Mr Sicelo Shiceka vs the Mail & Guardian

Compliant: Mr Sicelo Shiceka

Lodged by:  Vuyelwa Qinga

Article: Shiceka’s bunches of trouble – Audit report turns harsh spotlight on minister’s spending on flowers and decor. The headline on the front page reads: Minister’s bunch of trouble.

Author of article: 

Date: 6 May 2011

Respondent:

Complaint
The Ministry of Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs as well as Shiceka himself complain about a story that was published on page 2 of the Mail & Guardian (November 12 – 18, 2010), as well as about a headline and bullets on the front page.
The story, written by Mmanaledi Mataboge, is headlined Shiceka’s bunches of trouble – Audit report turns harsh spotlight on minister’s spending on flowers and decor. The headline on the front page reads: Minister’s bunch of trouble.
Regarding the story, Shiceka complains that:
  • it misleadingly states that expenditure were irregular and untoward;
  • the journalist’s angle to the story was pre-determined;
  • the story is based on internal documents that were still under review; and
  • the sentence stating that “internal auditors also questioned the wisdom of spending R16 900” (on a briefing session) is misleading.
He also complains that both the front page headline and the accompanying bullets are unsubstantiated and that this was published despite the fact that the journalist was given “the facts”.
It has to be noted that a letter by Shiceka was published in the M&G “to set the record straight” (Shiceka’s words). However, he argues that this is not enough to undo the damage that the M&G’s reportage did to his reputation.
Analysis
The story says an internal audit report in Shiceka’s ministry revealed that thousands of rands of “irregular expenditure” on flowers was spent by “high-living” Shiceka, adding that “well-placed” insiders said that these flowers (to the amount of more than R15 000) were requested by his spouse for his home. The audit report, the story continues, also singled out long lists of irregular payments, such as interior decorations for Shiceka’s ministerial home in Waterkloof, which included oil paintings, three plasma TV sets and kitchen utensils. The cost of these “decorations” was reportedly close to R125 000. The story goes on to say that Shiceka used public funds for personal gain. A spokesperson for Shiceka denied any impropriety – but reportedly also did not explain why the department’s own auditors would query the expenditures mentioned above.
Also on page 2 a graphic appears, headlined Cogta’s convenience store – Spending on perks at the Ministry of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs. This graphic contains a list of ten “expenditures”, totalling R257 300.
The front page headline refers to Shiceka’s “bunches of trouble”, and adds the following bullets:
  • Sicelo Shiceka’s irregular expenditure of R15 500 for fresh flowers;
  • R125 000 spent on decorations for his house;
  • Ordered plasma TV screens for every floor of ministry; and
  • R114 000 for hired cars used by protectors and messengers.
I shall now consider the merits of the complaint:
Irregular expenditure
Shiceka denies that public funds were used to buy flowers for his home and/or spouse, and says that the story wrongly accuses him of “high living”. He explains that flowers or fruit baskets would either be for his offices, or for bereaved/sick members of staff as well as for cabinet colleagues who were in similar situations.
He also complains that it is misleading to tell readers that a new PVC decoder bought for the ministry, repairs to the DSTV at his Cape Town residence, entertainment for ministerial guests, payments for catering, folders, corporate gifts, recording of briefings by him, etc. was spending on “perks”. He says that there is nothing irregular or untoward about these expenditures “except a very poor attempt to bring credence to a label chosen by the reporter to describe the Minister as ‘high living’.”
He adds that these are all standard budgetary items and features of every minister’s office or home and concludes that all of these items are state-owned and will be left behind for his successor.
Shiceka also argues that the M&G “desperately presented” standard budgetary items in such a manner as to show his supposed “high living”. He adds that it is ludicrous for the newspaper to have suggested that the department, including the ministry, should not spend on its budget – including the items that the newspaper listed as “perks”.
The M&G says that it consulted the ministerial handbook in an effort to establish what Shiceka was entitled to expect the state to pay for. It mentions that Section 3.8.1c(ii) in Chapter 4 of the handbook lists items that the state does not supply for ministerial homes. “These include television sets, kitchen utensils, decoders and wall decorations.”
The newspaper also says that the internal auditors’ list of irregular expenditures includes various decorations for Shiceka’s ministerial home in Waterkloof. It argues that it quoted departmental sources who said that the items in question included oil paintings, three plasma television sets and also kitchen utensils. It notes that Qinga, in the complaint, seems to confirm that at the very least a PVR decoder was bought for Shiceka’s house with state funds – “an expenditure that is clearly not allowed in terms of the handbook”. The newspaper concludes that its journalist paid more attention to the handbook than did the minister and his staff.
The M&G says the audit report makes it clear that the expenditures were irregular, adding that that alone was cause for concern and a matter of public interest. The newspaper says: “Two sources with direct personal experience of the relevant arrangements told us that flowers were on regular occasions sent to the ministerial residence or to his spouse.”
It also argues that:
  • its reportage was not based on rumours, but rather on documentary evidence as well as on two independent sources;
  • its reportage included the answers provided by the department (although it says that these answers did not “adequately allay” the concerns raised by the internal audit report); and
  • the information “was presented in the context of the rules set out by the ministerial handbook governing these matters, and at considerable length”; and
  • it believes that the public is entitled to know when the department’s own internal audit team identifies irregular expenditure at ministerial level, “not least on items the Minister is required by government policy to pay out of his own pocket…”
This is the point: Nowhere does the M&G state it as a fact that Shiceka misspent public funds – the whole story, from start to finish, is about an internal audit report that lists Shiceka’s alleged irregular expenditure.
Consider the following:
  • The sub-headline already makes it clear: Audit report turns harsh spotlight on minister’s spending on flowers and decor (own underlining);
  • The intro to the story confirms this: “An internal audit report has spotlighted thousands of rands of irregular expenditure…” (own emphasis);
  • The story consistently quotes either sources or documents (the audit report and the ministerial handbook); and
  • Towards the end of the story a list of some more alleged irregular spending appears. This list is preceded by the following words: “Other irregular expenses listed by the auditors include…” (own emphasis).
It is not within my mandate to determine whether Shiceka indeed misspent public funds my only task is to determine if the newspaper was justified in its reportage. Based on the argument listed in the bullets above, it indeed was. And as taxpayers’ money was involved, the public had a right to know.
Angle to story ‘pre-determined’
Shiceka says that the journalist’s angle to the story appears to have been pre-determined and that she merely sought to bring credibility and justification to her point of departure (namely that he was guilty of “high living”). He says that this is clear from the introduction to her query to his office that reads: “On allegations that the minister was living an expensive life at the taxpayer’s expense irregularly, this is some of the information we have that I need you to help explain please.” He says that not a single fact supported this assertion, “but it was used in the story anyway” and adds that all the questions posed by Mataboge were answered in time. “She got the facts but chose to publish the inaccurate rumours she had presented to the department.”
The M&G denies this, saying that the story was based on documentary and source evidence, “including numerous factual details”. It adds that Shiceka provides no basis for the conclusion that the journalist’s angle was pre-determined.
Shiceka’s argument does not hold water – not only does the journalist refer to “allegations” in her query to his office, but the story itself contains eleven (mostly) rather lengthy paragraphs that contain Vika’s (and therefore Shiceka’s) side of the story. And again, the story merely quotes documentation (the audit report and the ministerial handbook) as well as some sources regarding Shiceka’s alleged misspending of public funds.
Internal documents still under review
Shiceka complains that the newspaper used internal documents that were still under review and were still being processed by the accounting officer.
The M&G says that the documentary foundation of its story is an internal audit that identifies instances of irregular expenditure for the 2009/2010 financial year. The newspaper states that Qinga confirmed the authenticity of the report and told the newspaper that action was being taken to remedy the concerns it raised. The newspaper also points out that the story records her words as follows: “Until the accounting officer of the department does the necessary verification and signs it off as a true reflection of the situation, the information is not yet credible or official. In this format it is raw data that is still unchecked and unverified by the director general.”
However, the M&G says that this statement was contradicted by another departmental employee who had been personally involved in internal audit processes. The newspaper says that this employee told its journalist that audit reports are distributed to a number of stakeholders, including the auditor general, and that such distribution is not subject to sign-off by the DG.
The same argument applies here: The newspaper reports on an internal audit document – this was not only its right, but also its duty. The story also mentions Shiceka’s view that the director general has not yet checked and verified the report.
Briefing session
The story says that “internal auditors also questioned the wisdom of spending R16 900 on recording the minister’s briefing session at the ministry in July last year”. A videographer reportedly followed Shiceka whenever he was on duty.
Shiceka says that recording of his briefing session is a standard operating procedure – he says that all meetings that fall under the strategic business operations with internal and external stakeholders are recorded and transcribed professionally. He argues that expenditure of this nature would be reflected in an internal audit report not because “internal auditors also questioned the wisdom of spending R16 900”, but because there was an issue over supply chain processes. He adds that an official who was found to have flouted regulations would obviously be dealt with through an appropriate sanction.
The M&G replies that it visited the offices of numerous cabinet ministers and government departments, saying that in none of them has it encountered personal ministerial videographers or closed-circuit television networks which dedicate time to playing back events involving such ministers. “It is trite that keybriefings are from time to time recorded by in-house video teams.” It argues that its concern was over the seemingly excessive and irregular use of such resources.
Again, the story reports that it was internal auditors who questioned the wisdom of spending R16 900 on recording Shiceka’s briefing session – not the newspaper.
 
Headline, bullets based on rumours
Shiceka complains that the headline on the front page, together with the bullets, are not based on facts, but rather on (misleading) rumours, adding that his reputation was thereby unnecessarily and unfairly tarnished.
The same argument that I used throughout the finding applies here.
 
Finding
The M&G was justified in its reportage as:
  • its story is mainly based on an internal audit report as well as on some sources
  • the story consistently portrays the above-mentioned it as such; and
  • ample space is given to Shiceka’s views.
The complaint is therefore dismissed in its entirety.
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 reached at khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.
Johan Retief
Deputy Press Ombudsman

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