South African Democratic Teachers’ Union vs Ilanga

Compliant: South African Democratic Teachers’ Union

Lodged by: Adhil Bhagothidin

Article: Usongela inyunyana ungqongqoshe waseKZN (KZN MEC of Education warns union)

Author of article: Willem Phungula

Date: 6 May 2011

Respondent: Ilanga

Complaint
SADTU complains about a story in Ilanga, published on January 13, 2011, and headlined Usongela inyunyana ungqongqoshe waseKZN (KZN MEC of Education warns union).
The complaint is that:
  • the second and third paragraphs are damaging to SADTU’s reputation as they present allegations as facts; and
  • SADTU was not asked for comment.
Analysis
The story, written by Willem Phungula, says that SADTU will no longer do as they please as its disruption of teaching and learning has angered MEC of Education Senzo Mchunu. The story states that the SADTU’s leadership barged into the Umlazi District offices and disrupted the appointment process and that this has annoyed many principals who are also SADTU members. It says that leaders of SADTU also went into the office of a library official and took his keys because they wanted one of their own to occupy that position. It adds: “SADTU has been known to want their members to occupy high positions in vacancies.”
Note that this finding is based on a translated version of the original text.
I shall now consider the merits of the complaint:
Damaging to SADTU’s reputation
SADTU says that the following sentences are damaging to its reputation: “The leadership of SADTU barged in the Umlazi District offices and disrupted the appointment process. This annoyed a lot of principals who are also SADTU members and they held hostage the Acting Superintendent General Mr. Simon Mbokazi who is suspected of being biased towards the SADTU leadership. Towards the end of last year, the leadership of this union went into the office of a library official and took the keys away from him because they wanted one of their own to occupy that position. SADTU has been known to want their members to occupy high positions in vacancies.”
It complains that the actions mentioned in the quoted sentences above are presented not as allegations, but as the truth. It argues that this reportage sends out the (wrong) message that it is a disruptive organization – as its leaders are now seen to not only condone unlawful acts, but also to actively encourage them by taking part in such acts themselves. This misrepresentation, SADTU says, tarnishes its reputation and affects its membership (potential members may not want to join anymore and present members may resign). SADTU says that it is affiliated to COSATU “in alliance to the ANC”, which means that everything negative said about it also affects Government.
Ilanga says that:
  • the sentences in question are quoting Mchunu “as saying that he had met with SADTU and outlined the procedure to be followed when grievances arise other than disrupting schooling and teaching. SADTU should take this up with the MEC himself as to why he had said that to the newspaper”;
  • the “barging” incident happened on the day the applications were short-listed. It says: “A group of people wearing SADTU branding showed up at the Umlazi District Office and wanted to know who had been short-listed. This is to us disruption of the appointment processes as it inflicts fear to the panel”;
  • it believes it did no harm to SADTU’s reputation “other than report what had happened and who said it”;
  • prior to the publication of the story in dispute, it wrote another article about a complaint by the National Teachers’ Union (NATU) regarding an underground campaign (to get members of SADTU appointed as principals) that has been ongoing from 2007 – after that, some members of SADTU “came flooding” saying that they were aware of the campaign, but that they were unhappy about favouritism;
  • it is in possession of a communiqué between the regional manager in Pietermaritzburg and the cluster manager “whereby the former seemed frustrated by the fact that SADTU members had rocked up and asked for the office keys”, indicating that they would like that position to be occupied by their “own” member;
  • the cluster manager responded by saying that the keys must be given to SADTU members if and when they wanted them. This “prompted” school principals to go to the Department of Education (people at that department were also SADTU members), challenging why the department was succumbing to the demands of this SADTU group. It says that the department instead suspended these principals. This further angered the other “faction” as it confirmed that the department was being run by SADTU;
  • the above-mentioned was newsworthy; and
  • other SADTU members who were angry at SADTU leaders corroborated this information.
Ilanga’s argument is interesting in that, on the one hand, it says that it merely quotes Mchunu – but on the other hand, it also defends its reportage as the truth.
Let’s first consider the argument that the newspaper was merely quoting Mchunu. The first four sentences of the story indeed clearly represent his views. However, the information in the disputed sentences that follow is rather stated as a fact, and it cannot reasonably be interpreted that it represents anybody’s views.
Secondly, if Ilanga’s reportage was true, the journalist should have verified the information – which it clearly did not. Note that the question is not whether Ilanga’s reportage did damage to SADTU’s reputation. Of course it did. The real question is if this damage was fair.
Not asked for comment
The complaint is that the newspaper never asked for SADTU for comment.
Ilanga argues that SADTU seems to have been split into two groups in KZN, adding that all conflicts it witnessed and reported on were fuelled by this fact.
The newspaper’s argument is not good enough. It does not matter into how many groups SADTU is split – there must be someone at the top. Besides, the story says that “the leadership of SADTU barged in the Umlazi District offices and disrupted the appointment process” (emphasis added). At the very least, this very “leadership” should have been asked for comment, as the Press Code clearly requires.
Finding
Damaging to SADTU’s reputation
The story presents (disputed) allegations as facts, without any verification. This is in breach of Art. 1.1 of the Press Code that states: “The press shall be obliged to report news…fairly”.
Not asked for comment
By Ilanga’s own admission, SADTU was not asked for comment. 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…”
Sanction
Ilanga is reprimanded for:
  • unfairly damaging SADTU’s reputation by presenting allegations as facts; and
  • not asking this organisation for comment.
The newspaper is directed to publish a summary of this finding (not the whole ruling) and sanction. Our office should be furnished 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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