Major-General Shadrack Sibiya vs Sunday Times

Complainant: Hawks

Lodged by: Major-General Shadrack Sibiya

Article: Hawks boss link to Sexy Boys gang drugs bust – Gauteng head allegedly took cash from suspects

Date: 13 March 2014

COMPLAINT

Sibiya is complaining about a story published in Sunday Times of 12 January 2014, headlined: Hawks boss link to Sexy Boys gang drugs bust – Gauteng head allegedly took cash from suspects

He complains that:

  • the story falsely stated that he had been in Cape Town during December 2013, that he had received money from gang leaders during that “meeting”, and that he had been connected to a police drug bust in the Mother City;
  • the journalist made use of anonymous sources who were most likely connected to the criminal underworld, and/or to corrupt police officials; and
  • the headline was sensationalist, devoid of truth and misleading.

THE TEXT

The story, written by Pearlie Joubert, stated that a minor drug bust in Cape Town was expected to blow open a link between some of the biggest associations of organised crime, underworld figures (Mr Mark Lifman) and Sibiya. A police bust reportedly linked Lifman to organised criminals smuggling cigarettes and supplying drugs. Joubert wrote that Sibiya had admitted meeting Lifman on a few occasions, but reported that he denied having had any “dealings” with the latter, save for Lifman giving the Hawks information.

The story added that Lifman was linked to a business partner, Mr Jerome “Donkey” Booysen, leader of the Sexy Boys gang (who was said to control the gang’s access to the Cape Flats). SARS reportedly said that Lifman and Booysen were under investigation.

Joubert then reported that two sources with links to this investigation said that Sibiya had met Lifman and Booysen in December in Cape Town – and that the Hawks’ chief had received a large sum of money in exchange for information during this meeting. Sibiya reportedly denied that he had been in Cape Town in December, that he had ever met Booysen, or that he had received anything from Lifman.

THE ARGUMENTS

False statements

The story quoted sources as saying that Sibiya had met Lifman and Booysen in Cape Town during December 2013 and that he had received a large sum of money from Lifman on that occasion in exchange for information. The article, as well as the headline, also connected him with a police drug bust in the Mother City.

Sibiya denies all these claims, and calls them scandalous and defamatory – he says that he holds an important and responsible position and should be beyond reproach.

In general, Sunday Times denies that it was part of any smear campaign against Sibiya.

Visit to Cape Town

Sibiya provided this office with copies of his passport and visa to prove that he was out of the country on the days that he allegedly was in Cape Town (in correspondence with this office, the newspaper says its information pointed to Sibiya being in Cape Town on either December 16 or 17). His visa, allowing him to enter the United States of America, was stamped on December 13, 2013. According to stamps on his passport, he left the country on December 12 and returned on the 24th via Dubai (where he left on December 23).

It follows that he also denies that he received money from Lifman (at least during this alleged meeting). In later correspondence, he asks: If he had received money, why did the sources not report a case of corruption, instead of talking to the media only?

Based on the above, Sibiya challenges the newspaper to prove that he was in Cape Town at the time, his means of travelling to the Mother City, and where he stayed and met the people who were allegedly from the underworld. He also demands from the newspaper to reveal details of this meeting (time and place).

Sunday Times replies that it was not obliged to state the time when and the place where the money had been handed over to Sibiya “and [we]decline to do so now, for fear of revealing our sources”.

Smuts adds that the story did report Sibiya’s denial that he had been in Cape Town, as well as his response on whether or not he knew Lifman.

Drug bust

Sibiya admits that he met Lifman during December 2013 in Johannesburg, but adds that other police officers were present and that the meeting was held for the purpose of receiving information about certain crimes.

He says that Lifman “happened to park” his car outside a building where the SAPS made a drug bust. However, the story did not explain how that fact could have linked him to the bust (as alleged in both the story and the headline). He calls this reporting “wholly irresponsible, negligent, dishonest and unlawful”.

The Sunday Times replies that the link between Sibiya and the drugs bust was through his relationship with Lifman and Booysen. Also, the main headline should be read in conjunction with the sub-heading, which explained “that the link is through his relationships with the suspects”.

Smuts adds that the story did not state or imply that Sibiya was involved in the drug bust. “Instead, it was at pains to explain the link between Mr Lifman and Mr Booysen and the drugs bust, on one hand, and the link between [them]and General Sibiya on the other.”

She also says that Lifman’s car was not parked outside a building, as Sibiya alleges, but rather in the driveway of the house where the bust took place. “We submit it is revealing that General Sibiya seeks to distance Mr Lifman from the drug bust.”

Sources

Sibiya complains that the journalist made use of anonymous sources who were most likely connected to the underworld, and/or to corrupt police officials. He adds that these sources were simply “liars”.

Smuts admits that the newspaper’s sources were anonymous. However: “We do not intend to identify them as they shared information with us on condition that we did not reveal their identities or indeed how they obtained the information.” These sources included a politician, an intelligence officer and an investigation officer attached to an official government institution, all of whom were in senior positions. She adds that these sources were unrelated and independent of each other – and that the newspaper has previously (over a long period of time) obtained reliable information from them.

“We submit that the article was an accurate reflection of the facts. We also submit that we took reasonable steps to verify ahead of publication.”

In later correspondence, the newspaper relies on the Bogoshi judgment (National Media Ltd and Others vs. Bogoshi), which requires that newspapers take reasonable steps to verify information they publish and (in certain instances) to obtain comment from the subject of the story. “Even if the information they publish is subsequently found to be false, the publication of the information will be lawful if these conditions are met.”

Smuts says: “The sources have since confirmed the information they gave us and stand by it, except that one says the dates may have been out by a few days.” She adds that the manner in which Joubert gathered her information “was in line with a reporter investigating a compromised policeman and not in line with a reporter being used to further someone else’s interests”.

Headline

The headline read: Hawks boss link to Sexy Boys gang drugs bust – Gauteng head allegedly took cash from suspects

Sibiya complains that this wording was sensationalist, devoid of truth, misleading, and intended to undermine his work.

Sunday Times denies this and says that the headline was an accurate reflection of the contents of the story.

MY CONSIDERATIONS

Regarding the allegation that Sibiya was in Cape Town in December:

  • The information on Sibiya’s passport and visa supports his claim that he was not in South Africa on December 16 or 17 (as claimed by Sunday Times in correspondence after the story was published);
  • However, the story did not say that the alleged meeting took place on one of those dates – it merely stated that Sibiya had been in Cape Town “in December”;
  • Smuts said that at least one of the sources had admitted that “the dates may have been out by a few days” (see below); and
  • While I accept that Sibiya was abroad between December 12 and 24, I have no information about his whereabouts in that month before and after these dates.

If the story stated that Sibiya had been in Cape Town on December 16 or 17, I would certainly have decided that the newspaper’s information was wrong and would have found against the publication.

That not being the case, and given the number and seniority of the independent sources as well as the fact that the story attributed the information to two sources (and did not state it as fact), it follows that I have no grounds to find that the newspaper was in breach of the Press Code.

I am also satisfied that Sunday Times complied with the Bogoshi finding. Once a newspaper has at least three reliable, independent sources, it normally is justified to publish – on condition that the information is attributed, and not stated as fact.

This, of course, is not a judgment that the newspaper’s facts were necessarily correct – it merely means that Sunday Times was justified to publish the information it got from its sources.

About the drug bust, and the link between that event and Sibiya: I take into account that (a) the fact of the bust is not in dispute, (b) Sibiya acknowledged that he knew Lifman, (c) the story did not implicate Sibiya in the bust, and (d) the newspaper was justified in its reporting (as outlined above). Given these arguments, it follows that Sunday Times was reasonable in its reporting on this issue as well.

I refrain from commenting on Sibiya’s statement that Lifman “happened to park” his car “outside a building” where the SAPS made a drug bust – he is not the subject of my investigation, the newspaper’s story is.

Sunday Times was justified in using anonymous sources – as long as they were credible and sufficiently independent of each other. I have no reason to believe the opposite.

Having found that the newspaper was justified in its reportage, it follows that the headline was also acceptable, as it merely reflected the content of the story.

FINDING

The complaint is dismissed.

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 for the appeal. He can be contacted at Khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.

Johan Retief

Press Ombudsman