Robert Gumede and Four Rivers Trading vs Sunday Times

Compliant: Robert Gumede and Four Rivers Trading

Lodged by: Nicqui Galaktiou

Article: Aiding and abetting Kabila’s selection cover-up in the Congo

Author of article: Greg Mills

Date: 10 May 2012

Respondent: Sunday Times

Complaint

Mr Robert Gumede and Four Rivers Trading 21 (PRY) Ltd (“FRT”) complain about a column on page 11 of the Sunday Times on 1 January 2012 and headlined Aiding and abetting Kabila’s selection cover-up in the Congo.

Gumede and FRT complain that the column misleadingly involves them in election fraud in the Congo.

Analysis

The column, written by Greg Mills, was mainly about the consequences of fraud and corruption in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Mills wrote that one IT company approached to run the 2011 election “reportedly” turned down the job when the conditions included ensuring Pres Joseph Kabila’s victory. He also quoted the Carter Centre who reportedly said that the results lacked credibility, while the EU election observer team joined others in citing “serious irregularities”.

Involved in election fraud

The paragraph in dispute reads: “One IT company approached to run the election reportedly turned the job down when the conditions included ensuring Kabila’s victory. The election contract eventually went to Four Rivers Trading 21, headed by ANC benefactor Robert Gumede.”

Gumede complains that the article “strongly” implied that he accepted the election contract notwithstanding the alleged condition (to ensure Kabila’s victory). He points out that the preceding paragraph referred to allegations of electoral swindling, ballot stuffing, vote tallying adjustments and pre-endorsed ballots – that placed the paragraph in question within a certain context. Gumede adds that Mills failed to disclose his source “for making these false, damaging and defamatory allegations” and falsely linked them with him.

Galaktiou argues that the implication that Gumede committed electoral fraud may endanger his life in light of the post-election violence that erupted in the DRC, and may cause damage to his business. She also says that Mills relied on “unverified rumours” to create a sensationalist article without even contacting Gumede for comment.

The Sunday Times denies that the column implied that Gumede was involved in electoral fraud, or was in any way defamatory of him. The newspaper says: “We submit that merely stating that an IT company reportedly turned down a contract with a condition to ensure Kabila’s victory does not imply that the same condition was made to Mr Gumede’s company or that Mr Gumede accepted such a condition. No reasonable reader would jump to the conclusion that he had.”

It adds that:
• it declined to retract the allegation that Gumede was involved in electoral fraud “because we did not make such an allegation”;
• publishing a letter by Gumede is an appropriate way to deal with his complaint; and
• its source has close dealings with the IT company, and submits that this information cannot be discarded as “unverified rumours”.

In her response, Galaktiou says that the sentences in dispute should not be seen in isolation, but in context. She also challenges the credibility of the source because Mills used the word “reportedly” (regarding the IT company that allegedly turned the job down).

I am prepared to accept that the newspaper’s information was based on reliable sources. I have no reason to disbelieve the newspaper, and I also take into account that Mills visited the DRC shortly before the election. This matter is in any case not an essential aspect of Gumede’s complaint.

Let me now take a close look at the paragraph in dispute.

When one looks at the two sentences in isolation, the newspaper is right – it does not directly ascribe election fraud to Gumede; and both sentences can be construed as accurate.

But more than accuracy is needed, as “text” without the right “context” nearly always leads to unbalanced and therefore misleading journalism.

Gumede can be forgiven for thinking that one (the first sentence) plus one (the second sentence) equals two – the column does not tell the readers what happened to the original election contract, and if the condition to ensure Kabila’s victory was still applicable. Without this information the ordinary reader would probably link the two sentences in the same way than Gumede did.

But there is more:
• These two sentences together form one paragraph, underlining the impression that the one leads to the other and that the condition was or may have been applicable to Gumede; and
• The paragraphs immediately before and after the one in dispute are about allegations of widespread electoral swindle, the alleged lack of credibility of the election results and “serious irregularities” – in the middle of which Mills reports that Gumede got the contract. This context is hard to miss, and it is difficult not to link the Gumede sentence with the irregularities that are mentioned immediately before and after the sentence that mentions him.

Last, but not least, the headline links Gumede with election fraud. I asked myself the question to whom this “aiding and abetting” can refer to. Gumede is the only person in the column that qualifies.

In the end the ordinary reader would probably put two and two together and believe that Gumede was involved or at least was possibly involved in election fraud, based on the:
• structure of the column – the reference to Gumede is in the middle of the mentioning of various irregularities;
• headline; and
• lack of vital information – since the column left the impression of possible fraud, the newspaper should have indicated if the condition of Kabila’s victory was also included in Gumede’s contract.

This impression that the column leaves the reader with is not fair to Gumede, and it is without substance.

Note that:
• if that was the writer’s intention to convey the message of (possible) fraud on Gumede’s part, and if he had proof or credible, independent sources to back it up, it would have been in the public interest to publish this allegation. However, the newspaper denies that it wanted to carry that message – in which case the column’s structure as well as the lack of the proper context has probably led to unbalanced and misleading journalism, causing Gumede unnecessary harm; and
• Mills was under no obligation to ask Gumede for comment, as his column was an opinion piece and not a hard news story.

Finding

Involved in election fraud

The column and its headline is in breach of:
• Art. 8.1 of the Press Code that says: “The press shall be entitled to comment upon or criticize any actions of public interest, provided such comments or criticisms are fairly…made”; and
• Art. 8.3 of the Code: “Comment by the press…shall take fair account of all available facts which are material to the matter commented upon.”

Sanction

The Sunday Times is directed to apologise to Gumede and his company for implying that he may have been involved in election fraud in the DRC. This should be published prominently on either 20 or 27 May 2012, if no party appeals.

The newspaper is directed to publish the following text:

The Sunday Times apologises to prominent businessman Robert Gumede for unfairly implying in a column that he may have been involved in election fraud in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

This comes after Gumede lodged a complaint with the Press Ombudsman regarding a column that we published on 1 January 2012, which was written by Greg Mills and headlined Aiding and abetting Kabila’s selection cover-up in the Congo.

The paragraph in dispute read: “One IT company approached to run the election reportedly turned the job down when the conditions included ensuring (Pres Joseph) Kabila’s victory. The election contract eventually went to Four Rivers Trading 21, headed by ANC benefactor Robert Gumede.”

Gumede complained that this implied that he accepted the election contract notwithstanding the alleged condition to ensure Kabila’s victory.

Deputy Press Ombudsman Johan Retief found that the column left the impression that the condition to ensure Kabila’s victory was or still may have been applicable to Gumede, which linked him to possible election fraud in the DRC – a link that was without any substance. He argued that we should have indicated if this condition was included in Gumede’s contract after having created such an impression.

Retief said that the column was unfair to Gumede and that it has probably caused him unnecessary harm. He directed us to apologise to him.

Visit www.presscouncil.org.za (rulings, 2012) 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 Appeals Panel, Judge Ralph Zulman, fully setting out the grounds of appeal. He can be contacted at Khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.

Johan Retief
Deputy Press Ombudsman