Ministry of State Security vs Sunday Times

Complainant: Ministry of State Security

Lodged by: Dr Khaukanani Mavhungu

Article: Dirty secrets of SA’s spy agencies

Author of article: Caiphus Kgosana

Date: 15 November 2011

Respondent: Sunday Times

Complaint
The Ministry of State Security (MSC) complains about a story in the Sunday Times, published on 25 September 2011 and headlined Dirty secrets of SA’s spy agencies.
The MSC complains that its spokesperson was not properly contacted for comment, which led to an unbalanced story.
Analysis
The story, written by Caiphus Kgosana, is about a report drafted by Parliament’s joint standing committee on intelligence which was tabled in Parliament. It states that South Africa’s intelligence services have been rocked by claims of financial mismanagement, and reports that there are fears that the police crime intelligence unit is being infiltrated by foreign agents. Some of the findings of the report reportedly include a ban on “sophisticated” cellphones and other devices that cannot be intercepted, fraud investigations involving intelligence agents were to be expedited, and better coordination of intelligence structures was in the offing to avoid infiltration by foreign agents.
I shall now look at the merits of the complaint:
Improperly contacted for comment
The MSC complaints that Kgosana contacted its spokesperson on Friday 23 September at approximately 16:50, seeking its comments. Mavhungu says that the journalist was told that “if he legitimately seeks our comments…he needs to table the issues in writing, (and) send them via email so that an appropriate response can be given on these complex issues”. The MSC says that the reporter did not comply and ran the story without any mention about the “advice” given to him.
Mavhungu concludes that, as a result, the story was unbalanced – creating the impression of an organization that is not responsive to challenges. This act of omission, he argues, sought to create a particular public perception about the Agency’s performance.
The newspaper’s main argument is that there was no onus on it to contact the MSC, as it was merely writing about a report that had been tabled in Parliament. It says: “It was therefore part of the public record and it was reasonable to report on its contents without seeking comment.” The newspaper says that although there may be cases where it may be “desirable” to obtain comment on a report tabled in Parliament (in highly controversial cases or where somebody’s reputation was impugned), “we submit this is not the case here”.
The Sunday Times also:
  • agrees that Kgosana did contact SCM spokesperson Brian Dube on the Friday ahead of publication. However, the journalist says that Dube told him that he could not comment as he had not yet seen the report. Kgosana also denies that Dube asked him to put his questions in writing; and
  • adds that its journalist also tried to contact chairman of the joint standing committee on intelligenge Cecil Burgess, but says that he was told that Burgess was too ill to come to the telephone.
It concludes: “We attempted to obtain comment because it may have added interesting and relevant detail to the story, and not because there was an onus on us to do so.”
My first consideration is the following: After a recent finding of the Press Appeals Panel on the matter of debate under privilege (Mr Sam Buthelezi vs. The Star), one panelist explained:
“The panel’s view was that a publication enjoys the same level of protection as parliamentarians if it reports accurately and fairly what was said under privilege.  A web search reveals instances of such ‘qualified privilege’ in the UK and New Zealand. We say it is unnecessary for the media to seek pre-publication comment from persons who are referenced in a privileged debate (although, of course, it may improve the story if they were to do so).”
I submit that a report that was tabled in Parliament fell under the same “qualified privileged” that is mentioned above.
If the story reported on subsequent developments (that therefore fell outside of Parliamentary privilege), it would indeed have been necessary to obtain the MSC’s comment. However, the story focuses on this report only, which means that the newspaper was under no obligation to obtain such comment.
I also note that the MSC does not complain that the newspaper misrepresented the report – which would have been a completely different kettle of fish.
Finding
The Sunday Times was under no obligation to ask the MSC for comment, as it was merely writing about a report that was tabled in Parliament. The complaint is therefore dismissed.
Sanction
There is no sanction.
Appeal
Please note that our Complaints Procedures lay down that within seven days of receipt of this decision, anyone of the parties may apply for leave to appeal to the Chairperson of the SA Press Appeals Panel, Judge Ralph Zulman, fully setting out the grounds of appeal. He can be contacted at Khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.
Johan Retief
Deputy Press Ombudsman