Reboni Furniture Group vs Sowetan

Complainant: Reboni Furniture Group

Lodged by: Glyn Marais attorneys

Article: ‘We’re being exploited’. A headline on the front page read Ria’s horror factory: One worker dead and two mutilated – Page 5

Author of article: Mogomotsi Selebi

Date: 19 April 2013

Respondent: Sowetan

COMPLAINT

The Reboni Furniture Group (RFG) complains about a story in Sowetan on 7 November 2012, headlined ‘We’re being exploited’. A headline on the front page read Ria’s horror factory: One worker dead and two mutilated – Page 5.

The RFG complains that:

·         some statements reportedly coming from workers, or with regards to them, were either inaccurate or out of context;

·         a statement by Cosatu’s North West provincial secretary and a counter-statement by the RFG’s manager  are irrelevant and out of context, and that some statements regarding the provincial Labour Department were false;

·         the headline was distorted, inaccurate and defamatory; and

·         the newspaper’s communication with the group prior to publication was inadequate.

In general, the RFG says that the story was distorted, inaccurate, out of context, unfair, defamatory, and inflammatory.

ANALYSIS

The story, written by Mogomotsi Selebi, said that factory workers at the RFG have accused football administrator and a director of the group, Ms Ria Ledwaba, of caring more about profits that their well-being. It also contained allegations of an exploitative working environment at the RFG. Selebi wrote that some employees protested outside the company’s premises against the high rate of accidents – one of which reportedly resulted in somebody’s death in March of the previous year.

Statements by/about workers

The following (in bullet form) are the statements that the RFG complains about:

·         “Workers at a factory linked to football administrator, Ria Ledwaba, have accused the company of caring more about profits than their wellbeing.”

The RFG denies that it did not care for its employees and states that it is known as the best employer in the region (it says that it pays on average 48% higher than industry minimums and that the vast majority of the permanent employees have more than 10 years’ service).

Sowetan replies that there is no denial that workers were paid the amounts that the story quoted. Besides, the article was not about the furniture industry, but about the general working conditions at the RFG.

·         “On Friday, the workers…protested outside the company’s premises.”

This sentence appeared immediately after the one mentioned above.

The RFG complains that this allegation “appears (to be) completely out of context” in that it suggested that the reason for the protests were as a result of it caring more about profits that the well-being of the workers. However, the company does admit that protests have taken place.

Sowetan notes that the RFG admits that there was a protest – the rest are the company’s “own interpretations and subjective opinions”.

This sentence has to be read in conjunction with the one that follows.

·         “The employees say they are fed up about the high rate of accidents and injuries at the factory.”

The RFG denies this allegation and says that it is meticulous about safety in its factory. It states that in the past four years and with more than 300 employees, it has experienced 14 minor incidents (cuts and bruises), “all of which resulted in full recoveries”. It admits that there was one serious accident that resulted in a “minor disability” and there was also one fatal accident (the only one in the group’s history). It points out that the average accident rate in the furniture industry was approximately 15 accidents per year, and that its own figures were 4.25 per annum.

The newspaper replies: “The story was about those serious injuries which the complainant believes are ‘minor’ and ‘isolated’, but which in the context of the value we attach to human life and the finding of the Department of Labour, we believe are newsworthy incidents.”

The RFG replies that it never said that it does not take the lives of their workers seriously. “Such an allegation is rejected and denied.”

·         “The employees claim (Mr Vusi) Mafika was hit by a piece of wood on the head in March last year. They further claim that while Mafika lay injured on the floor, management ordered them to ‘go back to work as if nothing had happened’.”

Mafika reportedly died as a result of his injuries.

The RFG complains that the allegation in the second sentence was inaccurate. The group says that the factory manager asked employees to return to their areas of work “as a matter of first aid protocol” and to clear the way so that Mafika could be treated by emergency medical assistants (as a large group of workers had gathered around him, blocking access to him). The RFG mentions that the official finding of an investigation into the incident was that it was a freak accident for which no blame could be ascribed to management or to Mafika.

The newspaper says that it spoke to workers who witnessed Mafika’s death, who ascribed the incident to the general working conditions of the factory.

·         “The workers say none of their injured colleagues had been compensated for their injuries, which had left some without fingers…while others have suffered terrible burn wounds.”

The RFG denies these allegations and refers to the statistics mentioned above. It also says that it ensures that all relevant documentation is immediately submitted to both the Department of Labour and the Compensation Commissioner. The group explains that it has no control over the payment of compensation and that it is not able to interfere with or influence the Commissioner’s findings.

Sowetan replies that the RFG clearly did not know whether or not its workers were compensated.

·         “Machine operations Fanie Segone and Philemon Mothante have no fingers, which they claim they lost while working in the company’s machines… ‘It is difficult to make ends meet because I also have to support two children. I only received R3 000 from the provident fund after I lost my hand,’ Seemise (another worker who had an accident) said.”

The RFG admits that these statements were accurate, but complains that they were out of context. The group says that the Department of Labour conducted a full investigation into both these accidents. It adds that Segone’s accident happened 16 years before the publication of the story – and states that the reasons for the workers’ protests had nothing to do with this incident. The RFG says that it had no say in the R3 000 that Seemise received from the provident fund.

The newspaper says that the company admits that the statements were true and therefore it “needs no further response”. It adds that Seemise was entitled to his opinion.

·         “Segone lost his thumb and fingers in an accident on June 3 last year. ‘I was blowing off dust from a machine using a small pipe when a bigger pipe sucked my hand in. That is how I got injured,’ Segone said. Asked why he did not switch off the bigger machine at the time, Segone said: ‘The manager, Etienne Fourie, insists that the machines must be left on until we close.’ He said he was taken to hospital and ‘left there all by myself’. Segone said they do use safety gloves and boots but that ‘the person responsible for the safety equipment, Mmapula Khumalo, sometimes tells us that there isn’t any equipment to use’.”

The RFG says that its work practice dictated that machines should be left on in cases of accidents or injuries. The group adds that Segone was using compressed air to clean a machine – which was not permitted (and to which all workers were alerted). It was also standard company practice that a health/safety officer was on standby to complete all the necessary documentation and ensure a safe handover of the injured employee to a medical practitioner for further attention. Regarding safety gloves and boots, the RFG admits that there were incidents where dust masks have run out of stock, “but these were all immediately rectified”.

Sowetan reiterates that Seemise and Segone were entitled to his opinion, and emphasizes the use of the word “sometimes” in the quote.

Here are my considerations:

·         Some of the arguments (from both sides) went beyond the texts that the RFG complained about – I shall use those arguments only as background information;

·         All but one of the above-mentioned texts were allegations that were – without fail – attributed to sources;

·         These sources had the right to say what they reportedly did, and the newspaper had the right to publish them; and

·         Reboni says that some of the texts were accurate, but out of context as the strike was about wages and not as a result of poor health and safety. That may be true, but the fact remains that the workers reportedly were also dissatisfied with working conditions at the RFG – rightly or wrongly. Again, it was their right to say what they reportedly said, and the newspaper was justified in reporting that.

Provincial secretary vs. manager; Provincial Labour Department

The story stated that that Cosatu’s North West provincial secretary, Mr Solly Phetoe, had said that the RFG’s manager, Mr Etienne Fourie, was “arrogant” when he had been told about allegations regarding working conditions and that he had replied: “Phetoe is talking rubbish. He is lying.”

The article also said: “Spokeswoman for the provincial labour department Orpa Mathabe…said Fourie had initially denied its officials entry into the factory when they went there to do a site visit. Mathabe said when they were finally allowed into the factory they found no safety measures in place and ‘the toilets were also in a bad state’. She reportedly said their inspectors found some improvements on a return visit to the factory on November 1. ‘All the other issues had been addressed except for the toilets and the noise assessment. The inspectors will be going back again next week. There were no health and safety representatives, incidents were not recorded and there was no risk assessment in place’, said Mathabe.”

The RFG complains that these statements were irrelevant and adds that the context was in dispute. It says that:

·         the union was insistent that it should engage into plant level negotiations (a practice disallowed by the collective bargaining agreement);

·         the strike was illegal;

·         it was compliant with its legal obligations;

·         it has always welcomed the Department of Labour onto its premises;

·         its safety standards always met all required specifications and it underwent annual risk audits to maintain its compliance;

·         its toilets were always clean; and

·         it carried out an internal survey and provided earplugs for every employee.

The group adds that the journalist neglected to report these facts.

Sowetan replies that, while Ledwaba commented on the safety situation at the factory, Fourie could say only a few words and was clearly not interested in engaging in detailed conversation with its reporter. It adds that the Department of Labour was the only competent authority to make findings on safety issues of this nature.

I now need to take a closer look at the newspaper’s reporting on the two responses at hand (by Ledwaba and by the Department of Labour).

Ledwaba

The story devoted only one paragraph to Ledwaba’s comments. These were that the RFG trained its employers properly, that Mafika’s death was an unfortunate accident; and it included some statements regarding Fourie.

I note that the article indeed did not include the RFG’s views on most of the issues that it complains about – the most important of which probably was that its safety standards always met all required specifications and it underwent annual risk audits to maintain its compliance.

In addition to the list above, the story also did not report Ledwaba’s comments on:

·         the high rate of accidents and injuries;

·         compensation of the employees;

·         labour officials who allegedly were denied entrance to the RFG; and

·         noise assessment.

I have already stated that the Sowetan was entitled to publish comments by workers, who were free to comment. However, the shoe is now on the other foot – in the interest of balance and fairness these comments should have been put to Ledwaba. The newspaper should have given factory management a full opportunity to deal with all the allegations that directly or indirectly impacted on the RFG.

The Department of Labour

It was the journalist’s right to quote Mathabe. However, the story should have made it clear that the inspection that she referred to was done on 1 November 2011 (which it did not do). As the story was published on 7 November 2012, this left the misleading impression that the inspection was done immediately prior to publication. This, in turn, negated all the progress that the RFG may have made in improving working conditions.

Headline

The RFG complains that the headline was distorted, inaccurate, exaggerated and defamatory. It says that it targeted one of its directors (Ledwaba) and argues that presumably “this deliberate distortion was perpetrated as a result of Ria’s public image as a soccer administrator”. The group says that the headline was defamatory “as it was couched in a fashion which is intended to deceive its readers of the true facts recorded herein”.

Sowetan concedes that the headline was inaccurate insofar as it created the impression that she was the only director – hence “we were willing to do a follow up story that would clarify the company’s shareholding”. However, the newspaper states that Ledwaba’s and Fraser’s undertaking to assist was “later aborted”. It says that it was still willing to rectify this matter.

It also defends the use of the word “horror” in the headline – “unless the company wants to suggest otherwise”. It adds that this word must be seen in light of the manner in which employees quoted in the story described their working conditions, and the details contained in the report by the Department of Labour.

The newspaper argues that Ledwaba was indeed a public figure with a high profile and a well-known soccer administrator – which “cannot be wished away” and is “a fact”.

In response, the RFG says that the limited number of incidents that the story quoted (one of which happened over 16 years ago), “does not constitute a horrific situation”.

Here are my considerations:

·         The word “horror” in the headline should have been put in inverted commas. The newspaper’s own argument testifies to this (see: “employees quoted”). As it stands, the headline portrays “horror factory” not as an opinion, but as fact; and

·         The word “Ria’s” (horror factory) indeed created the wrong impression that Ledwaba was the RFG’s only director (as admitted by the newspaper).

Inadequate communication; lack of verification

The RFG complains that the newspaper’s questions to Ledwaba did not properly address the issues that the story reported on and that that led to a lack of the necessary verification. It says that Sowetan only asked her about the fatal incident (she says that the company was cleared in this regard) and about allegations that Fourie had been accused of mistreating workers.

Then, after publication, the newspaper asked her about the identities of other directors and other related matters. The group says that this clearly demonstrated that the journalist made no attempts to verify the facts of the story and that the Sowetan had not even tried to contact its other directors and in particular its managing director, Mr Max Frehse.

The group also says that when Fourie was contacted for comment he did not know that he was speaking with a reporter from the Sowetan. It adds that Fourie was approached by only one reporter, who had announced himself as being from the SABC. “At no time was Mr Fourie approached by the Sowetan, nor was he ever made aware that his comment was required for the purposes of responding to an incorrect and/or distorted news article.” It adds that, other than a general request for comment, Fourie was never asked to confirm or deny any of the information that the newspaper relied upon in its story.

Sowetan replies that:

·         it was clear from the Department of Labour’s report that Ledwaba’s claim that the company was cleared was misleading. “The report (instead) provides detail of the company’s failure to comply with safety regulations”;

·         the reporter asked Ledwaba about the treatment of workers, and the story recorded her response;

·         when Ledwaba brought the issue of other directors to its attention, it undertook to correct the matter through a follow-up story (which never materialized as Ledwaba and Fraser “changed their minds”). It states that it still remained committed to addressing this issue;

·         soon after Ledwaba claimed that the report had cleared the RFG, it became necessary to ask follow-up questions to provide details (as the report allegedly did not clear the company);

·         it is “utterly false” that Selebi did not contact Fourie – both she and a photographer visited the Reboni premises and the reporter put the allegations to him. He “simply dismissed” these and described the allegations by a Cosatu representative as “rubbish” and “lying” (the story reported these statements); and

·         Fourie’s denial that he met with a Sowetan reporter is “shocking and unbelievable”.

The RFG replies that the newspaper’s questions were not follow-up issues, but instead clarification questions “clearly indicating that the Sowetan had not done the necessary investigation prior to publishing the article”.

I have summarized the above for the sake of completeness. However, I believe that I have already adequately dealt with these matters. The rest of the issues that I have not already covered, are not material to the complaint. This sub-section will therefore not form part of my finding (below).

In general: Distorted, inaccurate, out of context, unfair, defamatory

The RFG complains that the story was distorted, inaccurate, out of context and it “intentionally, alternatively negligently failed to report in a manner that was fair, accurate and truthful”. It says that the newspaper’s failure to verify facts and the material omissions mentioned above had the effect of leaving the average reader with an inaccurate and distorted view of the group. It also cast Ledwaba in an unfair light and insinuated her as a person who disregarded the safety and security of her workforce. It adds that the story portrayed her position as a director out of context.

The group argues that the story created the potential of inciting further violence against the company and states that it in fact condoned the unlawful activities of the employees (“by failing to set out the true state of affairs”). It states that the newspaper focused on “an isolated and small group of incidents” that took place in order to falsely portray it as an irresponsible employer.

Sowetan denies all of these allegations, specifically that the story:

·         meant to suggest that Ledwaba personally disregarded the safety and security of workers. “The article merely reported her links to the company.” In fact, the story clearly stated that it was Fourie who had been accused – not Ledwaba;

·         had the potential to incite violence. “This suggestion is out of sync with the media’s responsibility and duty to society: to tell the truth as is and to expose all manifestations of power – in both public and private sectors”; and

·         deliberately disregarded facts.

The newspaper is adamant that it did not regard the injuries and death that occurred as “isolated and a small group of incidents”.

Again, I have already dealt with these matters – I have stated that the reporting was accurate and (mostly) in context, but added that it was not fair as the story did not include that the RFG’s comments on important matters.

This sub-section will therefore also not form part of my finding (below).

Comment

Sowetan tried to resolve the matter at the time the complaint was made by offering to publish a follow-up story. This has to be commended.

FINDING

Statements by/about workers

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

Provincial secretary vs. manager; Provincial Labour Department

Ledwaba

The story neglected to report Ledwaba’s comments on most of the serious allegations levelled against the RFG (the reporting of some of her views was not nearly adequate). This was unbalanced and unfair, and in breach of the following sections of the Press Code:

·         Art. 1.1: “The press shall be obliged to report news…fairly”;

·         Art. 1.2: “News shall be presented in context and in a balanced manner, without any intentional or negligent departure of the facts whether by…material omissions…”; and

·         Art. 1.5: “A publication should seek the views of the subject of serious critical reportage in advance of publication.”

The Department of Labour

The story created the false impression that the Department’s inspection was done immediately prior to publication. This, in turn, negated all the progress that the RFG may have made to improve working conditions during that year. This was unfair, misleading and out of context. It is in breach of Art. 1.1 of the Press Code: “The press shall be obliged to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly.” It also breached Art. 1.2 of the Code.

Headline

“Horror”: The headline portrayed opinion as fact, while the story attributed the “horror” stories to sources. This is in breach of Art. 11.1 of the Press Code: “Headlines…shall give a reasonable reflection of the contents of the report…in question.”

“Ria’s” (horror factory): This word created the wrong impression that Ledwaba was the RFG’s only director. This is in breach of Art. 1.1 of the Code.

SANCTION

Sowetan is directed to apologise to the RFG for:

·         neglecting to adequately report Ledwaba’s (or the RFG’s) comments on serious allegations;

·         creating the false impression that the Department’s its inspection was done immediately prior to publication; and

·         its misleading headline.

It is also directed to include the RFG’s comments on matters that the story in dispute failed to do (as outlined above) in the text (below) that it is directed to publish on page 5 – if indeed the RFG wants to have its comments published.

Beginning of text:

Sowetan apologises to the Reboni Furniture Group (RFG) for neglecting to adequately report the comments of one of its directors, Ms Ria Ledwaba (or that of the RFG) on some serious allegations levelled against the group, for creating the false impression that the Department’s inspection was done immediately prior to publication, and for a misleading headline.

The RFG lodged a complaint with the Press Ombudsman about a story on 7 November 2012, headlined ‘We’re being exploited’. A headline on the front page read Ria’s horror factory: One worker dead and two mutilated – Page 5.

The story, written by Mogomotsi Selebi, said that factory workers at the RFG have accused Ledwaba of caring more about profits that their well-being. It also contained allegations of an exploitative working environment at the RFG. Selebi wrote that some employees protested outside the company’s premises against the high rate of accidents – one of which reportedly resulted in somebody’s death in March of the previous year.

Press Ombudsman Johan Retief directed us to apologise, saying that we neglected to report

the RFG’s views on most of the serious allegations made against it – “the most important of which probably was that its safety standards always met all required specifications and it underwent annual risk audits to maintain its compliance.”

LEDWABA’S COMMENTS TO BE INCLUDED HERE (if she wishes to do so).

Retief dismissed the RFG’s complaint about seven sentences that attributed information to sources. He said: “These sources had the right to say what they reportedly did, and the newspaper had the right to publish them.”

He added also rejected the complaint that some of these sentences were out of context.

Visit www.presscouncil.org.za for the full finding.

End of text.

APPEAL

Please note that our Complaints Procedures lay down that within seven 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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