on page 8 was advocating propaganda, and sought to incite violence against the municipality.

The texts

The front-page story alleged that tenderpreneurship in Madibeng has become a liability to the community, and focused on a partly built bridge – “[it]has been left incomplete by the contractor for years now and it seems no one cares for the residents, including the municipality”.

The first story on page 3 said the municipality’s infrastructure was out of date, resulting in poor water quality and sanitation services; the second was about unemployment in the area.

The text on page 4 reported that some public toilets were in such a bad state that not even dogs would use them.

The last article recorded the views of members of the public on the effectiveness of the municipality. Some people reportedly said that especially the senior members of staff “[d]eserved to be chopped into many pieces and thrown into the Lion’s den, while others said they should be stoned to death and feel the pains that (the community) are feeling”. The journalist added, “[the]question (at a meeting) was, ‘should the government bring back the death sentence for corrupt officials at the Local Municipality of Madibeng? If so, should these corrupt officials be stoned, hanged or promoted to do more corruption?”

The arguments

De Beer denies that the articles were unethical and in breach of the Press Code.

He argues the front-page story was factual, not an opinion, and claims that the municipality should take full responsibility for the poor state of affairs as described above. “According to the Provincial and Local Government responsibilities Chapter 7, Local Government is responsible for water and sanitation, electricity reticulation, refusal (sic) removal, storm water management and municipal transport and roads.”

The director says the first article on page 3 was about a municipal report, and the second merely dealt with unemployment.

De Beer adds that the story on page 4 was the talk of the century, and the newspaper tried to get comment from the municipality – but that was in vain.

He says the article on page 8 was a polling exercise to evaluate the public’s views on the performance of the municipality. He adds that a number of protest marches were held about poor service provision, during which people were killed by the police. “This clearly answers why the majority (86%) voted that the politicians and officials in Madibeng should be hanged.”

He attached the following documents:

·         The Municipal Status Quo Report focus on Water Services issued on the 21st of April 2015;

·         The Presentation on Section 139 (1) (b) Intervention in Madibeng Local Municipality to the NCOP Select Committee on Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs; and

·         Chapter 7 of the Provincial and Local Government responsibilities.

With reference to the front-page story, Juta says it is unfortunate that the editor of the publication is unable to distinguish an opinion from a fact. He refers to statements that the municipality considers the population only towards the elections and that it is run like a private business. “This is an opinion of Madibeng Times, it does not constitute a fact…”

He says the documents provided by De Beer were irrelevant. “If you go through the entire (first) article, not a single paragraph is responding fairly, accurately nor honestly. The article is effortlessly contained with lies and it fails to conform to the basic ethical standards the editor claims to subscribe to.”

Juta emphasizes that the bridge in question remains the responsibility of the provincial government. “These roads have not been proclaimed to be the municipal roads, and in terms of chapter 7 of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa read in conjunction with chapter 3 of Municipal Systems Act, No.32 of 2000 and chapter 5 functions and powers of Municipal Structures Act, No 117 0f 1998, you will note that the publication does not understand the operations of government and they resort to malicious reporting with a view to tarnish the reputation of the municipality.”

He adds that De Beer falsely alleges that the municipality’s communications manager failed to respond to the newspaper’s enquiries – while, on the contrary, the publication raises questions with the municipality and ignores the responses, “while they prefer to respond to themselves”.

My considerations

The front-page story

This is the only report on page 1, and is supposed to present (hard) news – and yet, the opinion of the writer consistently came to the fore. For example, the journalist wrote about “our biggest concern”; “we want to know”; “I doubt this is beyond being prioritized”; “we are now living under a new form of oppression”; “how pathetic is that!”; and, “our municipality is so useless that they cannot even do proper monitoring”.

The story teemed with opinion – the journalist quoted himself or herself.

This is not to say that the reporter’s opinions were wrong – for all I know, they could have been correct. But that is not the point. News and opinion were blurred, and the Press Code is quite clear about that. Reporting should strive for objectivity (100% objectivity remains the goal, albeit, of course, idealistically so).

Please note that it is not my job to establish whether the reporter’s opinions were right or wrong – this office is not an investigative one. My sole concern is with the ethical quality of the text, and whether or not it was in breach of the Press Code. In other words, I am not investigating the municipality, just the journalism.

This further means that, while I have little doubt that this story did the municipality some harm, I am not able to determine whether this harm was unnecessary or not.

I need to state, though, that this type of “reporting” erodes the credibility of both the newspaper and the journalist.

The articles on page 3

The municipality was not clear on which of the two stories it was complaining about and on exactly what the complaint was. I am therefore not in a position to adjudicate this part of the complaint.

The story on page 4

This story suffers from the same flaws as the front-page lead.

Here is just one example: “Today once again Madibeng is deliberately killing business in the CBD by preventing the population access to the public toilets.”

If the journalist spoke to, say, the chairman of the local chamber of business, who then made such a statement, it would have been in order to report it – in this case, though, the reporter presented his or her own views as fact.

I also wonder why Madibeng would “deliberately” kill business in the CBD.

The article on page 8

I have little doubt that this story had the potential to cause people huge personal harm – putting it mildly.

In law, it is said that the repetition of defamation is also defamation. Applied to media ethics, this means that we cannot publish an allegation just because someone made it – it has to be reasonably true, and not unnecessarily harmful to somebody else.

Applied to this story, I firmly believe that it was irresponsible, to the extreme, of the newspaper to publish that 86% of all interviewees believed that corrupt municipal officials should be hanged, stoned, or alternatively chopped to pieces – especially given what already seems to be a volatile situation.

The headline did nothing to soften this matter.

Has the newspaper ever considered its own responsibility in the event that someone, or a gathering of people, kills a municipal official? While I do not think that Madibeng Times deliberately tried to incite violence, its actions (still) may have such an effect, and that should have persuaded the newspaper not to publish the story.

Finding

The front-page story

The story is in breach of Section 7.2 of the Press Code: “Comment by the press shall be presented in such manner that it appears clearly that it is comment…”

Articles on page 3

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

Story on page 4

The story is in breach of Section 7.2 of the Press Code: “Comment by the press shall be presented in such manner that it appears clearly that it is comment…”

Article on page 8

This story is in breach of Section 5.2 of the Press Code: “The press has the right and indeed the duty to report and comment on all matters of legitimate public interest. This right and duty must, however, be balanced against the obligation not to publish material that amounts to…incitement of imminent violence…and that constitutes incitement to cause harm”.

Seriousness of breaches

Under the headline Hierarchy of sanctions, Section 8 of our Complaints Procedures distinguishes between minor breaches (Tier 1), serious breaches (Tier 2) and serious misconduct (Tier 3).

Presenting one’s own opinion as fact is a Tier 2 offence; the incitement of violence, whether intentional or not, is a Tier 3 offence.

Sanction

Madibeng Times is directed to admit, on its front page and immediately underneath the masthead, that its story on page 8 had the very real potential to incite violence, and to apologise for it.

This headline should read, “We apologise to Madibeng Municipality” – the full story on page 2.

The story on page 2 should be published at the top of the page. This text should summarise my finding, including all my comments on the page 8 story and my statement that the blurring of news and opinion erodes the credibility of the press.

If these stories were published on a website, the full text should go there as well.

The text should end with the words, “Visit www.presscouncil.org.za for the full finding.”

Both texts (on the front page and on page 2) should be presented to me for approval.

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 Appeals Panel, Judge Bernard Ngoepe, fully setting out the grounds of appeal. He can be contacted at Khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.

Johan Retief

Press Ombudsman