Pilanesberg Platinum Mines vs Beeld

Complainant: Pilanesberg Platinum Mines

Lodged by: Mr Tom Dale, and Ms Charmane Russell

Article: Groep verkla oor myn by reservaat, and Blou Skerpioene bekyk reuse-myn

Author of article:  Elise Tempelhoff

Date: 7 June 2013

Respondent: Beeld

COMPLAINT

PPM complains about two stories in Beeld on 3 and 12 February 2013 respectively, headlined Groep verkla oor myn by reservaat, and Blou Skerpioene bekyk reuse-myn. The complaint is also about tweets that the reporter posted on 4 and 5 February regarding the same matter.

Dale complains that:

·         four statements in the first story and two in the second were defamatory and false;

·         PPM’s right to dignity and reputation was tarnished;

·         tweets from Tempelhoff were defamatory and/or incorrect, and that this attested to her lack of independence;

·         Tempelhoff did not verify her information; and

·         the second headline was a distortion, exaggeration and misrepresentation of the news.

ANALYSIS

The first story, written by Elise Tempelhoff, was about a criminal case which the Federation for a Sustainable Environment (FSE) lodged at the Police against PPM, a platinum mine group that operated a large opencast mine next to the Pilanesberg Nature Reserve.

The second story, also authored by Tempelhoff, said that the Blue Scorpions has cracked down on (“toegeslaan het op”) PPM.

The reporter’s tweets (on her own internet site) dealt with issues related to these stories.

Defamatory, false statements

PPM complains about the following statements:

The first story

·         “Lieffering het hierop gesê dit is ‘pure bog’ dat daar so iets soos ‘n konsep-waterlisensie is”;

·         “Russel het geweier om afskrifte van die ‘konsep-waterlisensie’ of the omgewingstudies wat Platmin ingevolge die Nasionale Omgewingsbestuurswet (Nema) moes onderneem voordat hulle kon myn, aan Beeld te gee. Dit is albei openbare dokumente”;

·         “Volgens Lesejane is die bedrywighede van die myn strydig met die NTPA (North West Toerist and Park Agency) se plan vir die streek”; and

·         “Hy het gesê die NTPA is magteloos teen Platmin omdat die department van mineraalbronne ‘n mynreg aan hulle toegestaan het’ ”.

The second story

·         “Die Blou Skerpione het verlede week toegeslaan op Platmin, wat ‘n reuse-oopgroefmyn in ‘n beoogde erfenisgebied op die voorstoep van die Pilanesberg-natuurreservaat bedryf”; and

·         “Volgens Adams bestaan daar nie so iets soos ‘n ‘konsep-waterlisensie’ nie. ‘Die nasionale Waterwet maak nie vir so iets voorsiening nie’, het hy gesê.”

Dale complains that these sentences were meant to portray that PPM:

·         was dishonest in its operations;

·         was non-co-operative toward assisting in informing the public;

·         was “bullying” the community in which it operated;

·         did not follow the legal process in respect of its operations; and

·         was reckless, negligent and malicious (and Beeld published these “with the knowledge that the allegations were false”).

Beeld denies all of the above and says that the stories were straight reporting. They did not contain any comment from the reporter, but only from its sources. The newspaper states: “Every fact and opinion expressed in the two articles involved was attributed to a person who spoke on the record… They are all reputed sources. They commented and gave their opinions from a very well informed position.”

The newspaper also says that PPM did not bring any evidence to this office to substantiate its complaint.

The publication specifically states that PPM refused to give Tempelhoff a copy of the mine’s Water Use Licence (a public document) and that she merely reported that fact – denying that this was an attack on PPM’s reputation.

However, it accepts that its use of the word “toegeslaan” (“cracked down on”) in the introduction to the second story was “very strong” and that it should perhaps have used words such as “started with an investigation”. The newspaper says: “We are prepared to correct the impression that it could have made our readers think that the blue scorpions arrived on that day at the mine to investigate. Fact of the matter is that the mine is being investigated by the Blue Scorpions.”

PPM responds that the word “toegeslaan” was indeed alarmist and sensational, and argues that it was construed to leave the false impression that the mine was about to close down.

Dale also says that Tempelhoff’s contestation that PPM continued to operate without a water use licence was mischievous and misleading. He says that the reporter was experienced enough to know that there are situations in the country where operations continue “even in the absence of a water use licence in its final format, within the bounds of prior or temporary arrangements, whether formal or not”.

I note that the reporter did not record the complete response by the mines’ spokesperson who said in response to Tempelhoff’s request for a copy of the water use licence: “The integrated water use licence application (IWULA) for the Pilanesberg Platinum Mine (PPM) was submitted on 4 April 2008. It is common knowledge that there is a backlog of these applications. PPM, in common with many other mining operations, operates with the knowledge of and under close scrutiny by the Department of Water Affairs. A draft IWUL was issued on 20 August 2009.”

Fairness dictates that the reporter should have included the full text of this statement in her story.

Right to dignity, reputation tarnished

PPM complains that its right to dignity and reputation was tarnished.

Beeld denies this.

Given my argument under the sub-section above, it follows that I do not believe that Beeld has unnecessarily tarnished PPM’s dignity and reputation. The reporter was entitled to quote her sources. The statements from these sources may have painted a certain picture of PPM, but that is not Tempelhoff’s fault.

Tweets; lack of independence

Tempelhoff tweeted the following:

·         “Platmin charged for threatening nature reserves …”; and

·         “Since when do enviro NGO’s need 2 buy public documents from mining companies? #FSE had to pay R7 000 for enviro documents from Platmin. Why?”

PPM complains that these tweets were defamatory and inaccurate, and argues that they attested to her lack of independence because she has allowed non-professional considerations to influence or slant her reporting. It also says that Tempelhoff’s association with the FSE inhibited her ability to be independent. “Ms Tempelhoff is clearly a conduit for the FSE’s relations campaigns. The matter should not be seen in isolation but in the context of ongoing harassment of mining companies.”

In general, Beeld says that sustainable development is of national interest and also of great interest to it and to its readers. “We therefore see it as our responsibility to report in some depth on these issues.”

In particular, the newspaper says that the tweets are not subject to the jurisdiction of this office as the journalist published them in her personal capacity.

PPM responds that this argument was spurious and questions the ethics behind them. “The nature of the tweets themselves revealed a clear and personal interest and bias by Ms Tempelhoff…to the point that we believe she can no longer be objective.”

It asks the following questions:

·         Is it acceptable for a reporter to use information s/he has privileged access to?

·         Can such tweeting be considered personal, given that Tempelhoff clearly indicated in her twitter profile that she was a journalist?

·         May she use the same source of information in both Beeld and on twitter?

·         Is it acceptable for her to make prejudicial and untrue comments, and to solicit comment from others?

The newspaper is correct on this issue.

This is why:

·         Publications and online sites which are members of the Press Council must comply with the Code. This means that published articles and reports must not breach the Code. Reporters who have their own blogs or twitter pages are not subject to the Press Code; and

·         Journalists’ news employers cannot be held liable for comments that reporters publish privately on their own online sites or pages – unless, of course, such site is owned by a member publication.

What a journalist does in her or his personal capacity really is of no interest to this office. I am therefore not going to belabour the merits or demerits of PPM’s arguments on this issue (in relation to the complaint that the tweets were defamatory and inaccurate).

Regarding the complaint about a possible conflict of interest and a lack of independence on Tempelhoff’s part:

In this case, I do not believe that her reporting was slanted and overly subjective – the use of the words “cracked down on” and the omission of PPM’s statement about the Water Use Licence are not enough for me to conclude against her on this matter, as otherwise her stories were above suspicion.

No verification

PPM complains that Tempelhoff did not verify her information.

In an e-mail to the reporter the spokesperson says: “Platmin declines to comment on the documentation purportedly sent by FSE to the Minister. Platmin will, as it always does and is required to do, engage with and report to the regulatory authorities on such matters”. It appears that Platmin did not wish to engage on the issue the reporter required. That was Platmin’s right but it cannot, after exercising that right, complain of unfair treatment if the reporter does not reflect its views.

Moreover:

·         both stories reflected the views and information obtained from sources who were identified, and no further verification was required in this case; and

·         The mine’s spokesperson was given an opportunity to comment.

Second headline

The second story’s headline read: Blou Skerpioene bekyk reuse-myn (Blue Scorpions inspects/scrutinises/looks at large mine).

PPM complains that this headline was a distortion, exaggeration and misrepresentation of the news.

Beeld responds to the first headline, but not to the second.

PPM has no leg to stand on – the story quoted the chief of the Blue Scorpions, who reportedly said that a team from the Department of Water Affairs was investigating its activities in the region. This meets the requirement that Art. 10.1 of the Press Code sets: “Headlines…shall give a reasonable reflection of the contents of the report…in question.”

FINDING

Defamatory, false statements

The use of the phrase “cracked down on” left the wrong and unfair impression that PPM was about to close down. This is in breach of Art. 2.1 of the Press Code that states: “The press shall take care to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly.”

The omission of PPM’s statement about its Water Use Licence was material and therefore in breach of Art. 2.2: “News shall be presented in context and in a balanced manner, without any intentional or negligent departure from the facts whether by…material omissions…”

The complaint about the other five sentences is dismissed.

Right to dignity, reputation tarnished

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

Tweets; lack of independence

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

No verification

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

Second headline

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

SANCTION

Beeld is:

·         reprimanded for omitting PPM’s statement about its Water Use Licence; and

·         cautioned for the use of the phrase “cracked down on”.

The newspaper is directed to publish the following text:

Die Persombudsman het Beeld berispe omdat ons nagelaat het om kommentaar van Platmin, ‘n platinum-myngroep, oor sy waterlisensie te publiseer; hy het ons ook vermaan oor die gebruik van die stelling dat die Blou Skerpioene op die myn “toegeslaan” het.

Platmin het by die Ombudsman gekla oor twee stories, albei geskryf deur Elise Tempelhof, wat ons op onderskeidelik 3 en 12 Februarie vanjaar onder die opskrifte Groep verkla oor myn by reservaat, en Blou Skerpioene bekyk reuse-myn gepubliseer het.

Die eerste storie het gesê dat die Federasie vir ‘n Volhoubare Omgewing (FVO) ‘n strafregtelike klag by die polisie ingedien het teen Platmin, wat ‘n reuse-oopgroefmyn op die voorstoep van die Pilanesberg-natuurreservaat bedryf; die tweede storie het berig dat die Blou Skerpoene op Platmin “toegeslaan” het.

Die Ombudsman, Johan Retief, het bevind dat ons Platmin se kommentaar oor sy waterlisensie moes geplaas het. Dié myngroep het gesê dat dit algemene kennis is dat daar ‘n agterstand is met die toeken van sodanige aansoeke, dat hy reeds op 4 April 2008 aansoek gedoen het, dat hy optree met die wete en onder die streng toesig van die Departement van Watersake, en dat ‘n konsep-lisensie op 20 Augustus 2009 aan hom uitgereik is.

“Billikheid het vereis dat die verslaggewer die volle teks van hierdie stelling moes gepubliseer het.”

Hy het ook bevind dat die woord “toegeslaan” die verkeerde persepsie geskep het dat Platmin op die punt was om te sluit, terwyl die Blou Skerpioene bloot met ‘n ondersoek begin het.

Retief het egter die grootste deel van Platmin se klag van die hand gewys. Dit het ingesluit:

·         vyf sinne wat volgens die myngroep lasterlik en vals sou wees;

·         dat ons Platmin se reg op waardigheid en reputasie sou geskend het;

·         dat tweets van Tempelhoff lasterlik en/of vals sou wees;

·         dat Tempelhoff te subjektief by die stories betrokke was (wat haar rapportering nadelig sou beïnvloed het);

·         dat die verslaggewer nie haar inligting geverifieer het nie; en

·         die tweede storie se opskrif, wat oordrewe en misleidend sou wees.

Die Ombudsman het gesê hy glo nie dat Tempelhoff se verslaggewing oordrewe subjektief was nie – “die gebruik van die woord ‘toegeslaan’ en die weglating van Platmin se kommentaar oor sy waterlisensie het my nie genoeg rede gegee om teen haar te bevind nie, omdat haar stories andersins bo verdenking was.”

Besoek www.presscouncil.org.za vir die volledige bevinding.

End of text

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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