Tarag Ismanil vs Fordsburg Community Newspaper

Complainant: Tarag Ismanil

Lodged by: Tarag Ismanil

Article: Sports & Rec’s – Faried Loonat in the Spotlight (p 29); this continued on the next page under the headline Faried Loonat truth or deception – you decide?; and Transparency needed over public facilities!(p 32); this continued under the headline Sports Saga Continued…(p 30).

Date: 23 April 2013

Respondent: Fordsburg Community Newspaper

COMPLAINT

Mr Tarag Ismail, the former chairman of the Sport Council for Ward 58 in the Fordsburg community, complains (in his personal capacity) about two articles in the Fordsburg Community Newspaper (FCN) in November 2012. They were headlined:

·         Sports & Rec’s – Faried Loonat in the Spotlight (p 29); this continued on the next page under the headline Faried Loonat truth or deception – you decide?; and

·         Transparency needed over public facilities!(p 32); this continued under the headline Sports Saga Continued…(p 30).

He complains about the first article that the:

·         following allegation was unfounded: “It is alleged by the residents of Crosby that the Department of Sports and Rec has given me (Tarag) a R500 000 grant to upgrade the facility for the benefit of the community”;

·         following question to Mr Faried Loonat, the Regional Coordinator for sport in region B, was disingenuous: “What is your true relationship with Mr Tarag, members of the community are questioning this relationship as they feel that you and Mr Tarag are in cahoots with each other in obtaining and controlling public sports facilities for self-gain…?”; and

·         picture of him and Loonat was aimed at misleading the public and to bring his name into disrepute.

Ismail complains about the second article that:

·         the nature and the tone of the questions posed by the reporter to the Homestead Park Residents Association (HPRA) in this regard were “contrived”, and that the reporting on the Homestead Park JSS sports fields was misleading;

·         the reporter disingenuously stated that he “conveniently” had not been available for comment; and

·         his relationship with Mr Agie Valoria (chairperson of the school’s SGB) was allegedly corrupt.

In general, he says that the newspaper:

·         never contacted him for comment; and

·         wrote the articles in bad faith and that they have defamed him.

ANALYSIS

The first article started as follows: “Due to the overwhelming concerns and calls that we received…regarding the usage of facilities in Ward 58, we contacted Mr Faried Loonat…to answer your questions and concerns”. The newspaper then put questions to him about the Grosvenor Recreation Centre, the Sports Council, the Mayfair Bowling Club, the Jubileum Grounds, the Hunter Mclean Centre and the Jamestown Grounds. The story reported Loonat’s responses to these questions.

The second story was about the lack of proper sporting facilities in the community, and it questioned “selfish members in our society” and corrupt officials (focusing on Ismail). It was sub-headed by “Homestead Park JSS Sports Fields” and “JSS School SGB corruption”.

FNC: General attitudes, and comments

FCN says that it did not believe that dealing with Ismail’s “version of events” (as described in his complaint) would serve any purpose.

Comment: This is unfortunate and indeed worrisome – why would his view not be important? I am extremely concerned about the message that this argument is sending out to the public. Surely, a publication should be accountable, and willing to address the concerns of its readers (let alone the people that it reports on critically)?

The newspaper subsequently does not go into much detail in its response to the complaint, save to say that Ismail admitted that he had:

·         a lease agreement with the Gauteng Department of Education with regards to the JSS Sports field, and with the City of Johannesburg in respect of the Jamestown Grounds;

·         a relationship with Loonat; and

·         attended a meeting with the principal of JSS and other community members to discuss the upgrading and development of the facility.

Comment: These arguments are irrelevant, as the issues that they address are not in dispute.

FCN says that the story was based on the concerns of community members and argues that it merely articulated these concerns and questions – and points out that the article made this clear.

First article

R500 000 grant

Ismail complains that the following allegation was unfounded: “It is alleged by the residents of Crosby that the Department of Sports and Rec has given me a R500 000 grant to upgrade the facility (the Jamestown Grounds) for the benefit of the community”.

As background information, Ismail says that:

·         he has a valid and binding lease for this facility; and

·         the facility had been converted from tennis courts to an indoor soccer facility; later it was replaced with a 200m athletic track, and accommodation has been made for a ladies gym – after which the facility would host sports and social events.

Ismail complains that the words “residents of Crosby” was sloppy journalism, unfounded, and smacked of “a deliberate abuse of power by the newspaper for sinister and ulterior motives”. He adds that he has undertaken extensive renovations to this place at his own costs – and denies that he has received any funding from any external sponsors or from government departments.

The newspaper does not respond to this part of the complaint.

In later correspondence (dated 20 March 2013), I was told that the R500 000 was in fact allocated for upgrading another property (a crèche), situated next to the one that Ismail was leasing. Apparently, these two properties shared the same erf number and address, although they resorted under different departments.

I have no reason to disbelieve this clarification; however, I also cannot blame the newspaper for asking this question.

In the interest of fairness, though, the clarification should be published (which I shall include in the text that will follow).

Disingenuous question

Ismail complains about the following question, directed to Loonat: “What is your true relationship with Mr Tarag, members of the community are questioning this relationship as they feel that you and Mr Tarag are in cahoots with each other in obtaining and controlling public sports facilities for self-gain…?”

He argues that this question was disingenuous. He says that there were no sinister or ulterior motives behind his relationship with Loonat – the statement was “simply disingenuous and would be absolute ludicrous if it were not so ridiculous”.

Ismail adds that the article reported the allegation as coming from nameless and faceless people. He states that he has always been accessible to the community and asserts that no one has approached him directly. From this, he questions “the sources and integrity of the journalist and the real intention of the newspaper in publishing such untruths”.

These are my considerations:

·         This was a tough question, but it was not unethical merely because it was tough;

·         It was a question, and not a statement – and Ismail’s response to this question was recorded;

·         Publications are allowed to use “members of the community” as sources;

·         These faceless people, as all other anonymous sources, may have ulterior motives – which makes the use of such sources a dangerous journalistic practice; and

·         Newspapers should be careful not to enhance its own agendas by using such sources (I am not accusing the FCN of having such an agenda).

Misleading picture

The picture portrayed Loonat and Ismail in a relaxed mood, talking to each other.

Ismail says that the picture was taken at a place where the both of them were guests. He complains: “To publish the photo in the context of the story with it’s (sic) glaring and attention seeking headlines, amounts to another clear and deliberate attempt by the newspaper to mislead the…public and to bring my name…into disrepute.”

I do not think that FCN was under any obligation to disclose where and when this picture had been taken. Newspapers often publish pictures that were taken in a different context – as long as the context does not distort the reality

Second article

HPRA; JSS sports fields

Ismail complains that the questions posed to the HPRA were contrived; and secondly, that the reporting on the Johannesburg Secondary School (JSS) playing fields was misleading.

True to its stated belief that Ismail’s “version of events” was not important, the newspaper chose to ignore this part of the complaint.

HPRA

These were the questions posed to the HPRA:

·         Did Ismail ever show a lease agreement to the HPRA?

·         If a lease exists, for how long is it valid, and does it correspond with the SGB’s directive?

·         Was Ismail’s project (referring to the lease of the school fields) transparent?

·         How would a private business benefit the community?

·         Would properties be devalued due to this project?

·         Will this business lead to an increase in the crime rate in the area?

·         What is the progress of the building so far?

Ismail says: “The leading nature of the questions is clear and obvious for all to see.”

He refers me to two meetings, both of which were attended by representatives of the HPRA:

·         On 7 June 2012, at the offices of the principal of the JSS: He says that a detailed plan for the upgrading and development of the facility was presented. The HPRA raised its concerns regarding security and increase in traffic volumes. “…I explained to them how we aimed to manage this, which, to my knowledge alleviated all their concerns in this regard.” He adds that the HPRA even made suggestions and recommendations “and these were noted and recorded on their behalf”; and

·         On 20 March 2012, again at the premises of the JSS: He says that all the facts, documentation and requested information were made available – and adds that the newspaper attended this meeting. It was a transparent meeting, where anybody could ask any question or raise any concern. He says that the newspaper did not raise any query or ask any question, and points out that the same journalist who wrote the story in dispute had been present at this meeting. He also states that he personally handed out pamphlets to residents, but says that only six members of the community attended the meeting.

Ismail concludes: “…I simply cannot understand the HPRA claim that they have been left in the dark…” He argues that the only way to make sense of matters is to think that the HPRA was part of an orchestrated campaign against him.

The questions regarding the HPRA were critical of Ismail, but indeed they were legitimate (irrespective of the true situation or his responses to those questions). Also, if the HPRA believed that it had been left in the dark surely the newspaper cannot be blamed for it.

JSS sports field

The story stated as fact that:

·         the residents were left in the dark for many months with the planned upgrade of the fields (that were leased to Ismail);

·         the lease was granted without proper consultation with the community, and that residents consistently tried in vain to obtain a copy of this lease (there was a lack of transparency); and

·         after two years and despite claims by Ismail that the fields were usable, students were still practicing sport in the street and in the adjacent park.

Ismail says that he presented the school with a proposal for the restoration of these fields – he would, at his own expense, upgrade and restore the fields to an acceptable state and build indoor soccer facilities.

I accept that the statement (of fact) that residents were left in the dark regarding the JSS playing fields were inaccurate and unfair to Ismail – as evidenced by the two meetings that Ismail referred to (and which the FCN did not dispute).

The issue of the lease, however, is a different matter. On 18 November 2012 the FCN’s editor asked Ismail to furnish it with the lease agreements over both the facilities. The editor stated that, to date, Ismail had not complied with this request.

This does create some doubt in my mind as to this specific issue.

‘Conveniently’ not available

The story said that Ismail had been “conveniently” not available for comment at the time of going to the press.

Ismail complains that this was a “clear example of the distortion of the truth as it…amounts to a blatant lie”.

The FCN does not respond to this part of the complaint.

The use of the word “conveniently” was un-called for and, to be sure, prejudiced. It conveyed the unfair and damaging message that Ismail had something to hide – without any proof to this effect.

I cannot but help to believe that this word was intentional and meant to cause Ismail (unnecessary) harm. It is called malice.

Alleged ‘corrupt’ relationship

The story said that Ismail “allegedly” acquired the lease because he and the chairman of the SGB of the school, Mr Agie Valoria, were close friends.

Ismail complains that not only was this insinuation unfounded, distasteful and arrogant, but it was also “extremely damaging and harmful” to his reputation and integrity. He adds that the lease was counter-signed by the Gauteng Department of Education.

There are times when the word “allegedly” does not sufficiently account for unnecessary harm that an allegation can cause somebody. There has to be some sort of foundation for a newspaper to publish an allegation as harmful such as the one in question.

I note this with concern.

Complaint: In general

Not contacted for comment

Ismail complains that the journalist did not ask him for his side of the story prior to publication.

The newspaper denies this.

I do not have any evidence to make a proper decision in this regard.

In bad faith; defamation

Ismail complains that the newspaper wrote the articles in bad faith and states that they have defamed him. He argues that the stories undoubtedly lowered his esteem and dignity in the eyes of the public.

The FCN denies this. The newspaper argues that the story was based on fact “and there was absolutely no intention to discredit…Ismail, or anyone else for that matter”.

In his response to this denial Ismail argues that, after reading the articles, the following questions should be asked:

·         What do you think of him?

·         Would you trust him?

·         Do you think that he was working in cahoots with council officials for self-gain?; and

·         Will sport ever make progress with Ismail around?

These questions are valid.

At this stage I need to look at both articles as a whole and not merely at some statements in isolation.

I note the following with concern:

·         The use of the word “conveniently” pointed to an intention to cause harm;

·         The inaccurate statement of fact that the HPRA was left in the dark was made by the same journalist who attended the meetings (the newspaper did not deny that the reporter attended);

·         In light of this, I became critical of the questions about self-gain and a corrupt and nepotistic relationship (which, on their own, may be in order – but when seen in context it may become a different kettle of fish).

Eventually, I cannot but come to the conclusion that the newspaper did not exercise enough care and consideration with regards to Ismail’s dignity and reputation, that it caused him some unnecessary harm, and at least in one instance this harm was intentional.

FINDING

First article

R500 000 grant

While the newspaper cannot be blamed for asking the question about the possible allocation of R500 000 to Ismail, in the interest of fairness the clarification about where that money went to should be published.

Disingenuous question

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

Misleading picture

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

Second article

HPRA; JSS sports fields

HPRA

The part of the complaint that dealt with questions posed to the HPRA is dismissed.

JSS sports fields

The statement that residents were left in the dark was inaccurate and unfair to him. This is in breach of Art. 1.1 of the Press Code that says: “The press shall be obliged to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly.”

The part of the complaint that dealt with his leases is dismissed.

‘Conveniently’ not available

The statement that Ismail had been “conveniently” not available for comment at the time of going to the press was extremely unfair to him. This is in breach of Art. 1.1 of the Press Code that states: “The press shall be obliged to report news…fairly”.

Alleged ‘corrupt’ relationship

The allegation that Ismail’s relationship with Valoria was allegedly corrupt and that it smacked of nepotism was without foundation and needlessly harmful to the former.  This is in breach of Art. 1.1 of the Code that says: “The press shall be obliged to report news truthfully…and fairly.”

In general

Not contacted for comment

There is no finding regarding this part of the complaint.

In bad faith; defamation

The Press Code does not make any provision for defamation (which is a legal term, as opposed to the ethical issues that the Code addresses). I therefore have to dismiss that part of the complaint.

However, after having assessed the stories in their totality, I cannot but to come to the conclusion that the newspaper did in fact not exercise enough care and consideration with regards to Ismail’s dignity and reputation. This is in breach of Art. 5 of the Code that states: “The press shall exercise exceptional care and consideration in matter involving dignity and reputation…”

The FCN’s reporting has caused Ismail some serious and unnecessary harm, some of which was intentional.

SANCTION

The FCN is directed to:

·         in general, apologise to Ismail for not exercising enough care and consideration regarding his dignity and reputation, thereby causing him some unnecessary harm – some of which was intentional; and

·         in particular, apologise for the:

o   unfounded, unfair and damaging statement that he was “conveniently” not available for comment prior to publication – it conveyed the message that he had something to hide;

o   unfounded and needlessly harmful allegation that Ismail’s relationship with Mr Agie Valoria was corrupt; and

o   inaccurate and unfair statement (of fact) that residents were left in the dark regarding the development of the sports facilities.

The newspaper is also directed to publish:

·         the text that follows below; and

·         a prominent headline, on top of the page, that includes the word “apology” or “apologises”, and “Ismail”.

NOTE: This office has received another complaint about the same articles. The sanction with regards to the other story should be published on the same page as that text.

Beginning of text

The Fordsburg Community Newspaper apologises to Mr Tarag Ismail, the former chairman of the Sport Council for Ward 58 in the Fordsburg community, for not exercising enough care and consideration regarding his dignity and reputation with regards to two stories that we have published in November 2012, thereby causing him some unnecessary harm – one instance of which was intentional.

Ismail lodged a complaint with the Press Ombudsman about two stories that were headlined Sports & Rec’s – Faried Loonat in the Spotlight; this continued on the next page under the headline Faried Loonat truth or deception – you decide?; and Transparency needed over public facilities!; this continued under the headline Sports Saga Continued...

The first article was about “overwhelming concerns” regarding the usage of sport facilities in Ward 58. The second one was about the lack of proper sporting facilities in the community and it questioned “selfish members in our society” and corrupt officials. It was sub-headed by “Homestead Park JSS Sports Fields” and “JSS School SGB corruption”.

Press Ombudsman Johan Retief also directed us to apologise to Ismail for the:

·         unfounded, unfair and damaging statement that he was “conveniently” not available for comment prior to publication, as it conveyed the message that he had something to hide;

·         unfounded and needlessly harmful allegation that Ismail’s relationship with Mr Agie Valoria (the chairman of the SGB of the school) was corrupt and nepotistic; and

·         inaccurate and unfair statement (of fact) that residents were left in the dark regarding the development of the sports facilities.

He said: “Eventually, I cannot but come to the conclusion that the newspaper did not exercise enough care and consideration with regards to Ismail’s dignity and reputation, that it caused him some unnecessary harm, and at least in one instance this harm was intentional.”

Regarding the newspaper’s question about R500 000 that was allegedly denoted to Ismail (but was allegedly allocated to another institution), Retief said that he could I blame us for asking this question – but added that we should report that the money allegedly went elsewhere.

The Ombudsman was also critical against our decision not to deal with Ismail’s “version of events” (as described in his complaint) as that would according to use not have served any purpose. Retief said: “This is unfortunate and indeed worrisome – why would his view not be important? I am extremely concerned about the message that this argument is sending out to the public. Surely, a publication should be accountable, and willing to address the concerns of its readers (let alone the people that it reports on critically)?”

He dismissed some other parts of the complaint, and decided that he could not come to a finding on one other section of the matter.

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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