Sizwe Mnguni vs Orange Farm Poortjie Indaba

Complainant: Sizwe Mnguni

Lodged by: Sizwe Mnguni

Article: Is DA ward councillor suspended? – ‘They are trying all means to hide’

Author of article: Smanga Kumalo

Date: 5 December 2015

Respondent: Smanga Kumalo, journalist at the Orange Farm Poortjie Indaba

Complaint

Mnguni is complaining about a front-page story in the Orange Farm Poortjie Indaba newspaper of 30 October to 20 November 2015, headlined Is DA ward councillor suspended? – ‘They are trying all means to hide’.

He complains that the allegation that he had been suspended by the DA was untrue, that the publication of such rumours was unfair to him, and that the journalist was driving a political agenda against him. He concludes that the reportage was malicious and damaging to his character.

The text

The story, written by Smanga Kumalo, reported there were allegations that Mnguni had been suspended (placed on special leave) following claims that he had been involved in corruption of some sort. Kumalo also quoted a source who told the journalist that Mnguni was the mastermind behind the protests that have “rocked” Lakeside recently. He was allegedly seen with some ANC officials in Johannesburg in this regard. Another source was quoted as saying that the DA had been trying to hide his suspension from the public.

The DA provincial leader in Gauteng, John Moodey, reportedly denied these allegations.

Kumalo responds

The journalist replies that he:

·         based his story on information garnered from sources;

·         reported the allegations as allegations and did not state them as fact;

·         tried to get comment from Mnguni (he says he went to his house several times and left several messages for him); and

·         did report Moodey’s denial of the allegations.

Kumalo also denies that he was driving a political agenda and that he was biased – he says the same edition of the newspaper carried “positive stories” on the DA, and he had also previously reported that an ANC councillor had been suspended.

Analysis

I wrote the following message to the Public Advocate:

“I have some serious questions regarding DA councilor Mnguni’s complaint. The newspaper published some damning allegations against him, all based on unnamed sources (despite the DA’s explicit denial that there was any truth to the allegations). I need to know more about these sources: Why are they unnamed, what were their positions, were they independent of each other, and especially what evidence did they have to base their information on (or was it merely hearsay)? I shall, of course, keep such information confidential.”

Kumalo gave me the names and contact numbers of two sources, effectively answering my first three questions – but notably, not the last one, where I asked for the evidence on which their information was based.

So, I phoned both sources. Neither could provide any evidence to back up their claims – one said he read it in the newspapers, while the other told me he had heard the rumour.

That is called hear-say.

It is always dangerous to use anonymous sources, as they can say what they want without having to account for their statements. This office is strict on the publication of allegations. Not every allegation should be published – some reasonable grounds need to exist for accepting the claim as essentially true.

In this case, I certainly do not believe that the hear-say “evidence” provided by the “sources” was based on strong enough grounds to justify the publication of an allegation that has the potential to cause Mnguni unnecessary harm. The fact that Moodey’s denial was published cannot serve as a mitigating factor in this regard, especially since “corruption” (which is undefined in the story) was mentioned as the “reason” for the “suspension”. The reportage was unfair to Mnguni, regardless of Moodey’s denial.

The allegation that Kumalo was biased and was driving a political agenda against Mnguni is an extremely serious one. I do not have any evidence to convince me that this part of the complaint, or that of malice on the journalist’s part, has any legs to stand on.

Finding

I have no means of establishing whether Mnguni has been suspended due to corruption or not. However, with little or in fact no solid evidence to go on, the newspaper was unfair in reporting such a damning allegation.

This is in breach of the following sections of the Press Code:

·         2.1: “The press shall take care to report news…fairly”; and

·         4.7: “The press shall exercise care and consideration in matters involving dignity and reputation.”

The parts of the complaint stating that Kumalo was driving a political agenda against Mnguni and that his reportage was malicious are dismissed.

Seriousness of breaches

Under the headline Hierarchy of sanctions, Section 8 of our Complaints Procedures distinguishes between minor breaches (Tier 1), serious breaches (Tier 2) and serious misconduct (Tier 3). The breaches of the Press Code as indicated above are Tier 2 offences.

Sanction

The newspaper is directed to apologise to Mnguni for publishing the damning allegation, as described above, without any evidence to this effect – thereby potentially causing huge harm to his dignity and reputation.

The text, which should be approved by me, should be published on top of page 2 and should end with the sentence, “Visit www.presscouncil.org.za for the full finding”.

The headline should reflect the content of the text. A heading such as Matter of Fact, or something similar, is not acceptable.

A kicker on the front-page that refers to the apology on page 2 should also be published.

If the story appeared on the publication’s website, the apology should go there as well.

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 Appeals 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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