The Gauteng Department of Education vs The Star

Compliant: The Gauteng Department of Education

Lodged by: Charles Phahlane

Article: Row over FET forensic report and FET colleges: a litany of problems respectively and were both written by Lebogang Seale.

Author of article: 

Date: 25 April 2012

Respondent:  The Star

Complaint

The GDE complains about two stories in The Star that were published on February 8, 2012. They were headlined Row over FET forensic report and FET colleges: a litany of problems respectively and were both written by Lebogang Seale.

Phahlane complains regarding the first story that:

  • the journalist quoted from an old, unreleased report;
  • the statement that Gauteng officials still had to act against Tshwane South college officials is inaccurate; and
  • it is not true that principal Joe Chiloane and his deputy, Ms Deborah Malete, declined to comment.

Regarding the second story, he complains that:

  • the statement that there has been no quality learning since February 2010 at the Tshwane South college is incorrect; and
  • it portrays lecturers as angels, while they are facing both criminal and internal disciplinary charges.
Analysis

The first story says that Gauteng education officials still had to act against Tshwane Further Education and Training (FET) college officials implicated in a forensic report in tender irregularities and maladministration (Seale refers to a 2008 forensic report in this regard). The journalist quotes Phahlane as saying that no action was taken against those implicated because an independent legal team had found the evidence insufficient to proceed. “This was despite the investigation suggesting there was prima facie evidence.” Seale recalls that more than 200 members of staff “frogmarched” Chiloane from the college’s Centurion headquarters during protests against his re-instatement. The story also mentions Malete and the procurement manager, Mr Goodman Mnisi, in this regard.

The second story reports that thousands of students who have completed their studies at FET colleges are struggling to find jobs – and that this may be due to all sorts of problems at these colleges (such as mismanagement, corruption, etc.). Private companies reportedly continue to shun these colleges, partly because of the lack of confidence in their competence. Seale writes that this makes a mockery of Minister Blade Nzimande’s enrolment target of one million FET graduates (from 400 000) by 2015.

I shall now look at the merits of the complaint:

First story

Quoting from an old, unreleased report

Phahlane complains that the story was published after he had explained to the journalist that he was about to quote from an old report that has never been officially released because it contained defamatory information against certain people. He adds that he told the reporter that various media have aired the matter in 2010.

The Star argues that the forensic report was relevant, newsworthy and in the public interest, “notwithstanding the time of its release or non-release and irrespective of the administration that conducted the investigations”.

I agree with the newspaper.

The fact that the report has not been officially released does not mean that it is not official. It is also significant that Phahlane does not question the official status of the report, but confines his complaint to the report not having been officially released.

Besides, Phahlane says that the matter was aired in various media in 2010. I do not think that there was anything wrong with bringing it up again.

‘Still had to act’

The story says that Gauteng officials still had to act against Tshwane South college officials; it also quotes Phahlane who reportedly said that no action had been taken against those implicated.

Phahlane denies that “no action” was taken. He explains that:

  • Chiloane was removed from the college (he was transferred to the GDE’s headquarters in Johannesburg);
  • when a new Head of Department (HoD) was employed in October 2009 the latter appointed a firm of independent lawyers – who found that there was insufficient evidence to formulate charges. “We had no choice but to return him (Chiloane) to the college”; and
  • Malete was charged and found guilty in June 2011; however, the department lost this matter on arbitration.

He asks: “What does Seale mean when he says no action was taken?”

(He says he could not comment on Mnisi as the Tshwane South College Council was responsible for taking action against him.)

The newspaper replies it is a fact that no action was taken against Chiloane.

That is not correct, because:
  • the GDE removed Chiloane from the college – the fact that he was re-instated after obtaining legal advice does not nullify the fact that this removal amounted to action;
  • the HoD appointed a firm of independent lawyers to investigate the matter – that is also action; and
  • Malete was charged and found guilty – the fact that this decision was overturned after arbitration again does not cancel out the action that has been taken.

If Phahlane did say that no action was taken against those who were implicated, as the story suggests, I suspect that he probably meant that no “permanent” action was taken – otherwise his complaint would make no sense.

This, together with the action that the GDE did take (as outlined above), means the intro that states it as a fact that “education officials have still to act against…” is inaccurate and, by the statement’s very nature, also unfair towards the GDE – as it creates the impression that the GDE sat back on its heels and ignored the situation (which it did not do).

Declined to comment

The story says that Chiloane, Malete and Mnisi have declined to comment.

Phahlane complains that this is not true – he says that they referred the journalist to him as the GDE spokesman. He adds that he did comment, but that Seale did not use it.

The newspaper responds that, if allegations are serious, it prefers to contact people directly even if there is an official comment.

Phahlane replies that the newspaper should have mentioned that Chiloane and Malete referred its reporter to the GDE – so “do not say they declined to comment”.

While it may have been better to state that the three people in question referred the reporter to the GDE, the “refer” in itself does not amount to comment as Phahlane suggests. The principal and the other two did in fact decline to comment – which makes the statement in question accurate.

I also note that the story does quote Phahlane, albeit arguably not sufficiently.

Second story

No quality learning

The sentence in dispute says: “The situation is even bleaker at the Tshwane South College in Pretoria, where students have been deprived of quality learning since February 2010 because of various suspensions and allegations of corruption against top management.” (emphasis added)

Phahlane disputes the statement in italics above and asks what the journalist based this information on.

He says that:
  • the only disruptions that occurred at the college were in 2010 when learners joined the lecturers in disrupting the campus;
  • by the end of 2010 learners resolved to no longer support the lecturers in their protest; and
  • 2011 was a normal year with only a 3-day disruption by some 22 lecturers (who are currently facing charges related to that action).

The Star responds that it based its information not only on the suspended lecturers, but also on other sources.

Phahlane replies that:
  • more sources do not make the allegation a fact;
  • it seems that the newspaper relies on “official” information only when it suits them (adding that there is an official view);
  • the statement in dispute presents only one side of the story (which is not balanced reporting); and
  • while 22 lecturers were suspended, the college still had more teachers than was necessary – therefore, the school was not suffering from the absence of the suspended lecturers.

I note that, while The Star says that it relied on “more people” than only the lecturers, the statement in dispute is not attributed to any source – rather, it is stated as a fact. Having done that, the onus was on the newspaper to prove this statement, which it did not do. I can therefore not accept that it is accurate or fair.

However, I need to qualify this decision. Based on the arguments above, I am willing to accept that the statement in dispute is true with regards to 2010 – especially because Phahlane himself says that by the end of 2010 learners resolved to no longer support the lecturers in their protest.

However, in the absence of any proof or attribution in the story, and taking into account Phahlane’s statement that 2011 was a normal year with only a 3-day disruption by some 22 lecturers, I cannot accept that the statement is accurate, or fair, as far as 2011 goes.

Lecturers as angels

Phahlane complains that Seale knew that his sources (lecturers) trashed campus, damaged the principal’s property and were facing both criminal and internal disciplinary charges – yet “his story presents them as angels”.

The newspaper responds that its sources were not confined to the suspended lecturers.

Phahlane replies that he doubts if this is true. He says he suspects that the other sources are the same lecturers who were facing action against them, both criminally and internally – a fact, he says, that the journalist fails to mention. He asks: “What happened to balance and fairness?”

While I can understand Phahlane’s indignation on this point, I do not fully agree with him. The story also mentions “under-qualified lecturers” as a “problem”, as well as that most lecturers were academics, while the college was “not about theory”. This certainly paints at least some of the lecturers as being part of the problem (and not as “angels”).

Seale does not mention that 22 lecturers are facing action against them. However, the story is not about lecturers, but rather about the difficulty that graduates experience in finding work after having completed their studies.

I also take into account that, had Chiloane, Malete and Mnisi commented, the story probably would have been more balanced. It was not the newspaper’s fault that these three did not want to air their views.

Finding

Quoting from an old, unreleased report

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

‘Still had to act’

The statement that Gauteng education officials still had to act against Tshwane South FET college officials is inaccurate and unfair towards the GDE. This is in breach of Art. 1.1 of the Press Code that states: “The press shall be obliged to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly.”

Declined to comment

This part of the complaint is dismissed.
Second story

No quality learning

The statement that students at Tshwane South College in Pretoriahave been deprived of quality learning since February 2010 (read: 2011) is inaccurate and unfair. This is in breach of Art. 1.1 of the Press Code.

Lecturers as ‘angels’

This part of the complaint is dismissed.
Sanction
 The Star is directed to apologise to the GDE for inaccurately and unfairly stating that:
  • GDE officials still had to act against Tshwane South FET college officials; and
  • students at Tshwane South College in Pretoriahave been deprived of quality learning since February 2010 (read: 2011).

The newspaper is directed to publish the following text before 10 May 2012 if there is no appeal:

The Star apologises to the Gauteng Department of Education (GDE) for inaccurately and unfairly stating that its officials still had to act against Tshwane South Further Education and Training (FET) college officials, and that students at that collegehave been deprived of quality learning in 2011.

This comes after the GDE lodged a complaint with the Press Ombudsman about two stories that were published on February 8, 2012. They were headlined Row over FET forensic report and FET colleges: a litany of problems respectively and were both written by Lebogang Seale.

The stories were about problems at FET colleges and some of their effects on colleges and students. These problems included issues such as maladministration, nepotism and tender irregularities.

Deputy Press Ombudsman Johan Retief said that the GDE did take action in that it removed the principal (although he was re-instated after legal advice was obtained); it also charged the deputy principal and found her guilty (although this decision was overturned after an arbitration process). This, he said, amounted to “action”. Instead, the story falsely creates the impression that the GDE sat back on its heels and ignored the situation.

He also found that we stated it as a fact that students at Tshwane South Collegehave been deprived of quality learning since February 2010. He said: “Having done that (stating it as a fact without either proof or attribution), the onus was on the newspaper to prove this statement, which it did not do. I can therefore not accept that it is accurate or fair.” He qualified this statement by saying that he had enough evidence to believe that it was true with regards to 2010, but not as far as 2011 goes.

Retief dismissed three other parts of the complaint, namely that we:

  • quoted from an old report that has never been officially released;
  • should have mentioned in the story that the principal and two other officials referred our reporter to the GDE and not that they declined to comment; and
  • portrayed lecturers, who were facing both criminal and internal disciplinary charges, as angels.

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

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