Musa Furumele vs. The Weekly

Ruling by the Deputy Press Ombudsman

August 18, 2010
 
This ruling is based on the written submissions of Mr M. Furumele and The Weekly newspaper.
 
Complaint
 
Mr Musa Furumele, former chairperson of the Sedibeng Water Board, complains about a story in The Weekly, published on 11-18 February 2010 and headlined Minister Disbands Sedibeng Board. The sub-head reads: Constantly faced with public criticism the board of Sedibeng Water has finally being dissolved by the Minister of Water Affairs. Damning allegations have emerged regarding collusion of the board and the CEO in irregular activities. Amongst allegations is that the chairperson of the board was a personal friend to the CEO.
 
The complaint is that:
  • Furumele was not given the right of reply by the newspaper;
  • The reference to “damning allegations” in the sub-head is unsubstantiated and baseless;
  • The statement that the board, and especially its chairperson, enjoyed close ties with the CEO is false;
  • The process leading up to Furumele’s appointment as chairperson was not compromised, as it is suggested in the story; and
  • The statement that the board consisted of people from outside the Free State is unbalanced.
Analysis
 
The story is about the Sedibeng Water Board that was disbanded by the Minister of Water Affairs, Buyelwa Sonjica. It is reported that constant damning allegations (pointing to collusions of the board and the CEO in irregular activities) lead to the Minister’s eventual action. According to the story members of the SA Municipal Workers Union (SAMWU) welcomed the disbandment of the board.

 

We shall now consider the merits of the complaint:
 
No right of reply
 
Furumene says the newspaper did not give him a right of reply.
 
The Weekly says it faxed a list of allegations to Furumele and the CEO, Mr Makumu Ubisi, who both refused to comment. It adds that its journalist’s conversation with the CEO was sufficient, as Ubisi is said to have spoken on behalf of the whole board.
 
Let’s deal with the faxed list of allegations to Furumele first. I asked The Weekly to provide proof that it indeed requested Furumele to respond. The request was made on June 9 – more than two months before this ruling was made. I repeated my request on June 17 and again on July 9. Yet the newspaper remains quiet on this issue – it does not send our office the proof and neither does it make any excuse as to the reason/s for this. Surely, The Weekly realizes the importance of that document (if indeed it exists)?
 
From The Weekly’s lack of response there is only one reasonable conclusion to come to – no such list of allegations was faxed to Furumele.
 
Now, with regards to the newspaper’s comment that contact with Ubisi was enough as he was said to speak on behalf of the whole board: Was contact with Ubisi alone enough, or should the newspaper also have contacted Furumele? In this instance, the answer is a big “yes” – one of the allegations is that Furumele (who is mentioned by name) was a personal friend to Ubisi. Both were accused of irregular activities and both should therefore have been given a right of reply.
 
Such comment may have lead to a different story – the lack thereof may have caused Furumele some unnecessary personal and professional harm.
 
“Damning allegations” – unsubstantiated and baseless
 
Furumele says neither he nor the (disbanded) board was aware of “damning allegations”, save for allegations that were apparently sent directly by “faceless” people to the Minister. From this, Furumele deduces that the so-called “damning allegations” were unsubstantiated and baseless. He adds that the letter terminating the services of the board does not refer to any breach of duty.
 
The Weekly says its sources are varied and reliable – they included Ubisi’s personal assistant, the company’s financial manager and a senior manager who had known both Furumele and the CEO for many years. These sources also had “unfettered access to confidential and important documents…” The newspaper says other allegations in the story were attributed to the SA Municipal Workers Union leadership.
 
Some examples of the allegations in the story are:
  • Unfair dismissals of employees;
  • The CEO has appointed his girlfriend as his personal assistant;
  • Offices in Potchefstroom were rented but never used; and
  • Ubisi and Furumele were close friends
Our office cannot make any sort of decision regarding the allegations that were supposedly sent directly to the Minister.
 
However, The Weekly’s argument is sound: its sources are indeed varied and probably reliable. The reference to “damning allegations” in the sub-head is therefore not unsubstantiated and baseless, as Furumele says.
 
Note that this is not to say that these allegations are true, only that it is true that there are (damning) allegations. Art. 5.1 of the Press Code says that headlines shall give a reasonable reflection of the contents of the story – which is exactly what it does.
 
The letter terminating the services of the board is not mentioned in the story.
 
Close ties
 
The story says that Furumele and Ubisi “…grew up together in the same town, studied together…”
 
Furumele denies categorically that there has never been close personal ties between himself and the CEO. He says he grew up in Soweto and Ubisi in Bushbuckridge; they never attended the same school at any stage of their lives; they went to different universities (Wits and UCT); and they did not study at the same time.
 
The Weekly argues that it relied on a source who was close to both Furumele and Ubisi.
 
By its own admission, the newspaper says it used only one source with regards to this issue. That is not good enough. If there was any attempt to verify the information gained from this source, it was not reported. The fact that the “close ties” statement is presented as an allegation and not as a fact cannot serve as an excuse on the newspaper’s part for not trying to verify its information.
 
The danger of relying on one (anonymous) source can hardly be over-emphasized.
 
Therefore, if there is any doubt about “close ties” between Furumele and the CEO, the benefit of that doubt should go to Furumele.
 
In a certain sense the phrase “close ties” forms an integral part of the story. If it is not true, this would have caused Furumele some serious and indeed unnecessary harm.
 
Appointment of a friend
 
The story says Furumele “…was appointed as the chairperson of the board through the recommendation of a panel where the CEO also sat in.” A source is quoted as asking how a CEO can even sit on a panel that recommends the appointment of his boss.
 
Furumele takes exception to the insinuation that the process leading up to his appointment was compromised; besides, he says, the chairperson was appointed by the Minister after a submission of at least three names.
 
The Weekly says that the Minister, in making his decision, relied on the recommendations of the panel on which the CEO played a critical role. The newspaper adds that this matter had no bearing on the truthfulness or lack thereof of the story.
 
The fact that Ubisi sat on the panel that made a recommendation to the Minister is not in dispute. As such, it is reasonable for the newspaper to publish questions critical of the appointment process. Whether or not there have indeed been irregularities in this process is not relevant to this investigation.
 
People from outside the Free State
 
The story says: “The board consisted of people who are not from the Free State…”
 
Furumele says this statement is unbalanced – Sedibeng Water is a national state-owned entity meant to serve the entire population of the service area (across portions of the Free State, Northern Cape and North West). He says it creates the impression that people from the Northern Cape and North West are being treated as second rate citizens.
 
The Weekly argues that the sentence in dispute is a comment by the spokesperson of the Minister.
 
Indeed.
 
 
Finding
 
No right of reply
 
The lack of proof that The Weekly ever asked Furumele for comment leaves only one reasonable conclusion: It never did. As the story mentions Furumele by name, involving him in allegations, the newspaper should have asked for his comment – or at least have stated that it did try to get comment from Furumele. This is in breach of Art. 1.5 the Press Code which states: “A publication should usually seek the views of the subject of critical reportage in advance of publication…”
 
“Damning allegations” – unsubstantiated and baseless
 
The Weekly’s sources seem to be reliable and varied enough. This part of the complaint is therefore dismissed.
 
Close ties
 
The allegation of close ties between Furumele and Ubisi was based on only one source. Also, there was no report of an attempt to verify this information. This is in breach of Art. 1.4 of the Press Code that states: “Where there is reason to doubt the accuracy of a report and it is practicable to verify the accuracy thereof, it shall be verified. Where it has not been practicable to verify the accuracy of a report, this shall be mentioned in such report.”
 
Furumele’s appointment
 
This part of the complaint is dismissed as it was reasonable for the newspaper to publish questions critical of the appointment process.
 
People from outside the Free State
 
This part of the complaint is dismissed as the story merely quotes a Ministerial spokesperson.
 
Sanction
 
The newspaper is reprimanded for not:
  • asking Furumele for comment; and
  • verifying the allegation that Furumele and Ubisi were close friends.
Since Furumele may have been caused unnecessary harm by these breaches of the Press Code, the newspaper is also directed to apologise for possible damage caused.
 
The newspaper is directed to publish a summary of this finding (not the whole ruling) and the sanction, together with the following sentence: “For the full finding, visit www.presscouncil.org.za (rulings, 2010).”
 
Our office should be furnished with this summary prior to publication.
 
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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