Matshego Ramagaga vs Business Day

Complainant: Matshego Ramagaga

Lodged by: Ledwaba Mazwai

Article: Companies tribunal leaders ‘inflated claims’

Author of article: Linda Ensor

Date: 16 April 2015

Respondent: Sharon Chetty, deputy editor of the Business Day

General comment

Ramagaga’s complaint was lodged outside the time allotted in our Complaints Procedures. The newspaper nevertheless complied. It is this kind of exemplary co-operation that our system of regulation needs and feeds on.

Complaint

Ramagaga, the Deputy Chairman of the Companies Tribunal (CT), is complaining about an article in BD of 11 March 2015, headlined Companies tribunal leaders ‘inflated claims’.

She complains that:

·        the forensic report on which the article was based was not conclusive or final, and that the reporter did not verify the allegations contained in that document;

·        the story falsely stated the report suggested that:

o   officials had inflated their fees and travel expenses by an amount of R180,000 or more;

o   senior CT members had not co-operated with the investigation;

o   CT members had applied to the relevant Minister for a salary increase;

·        she was not contacted for comment, and that the reporter did not seek further clarity from the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) or from its Minister; and

·        the story omitted relevant information.

Ramagaga concludes that the allegations were unfair, inaccurate, a negligent departure from the facts, an omission and a failure to exercise exceptional care and consideration, which impacted on her dignity and reputation.

The text

The article, authored by political writer Linda Ensor, reported on the contents of a report by accounting firm Grant Thornton on possible irregularities at the CT. The introductory sentence read: “A forensic report said to have prima facie evidence of wrongdoing on the part of Companies Tribunal chairman Simmy Lebala SC and deputy chairperson Matshego Ramagaga was tabled in Parliament yesterday.” Ensor also wrote the report suggested that the officials had inflated claims for their fees and travel by at least R180,000 during the year ending in September 2013. “It did not rule out that the amount may be bigger.”

Analysis

Report not final; no verification

Ramagaga complains the forensic report on which the article was based was not conclusive or final. “[I]t is explicitly indicated that further discussions and confirmation on some of the issues are required from both Mrs Ramagaga and…Lebala.” She adds that the journalist failed to establish the truthfulness of the allegations made in the report, and also failed to verify the status of that document with the DTI.

Chetty replies the basis of the article was a forensic report commissioned by the DTI and undertaken by Grant Thornton. “The committee said it would be studied, giving it legitimacy.”

The deputy editor says the report was made public only after an opposition party MP had obtained it using provisions in the Public Access to Information Act. “Our writer…quoted from a version she understood to be correct… It was understood to be the appropriate version as the DTI failed to say otherwise when it released it… The basis for the article was the proceedings in the committee. The writer had no way of knowing that the Grant Thornton report, which had been accepted by the committee, was neither final nor conclusive… The writer was not offered this explanation and in the absence of such detail could not be reasonably expected to reflect it in the article.”

Ramagaga disputes Chetty’s claim that the mere fact that the report would have been “studied” gave it legitimacy. “It is clear that from the article that it goes beyond merely reporting that a forensic report was tabled before Parliament. It [also]seeks to deal with the content of the report.”

                                    My considerations

I have some serious questions on this issue. Once the Thornton report has been tabled in Parliament it is a public document. Why would an incomplete document be tabled? Who is supposed to complete it? How can the committee discuss an incomplete report?

Also, it is not the newspaper’s job to verify allegations which are contained in a report tabled at Parliament.

Inflated fees

The sentences in dispute said: “The report suggested that the officials, who were appointed on a part-time basis for a five-year term in December 2011, had inflated their claims for fees and travel by at least R180,000 in the 12 months to September 2013. It did not rule out that the amount may be bigger.”

Ramagaga denies that the report says anything of the kind. Mazwai writes: “The report speaks to discrepancies/overpayments which require the members and/or the subjects of the article to explain/confirm their claims and as such it is unfair and inaccurate…to create the perception that the officials of the CT (including Mrs Ramagaga and Mr Lebala who are mentioned by name in the article) had inflated their claims, when there is a reasonable possibility that the parties could provide plausible explanations on why the claims were made, and as such the issues on discrepancies/overpayments would fall away.”

The attorney argues that readers were left with the incorrect impression that conclusive findings had been made in this regard.

“Furthermore the report does not stipulate the amount of R180 000.00 nor the fact that this amount could actually be more, this allegation is unfounded and in fact not based on the report. This is misleading and unnecessarily casts doubt on [Ramagaga] and other officials of the CT.”

Mazwai concludes:

·        “The allegation (or R180 000) is in fact unfounded and in fact not based on the report”; and

·        “The writer’s account of how the rates increase came to be is a complete deviation from what is indicated in the report and…furthermore…constitutes a report on the writer’s opinion without clearly stating as such”.

Chetty says that the journalist based her story on proceedings in the committee. “It is incorrect to claim she made a deduction or had written opinion. Nor did the writer aim to create any perceptions about the members of the Companies Tribunal.”

She adds that it was reasonable for the journalist to report the alleged amount of R180 000.

                                    My considerations

As BD did not elaborate on how it got to the amount of R180 000, I asked for clarity. Chetty replied that this approximate amount was arrived at by adding up all the individual disputed sums mentioned in the report.

After having studied the report, I am satisfied that the reporting on this issue was justified.

No co-operation

The story read: “The report further says two consultants were employed at a total cost of R275,000 without compliance with procurement procedures. It also notes that senior members of the tribunal had not co-operated with the investigation.”

Mazwai says this is another unfair deduction. “The report merely mentions that there were instances where the senior members were unavailable for discussion on the issues raised in the report, for various reasons… The report does refer to previous interviews which the members have participated in and as such [was]unwarranted for the writer to create the perception that the members would not cooperate further with the investigation, when there is evidence of their past cooperation.”

The newspaper does not specifically address this issue.

                                    My considerations

I am satisfied that the report does support the reportage on this issue. (See Section 5.40 and 5.41 of the report on this matter.)

Salary increases

The story said: “About seven months after their appointment, members of the tribunal applied to Mr Davies for a salary increase. They argued that the rates of R3,200 and R2,700 a day for the chairman and ordinary members respectively were ‘inadequate and unfair’ relative to their skills and the mandate of the tribunal.”

Mazwai says this misrepresents the report. He cites the document as follows: “A submission to the Minister for the determination and approval of the remuneration for part-time members of the CT was prepared [by]Mr Kuljeeth during July 2012. The submission indicated that the remuneration scales…were inadequate and unfair, in terms of the required skills of the members and the mandate of the CT.”

He explains: “[K]uljeeth made the submission to the Minister, the report does not indicate nor suggest that such submission was occasioned by any request of lobbying by any of the members.” He argues that Kuljeeth was not a member, which made the story inaccurate and distorted. “It creates the perception that the members lobbied for a rate increase on their own account for their selfish benefit, when in fact no such lobbying occurred.”

The newspaper does not address this specific issue.

                                    My considerations

I have asked the newspaper for clarification. This is how Chetty responded:

“Ms Ramagaga claims that the report explicitly indicates who made the submission to the minister and that individual is not a member of the CT nor was prompted/coerced or influenced by the complainant and Mr Lebala. This claim is not correct as the report does not explicitly indicate who made the submission. The report available to Business Day’s journalist and the one submitted to the committee was a redacted version in which the names of all individuals mentioned were hidden.

“Furthermore, the article does not accuse Mr Lebala and Ms Ramagaga of being involved in the bid to obtain the rates increase. It merely states that “members of the tribunal” did so. There was no way of knowing that the applicant for the increase was not a member of the tribunal because of the redacted nature of the report. It was a reasonable assumption to make that tribunal members had made the application especially as the forensic report was meant to investigate allegations of impropriety by tribunal members.

“The forensic report did say said that the application for an increase had the support of other people, presumably who were members of the tribunal but Ms Ramagaga does not clarify whether this was so or not.”

Having studied the report, I have to agree with BD.

Not contacted for comment; not seeking further clarity

Ramagaga complains that she was not contacted for comment. She adds that the reporter did not seek further clarity from the DTI or from its Minister.

Chetty says that when the journalist sought comment from the CT she was told that neither Lebala nor Ramagaga were available, and that she should seek comment from the former. She eventually did obtain his comment, which was duly published. The reporter was refused Ramagaga’s mobile number.

She adds Ramagaga was mentioned in a story published on 11 February 2015 in the context of proceedings in Parliament’s trade and industry portfolio committee and was in no way singled out as a subject for the article. The journalist then quoted the relevant Minister.

Mazwai calls Chetty’s response that Ramagaga was only mentioned and not singled out “disingenuous” – the allegations in the article against her have still impaired her dignity and reputation.

He adds that the journalist did not exhaust all reasonable methods of getting hold of Ramagaga, and notes that the article did not state that the newspaper attempted to contact her.

                                    My considerations

I have no reason to believe that the journalist did not seek Ramagaga’s comment. In any event, a publication is not obliged to ask for comment when reporting on a Parliamentary process (as is indeed also the case with court reporting).

Omitting relevant information

Ramagaga complains that the reporter suppressed relevant and important facts, which would have lead the reader to a conclusion different from “inflated claims”. Mazwai says the DTI has concluded that the report cleared Ramagaga and Lebala of the complaint against them – a fact that the newspaper should have reported in the interest of fairness.

BD does not respond to this part of the complaint.

                                    My considerations

The copy of the report which is at my disposal blocks out names (for reasons unknown to me).

In conclusion

Ramagaga concludes that the allegations were unfair, inaccurate, a negligent departure from the facts, an omission and a failure to exercise exceptional care and consideration, which impacted on her dignity and reputation.

Chetty denies this vehemently. “The writer is an experienced journalist, respected among her peers and is lauded for her consummate professionalism. She has no need to indulge in the kind of conduct she has been accused of.”

                                    My considerations

Based on all of the above, I have to agree – at least partially – with this part of the complaint.

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 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