Sandile Ngema vs Ilanga

Complainant: Sandile Ngema

Article: Utshwala ‘nezingane’ kuvale umsakazo (Alcohol,‘children’ close radio station)

Date: 18 April 2011

Respondent: Ilanga

Complaint
Mr Sandile Ngema, station manager of Imbokodo Community Radio Station (Durban), complains about a story in Illanga, published on October 31, 2010 and headlined Utshwala ‘nezingane’ kuvale umsakazo (Alcohol,‘children’ close radio station).
Ngema complains that the story:
  • falsely and unfairly blames him for the temporary closure of the station;
  • misrepresents his comment and omits to mention the “real reason” for the closure of the station; and
  • deliberately aims to destroy his reputation.
Although Ngema does not complain about the heading, I am including it in the complaint.
Analysis
The story says that Ngema likes alcohol and women, is bossy and stubborn, acts like a dictator and is incapable of managing the station – the reasons why the station closed down (it owed R30 000 in rent). Ngema reportedly dismissed these allegations.
I shall now consider the merits of the complaint:
Blaming Ngema
The intro to the story says: “They say he likes alcohol and women and being bossy he can’t be told what to do and that’s what makes the station manager Sandile Ngema incapable of managing the station.” The next sentence states that the radio station closed down because it owed R30 000 in rent. The story also says that the problem can be resolved, but that the station suffers because Ngema is stubborn and “cannot be advised”.
Ngema complains that it is untrue that he does not know how to lead and that he was incapable of running the station. He explains that the station has been fighting with Coastal College (in Durban), on whose premises the station operated, “since they want us to pay money for rent on top of the airtime that we are giving them”. He says that the negotiations failed, upon which the college closed the station’s doors. He then wrote to the office of the president of the country, the minister of communications, the premier of KZN and his MEC for education for their intervention and advice.
Ngema argues that:
  • he has attended many workshops on how to manage a community radio station;
  • he holds a degree in communication science from Unisa; and
  • Illanga cannot prove beyond reasonable doubt the defamatory statement that alcohol and many girlfriends were the reasons that led to the closure of the station.
As the newspaper did not adequately respond to this part of the complaint, I asked the editor on February 21 to do so. On April 12 I repeated that request. However, nothing was forthcoming.
The story is based on what sources have said – nowhere does the article state it as a fact that Ngema is personally responsible for the station’s closure. It is clear that:
  • each and every sentence is attributed to these sources (note words like “they say”, “this we were told”, and “the sources say”); and
  • the allegations against Ngema are merely the opinions of the sources.
This is kind of reportage is not uncommon. If sources blamed Ngema for the closure of the station, it is the newspaper’s right to report these allegations.
Omitting the real reason (misrepresented)
Ngema complains that the story omits to state the real reasons for the temporary closure of the station. He says: “For the record, I gave the reporter the full details of what is happening to the station and I never said it should not be published.” He says that he even leaked the journalist a document that was meant for a stakeholder – so that the reporter could understand the situation better.
He says that his views were misrepresented, adding that he explained the situation to a journalist of Illanga and even e-mailed her the letter mentioned above. He says he was surprised to read that she then blamed him for the closure of the station.
Illanga says that its journalist:
  • alleges that Ngema was one of the sources to the article, “but (he) insisted not to be quoted”;
  • together with its news editor say Ngema is unhappy “because he was trying to get positive publicity by using the journalist anonymously but when it backfired and the journalist uncovered some other grains, he then became furious”;
  • used two sources in the station and a business person who used to advertise in the station; and
  • gave Ngema an opportunity to respond to the allegations levelled against him and he did give her his side of the story.
The newspaper adds that Ngema told its reporter that he did not want to give a detailed version of what was happening at the station. It also says that the story highlighted “another side of things” that are contributing to the station’s problems – and that Ngema, while hoping for PR sympathy, only ended up with egg on his face.
In his reply to the newspaper’s response to his complaint, Ngema says that:
  • it is misleading to say that he insisted not to be quoted – he did not want to be named, but she could write what he was saying;
  • his only reason for asking not to be mentioned “is because I was going to be perceived as a person who is fighting with the College through the media while on the other hand I am in need for discussion with them”;
  • he did not seek positive publicity;
  • he did not become furious when he read the story; and
  • it is “shocking and embarrassing” for Illanga to say that the story highlights another side of things that are contributing to the station’s problems, while the headline tells another story.
The newspaper’s argument that Ngema was unhappy because his idea to get positive publicity backfired, that it used three sources, and that it gave Ngema an opportunity to respond to the allegations levelled against him are all irrelevant regarding this part of the complaint.
What is relevant is Ngema insistence that he did not want to be quoted, and also the journalist’s admission that he did give her his side of the story. The implication is that Ngema’s insistence not to be quoted was the reason why his side of the story was not published.
Ngema’s argument makes sense – he would talk to the journalist and she could quote him, on condition that he remained anonymous for fear of jeopardising discussions with the college.
The whole story is about Ngema – yet his side of the story is not reflected in it.
Destroying his reputation
Ngema complains that the story deliberately attacked his personality and aimed to destroy his reputation. In his reply to the newspaper’s response to his complaint, he says that he has heard that the journalist is a friend with staff members who were fired a year ago, “and now they want to destroy my reputation using the newspaper”.
Again, Illanga does not respond to this part of the complaint. This matter formed part of the e-mails that I sent to the editor on February 21 and April 12. And again, I got no response.
The following is clear:
  • Wrongly or rightly, the story did harm Ngema’s reputation;
  • It is difficult to deny that his personality was attacked; and
  • The story does not mention Ngema’s reason for the station’s closure (the newspaper also does not defend itself against this part of the complaint).
Based on the above, it is difficult to see how the story could be fair to Ngema.
Headline
The headline reads: Utshwala ‘nezingane’ kuvale umsakazo (Alcohol, ‘children’ close radio station).
I gave the editor a chance to defend the headline. He did not make use of this opportunity.
The story never states it as a fact that alcohol and “children” were the reasons for the closure of the station – it attributes it to sources. The headline, however, states it as a fact. This is not reflective of the story, as the Press Code dictates.
Finding
Blaming Ngema
The story is based on what sources have said – nowhere does the article state it as a fact that Ngema is personally responsible for the station’s closure. This part of the complaint is dismissed.
Omitting the real reason (misrepresented)
There was no valid reason to omit Ngema’s side of the story. This is in breach of Art. 1.5 of the Press Code that states: “A publication should usually seek the views of the subject of serious critical reportage in advance of publication…” (Although this article does not state it specifically, the intention is that the subject’s views should be sought and published.)
Destroy his reputation
The story,rightly or wrongly, caused harm to Ngema’s reputation. The fact that his reason for the station’s closure is not mentioned is unfair to him and is in breach of Art. 1.1 of the Press Code that states: “The press shall be obliged to report news…fairly.”
Headline
The headline does not reflect the content of the story. This is in breach of Art. 5.1 of the Press Code: “Headlines…shall give a reasonable reflection of the contents of the report…in question.”
Sanction
Illanga is directed to apologise to Ngema for:
  • neglecting to publish his reason(s) for the temporary closure of the station;
  • unfair reporting; and
  • stating it as a fact in the headline that his use of alcohol and “children” were the reasons for the station’s closure.
The newspaper is directed to:
  • publish a summary of this finding (not the whole ruling) and sanction on the same page as the story in dispute;
  • publish Ngema’s reason(s) for the temporary closure of the station – if he wants the reason(s) to be published; and
  • furnish our office with the text prior to publication.
Please add the following sentence at the end of the text: “Visit www.presscouncil.org.za (rulings, 2011) for the full finding.”
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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