Ministry of Correctional Services vs Sunday Independent, Sunday Tribune, Isolezwe

Complainant: Ministry of Correctional Services

Lodged by: Logan Maistry

Article: Zuma’s MaNtuli in extortion drama – Man who claims to be long-time friend of the president’s wife cites death of her bodyguard. The same article was published in the Sunday Tribune (Zuma’s wife in extortion drama – MaNtuli’s mystery ‘friend’ arrested after threatening to reveal her secrets; and MaNtuli no stranger to questionable-conduct allegations), as well as in Isolezwe (Usabise ngokuveza amahlazo kaMaNtuli)

Author of article: Agiza Hlongwane and Nathi Oliphant

Date: 3 March 2014

Respondent: Sunday Independent, Sunday Tribune and Isolezwe

Complaint

The Ministry of Correctional Services complains about a story that appeared in Sunday Independent on 26 January 2014, headlined Zuma’s MaNtuli in extortion drama – Man who claims to be long-time friend of the president’s wife cites death of her bodyguard. The same article was published in the Sunday Tribune (Zuma’s wife in extortion drama – MaNtuli’s mystery ‘friend’ arrested after threatening to reveal her secrets; and MaNtuli no stranger to questionable-conduct allegations), as well as in Isolezwe (Usabise ngokuveza amahlazo kaMaNtuli).

The Ministry complains that the:

  • newspapers still published the sensational claim made by Mr Steven Ongolo that he was introduced to first lady Nompumelelo Ntuli-Zuma by Correctional Services Minister Sibusiso (S’bu) Ndebele, despite the latter’s denial of this claim prior to publication;
  • casual link between the published allegations against Ntuli-Zuma and Ongolo, and the alleged introduction of the latter to the former by Ndebele, did not make any sense; and
  • stories were inaccurate and contradictory in that they first quoted former eThekwini mayor Obed Mlaba, and then stated that he could not be reached for comment.

Maistry argues that the link to Ndebele in the stories was intended to create mischief and cast aspersions on his integrity and reputation, and that they had the potential to cause him some serious and unnecessary harm. He concludes that the newspapers did not exercise care and consideration in matters involving dignity and reputation (as required by Section 4.2 of the Press Code).

The text in dispute

The story, written by Agiza Hlongwane and Nathi Oliphant, said that Ongolo (29, from Tanzania, and Ntuli-Zuma’s bodyguard) was arrested on charges of extortion after having threatened to expose “secrets” about the first lady. Amongst these “secrets” is the allegation that she had a “close friendship” with her former bodyguard Phinda Thomo who reportedly committed suicide by shooting himself in the bathtub of his rented Soweto house in 2009. Ongolo claimed that this was not suicide, but in fact murder. It was also rumoured that MaNtuli became pregnant during this relationship with Thomo.

Analysis

Link between Ndebele and MaNtuli, Ongolo

The main disputed part of the story read: “[Ongolo] claimed he was introduced to [MaNtuli] by Correctional Services minister and former KwaZulu-Natal premier S’bu Ndebele.”

The Ministry complains that the newspapers still published this sensational claim, despite the latter’s categorical denial prior to publication. Maistry also says that this “casual link” did not make any sense, except that it was intended to create mischief and cast aspersions on Ndebele’s integrity and reputation (which had the potential to cause him some serious and unnecessary harm). He concludes that the newspapers did not exercise care and consideration in matters involving dignity and reputation, as required by the Press Code.

 

Arde responds:

  • The basis of the stories was a statement by Ongolo – which was made in the presence of the publications’ attorney, and without duress. He says that this statement is currently the subject of a court case in the Camperdown Magistrate’s Court, and adds that some of the details contained in the newspapers’ stories were presented before Magistrate Thys Taljaard in the bail hearing that was heard on February 5;
  • “It is therefore our submission that the charge of intimidation against Mr Ongolo for threatening one of the president’s wives is in the public interest. Secondly, the charge, allegations and details are a matter of public record as our constitution, common and statutory laws – read together with our code – state clearly that our court hearings are open to the public and the press. It is therefore incorrect for Minister Sbu Ndebele to claim ‘that the…articles may cause serious harm to [him], and do not comply with the South African Press Code’.”
  • The stories were not untruthful, inaccurate and unfair. “We have already stated that our reports are a matter of public record as they are based on contentious issues that are currently argued in an open court of law. They were not an invention or fabrication of our reporters. We fail to understand how such reports will impair on his ‘dignity and reputation’.”
  • It was in the public interest to report Ongolo’s statement, “without creating the impression of endorsement thereof” (something that reasonable readers would have understood) – the publications were mindful of the fact that his statement was still to be tested in court, “but the seriousness of the allegations and the charge against him…cannot be ignored”;
  • The stories were fair and balanced in that they presented Ndebele’s denial that he introduced Ongolo to MaNtuli; and
  • It is not true that the link in dispute was intended to create mischief and cast aspersions on Ndebele’s integrity and reputation – he challenges the Minister to provide evidence to substantiate this claim.

In Maistry’s reply to Arde’s response, he says that the issue before the court is not about the alleged introduction (which is the gist of the complaint with this office), but rather about allegations against MaNtuli and Ongolo. The “casual link” between these allegations and the alleged introduction of the latter to the first lady by Ndebele only became a matter of public record after the publication of the stories in question. (The “link” was therefore not a matter of public record at the time of publication.)

He also argues that Independent Newspapers cannot be the sole decider of what is in the public interest. “Certainly, it cannot publish any claim or allegations, no matter how tangential or baseless, simply on the spurious basis that, since it is made against a public figure, then it is in the public interest to publish without verification and balancing the urge to publish and the potential damage to the dignity of a probably innocent public figure.”

These are my considerations:

  • It is of no consequence if the matter of the alleged introduction was in the public domain before or after the publication of the stories in dispute; the more important question is if it was in the public interest;
  • Everything Ongolo told the newspaper in this regard was in the public interest, given the nature of the case that the stories reported on;
  • Ongolo had a right to his opinion, and Independent Newspapers were justified in publishing that view (as an opinion, balanced out with Ndebele’s denial);
  • The sentence in dispute provided a much-needed piece of information – the reasonable reader would have wanted to know how it came that Ongolo met MaNtuli (whether Ongolo’s claim was correct or not);
  • The newspapers did not make a “casual” link between Ndebele and Ongolo/MaNtuli, as stated by Maistry – if the link was “casual”, it originated from Ongolo and not from the newspapers;
  • The sentence in dispute did not state it as fact that Ndebele had introduced Ongolo to MaNtuli – it ascribed this information to Ongolo himself. The sentence read: “[Ongolo] claimed that…” (emphasis added);
  • The story did include Ndebele’s denial;
  • Most importantly: It is difficult to conceive how this “link” could have caused Ndebele harm of any kind – the story only alleged that he had introduced Ongolo to MaNtuli, not that he had any hand in what may have happened subsequently.

I therefore do not believe that the stories contravened the Press Code. This, of course, does not mean that I have ruled that Ongolo’s claims were true.

Mlaba

The story read: “[Ongolo] said he met Ndebele and his wife Zama through…Mlaba. He said he met Mlaba after a protest by immigrants in Durban where he acted as an interpreter. Contacted yesterday Mlaba said: ‘I do not know that man and I have never personally required the services of an interpreter.”

At the end of the story, it stated: “Mlaba could not be reached for comment.”

Maistry writes that these statements were inaccurate and contradictory in that they first quoted Mlaba, but then stated that he could not be reached for comment.

Arde calls this part of the complaint trivial, immaterial and vexatious. However, he adds that this was an error committed in the editing process – the last sentence should have been edited out as soon as the newspaper was able to contact Mlaba.

Although this was an error, I quite understand how it could have happened and moreover submit that this is not so serious that it can constitute a breach of the Press Code. Indeed, nobody has been harmed by this mistake.

General remark

In its complaint, the Ministry mentions a statement by KZN provincial police spokesman Jay Naicker to the effect that Ongolo’s claims against MaNtuli would not be investigated as there was no sworn statement.

I believe this issue is immaterial to the complaint at hand, and if there are such implications, they have already been dealt with in this analysis.

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

Johan Retief

Press Ombudsman

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