Mvusiwekhaya Sicwetsha vs The Herald and the Weekend Post

Complainant: Mvusiwekhaya Sicwetsha

Lodged by: Mvusiwekhaya Sicwetsha

Article: ANC bid to campaign in newsrooms shot down

Author of article: Mkhululi Ndamase

Date: 22 February 2014

Respondent: The Herald and the Weekend Post

COMPLAINT

This ruling is based on the written submissions of Mr Mvusiwekhaya Sicwetsha (an ANC member in the Eastern Cape and spokesman for Local Government MEC Mlibo Qoboshiyane) and Heather Robertson, the editor-in-chief of The Herald newspaper.

Sicwetsha complains about a story in The Herald, headlined ANC bid to campaign in newsrooms shot down, published on 11 February 2014. The same story appeared in the Weekend Post.

He complains that these newspapers breached the confidentiality of an email sent to their editors by publishing its contents, despite a request not to do so.

ANALYSIS

The story, written by Mkhululi Ndamase, reported that the ANC (Eastern Cape) had requested “to be given a platform to campaign in newsrooms to woo votes from journalists”, coming the next general election. The editors reportedly declined this request.

Sicwetsha refers this office to an email to the press in the Eastern Cape in which he stated that its content was confidential. He adds that he told the journalist telephonically that the request in question was not “an official ANC response”.

Robertson denies that the (first) email asked for confidentiality, and says: “We assigned a reporter to write the story, when the reporter phoned, Mvusi sent a mail saying his earlier mail was confidential and we should not have written about it.”

While Eastern Cape editors as well as Sanef have already commented on this issue, please note that it is not the task of this office to make a ruling on the merits or demerits of the request itself – my focus is not on the complainant, but on the reportage.

In his complaint, Sicwetsha argues that the reporting was in breach of the following sections of the Press Code:

  • 1.1: “News should be obtained legally, honestly and fairly, unless public interest dictates otherwise”; and
  • 11.3: “The press shall not publish information that constitutes a breach of confidence, unless a legitimate public interest dictates otherwise”.

My task is to determine if the newspapers were indeed in breach of one or both of these clauses.

Firstly, here are the facts regarding a request for confidentiality:

  • Sicwetsha asked the media to visit newsrooms to campaign to their staff;
  • This email was sent on February 10, at 11:49 – and it did not include any request not to publish; and
  • He followed this up with another email on the same day, at 16:22, saying that the first email was not meant for publication (and this time, specifically asking for confidentiality).

My first observation is that the newspapers were aware of Sicwetsha’s request for confidentiality, prior to publication. Even though this was not spelt out clearly in his first email, the second one (which was sent just over four hours later) did so aptly.

The question, therefore, is not if the newspapers were aware of the request, but if they breached the Press Code by disregarding Sicwetsha’s appeal.

Here are my considerations regarding confidentiality:

  • If the newspapers had promised not to disclose the content of the email, they would have breached confidentiality by publishing the story;
  • There is no indication that the publications did make such a promise; and
  • “Confidentiality” cannot be binding on a publication merely because one source asks for it.

This leads to the next question, namely if the newspapers were justified in disregarding Sicwetsha’s request (as other factors besides a request for confidentiality are in play here).

The two sections of the Code that Sicwetsha himself refers to both include a provision for public interest. I submit that his request to the press was indeed in the public interest, as the next general election was around the corner and the press had a huge influence in shaping its readers’ views and perceptions – surely, the public had the right to know who tries to influence journalists’ views and perceptions.

Lastly, Sicwetsha’s argument that he told the journalist telephonically that the request in question was not “an official ANC response” also does not hold water. His first email made it clear that the matter was official ANC business – the first sentence read: “The ANC in the province would like to visit your newsroom…” (emphasis added).

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