Menzi Simelane vs The Times

Complainant: Menzi Simelane

Lodged by: Cowan-Harper Attorneys

Article: Simelane out of the NPA

Author of article: Graeme Hosken

Date: 28 Febraury 2013

Respondent: The Times

Complaint

Former National Director of Public Prosecutions (NPA) Menzi Simelane complains about a story in The Times on 5 December 2012 and headlined Simelane out of the NPA.

Simelane complains that the story inaccurately stated that he had been stripped of his membership of the Johannesburg Bar.

Analysis

The story, written by Graeme Hosken, dealt with a meeting that was to be held by members of the Johannesburg Bar to discuss “the finalisation of charges against Simelane”. The Constitutional Court reportedly declared as invalid his appointment as the NPA’s boss.

Stripped of membership

The intro to the story said: “Disgraced former national director of public prosecutions Menzi Simelane has been…stripped of his membership of the Johannesburg Bar.”

Simelane complains that this is inaccurate. He says that the Vice-Chairman of the Johannesburg Bar (Adv Piet Louw) wrote to the newspaper in which the latter highlighted that he had not been stripped of his membership and that he “remains a duly admitted advocate and member of the Johannesburg Bar”. (I have a copy of this correspondence in my possession.)

The Times said that at the time of publication it was reasonable to rely on its information and its independent sources, and that the story was in the public interest. It adds that it had approached Simelane prior to the publishing of the article for comment, who speaking through his father, refused to answer questions which were stated in the story.

In spite of these arguments, the newspaper nevertheless does not deny that the story contained inaccurate information – but argues that the inaccuracies were corrected in the follow-up article.

However, Simelane denies that the follow-up article properly corrected the factual inaccuracies and claims that the reporter deliberately chose to ignore Louw’s response.

My focus therefore shifts to this story, which was published on 6 December 2012 and was headlined: Simelane on tightrope. I quote this article in its totality (in italics):

“Former national director of public prosecutions Menzi Simelane will know by next month the extent of bar council disciplinary charges against him.

“The vice-chairman of the Johannesburg Bar Council Piet Louw, said though it had been reported that the matter would be discussed at a council meeting on Tuesday, it had not been put on the agenda and so was not discussed.

“ ‘The matters around Simelane, which relate to unprofessional conduct and worse, are under investigation. Depending the outcome of the disciplinary hearing, he could be struck from the advocates’ roll,’ Louw said.

“Simelane fell from grace after the Constitutional Court ruled that his appointment was invalid. He now faces the possibility of being barred from practicing law.

“His conduct is being called into question after his testimony at the Ginwala Commission of Inquiry into the fitness for office of his predecessor, Vusi Pikoli, in 2008.”

These are my considerations:

·         The follow-up story did not say that The Times published the wrong information, but merely that “it had been reported” – this could have meant any publication;

·         The newspaper should have accepted responsibility for its mistake, which it clearly did not do; and

·         A more elaborate and accurate reference to the wrong information that the newspaper had published the previous day was necessary, but absent. In other words, the follow-up story omitted the proper context.

In light of these circumstances, this office needs to take action to properly remedy the unnecessary harm that the story has caused Simelane.

Finding

Stripped of membership

The first story inaccurately stated as fact that Simelane was stripped of his membership of the Johannesburg Bar.

If the follow-up story properly addressed this issue, I would have ruled that the matter be left as it is. To my mind, however, this did not happen.

These are in breach of:

·         Art. 1.1 of the Press Codes that says: “The press shall be obliged to report news…accurately…”; and

·         Art. 1.6 of the Code: “A publication should make amends for publishing information…that is found to be inaccurate by printing…a retraction, correction or explanation.”

Sanction

The Times is directed to:

·         apologise to Simelane for incorrectly stating that he was stripped of his membership of the Johannesburg Bar; and

·         publish the text below before 15 March 2013 (if neither party has applied for leave to appeal against this ruling).

Beginning of text

The Times apologises to former National Director of Public Prosecutions Menzi Simelane for incorrectly stating that he was stripped of his membership of the Johannesburg Bar.

Simelane lodged a complaint with the Press Ombudsman about a story that we published on 5 December 2012, headlined Simelane out of the NPA. The story, written by Graeme Hosken, said: “Disgraced former national director of public prosecutions Menzi Simelane has been…stripped of his membership of the Johannesburg Bar.”

We published a follow-up story on December 6 to rectify this mistake, but Press Ombudsman Johan Retief found that this was not sufficient.

These were his considerations:

·         The follow-up story did not say that we published the wrong information, but merely that “it had been reported” – this could have meant any publication;

·         We should have accepted responsibility for our mistake, which we “clearly did not do”; and

·         A more elaborate and accurate reference to the wrong information that we had published the previous day was necessary, but absent. “In other words, the follow-up story omitted the proper context.”

Visit www.presscouncil.org.za for the full finding.

End of text

Appeal

Please note that our Complaints Procedures lay down that within seven days of receipt of this decision, either party may apply for leave to appeal to the Chairperson of the SA Press Adjudication Panel, Judge Ralph Zulman, fully setting out the grounds of appeal. He can be contacted at Khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.

Johan Retief

Press Ombudsman

 

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