The Ministry of Defence an Military Veterans vs The Citizen

Complainant: The Ministry of Defence and Military Veterans

Lodged by: Ndivhuwo Mabaya

Article: Zuma now wants to buy a warship

Date: 21 May 2012

Respondent: The Citizen

Complaint

The Ministry of Defence and Military Veterans (MDMV) complains about a story on the front page and on page 3 in The Citizen on 17 January 2012, headlined Zuma now wants to buy a warship.

The MDMV complains that the:

·     statements that Pres Jacob Zuma wanted to buy a warship and that MP Tony Yengen was used to justify the decision, are inaccurate and unverified; and

·     headline is misleading.

Analysis

The story, written by Paul Kirk, says that Pres Jacob Zuma wants an aircraft carrier and that the decision about who will get the contract to supply the warship is partly up to MP Tony Yengeni, a member of the Defence Review Committee (DRC).

Inaccurate, unverified statements

The sentences in dispute say:

·     “Jacob Zuma wants an aircraft carrier, and it will be partly up to convicted fraudster Tony Yengeni to decide who will get the contract…”; and

·     “The Citizen can reveal that the SA National Defence Force…has formally registered a project to acquire a warship capable of operating more than a dozen helicopters, and possibly also vertical take-off jets.”

Mabaya says that annual reports and parliamentary documents clearly show that the decision to research the possibility of a warship purchase was taken under former Minister Mosiuoa Lekota in 2005, adding that the project was canned in 2008 – both decisions were therefore taken before Zuma became President.

He complains that, had the reporter contacted him or the Presidency, or researched annual reports or parliamentary documents, he would have learnt these facts.

He adds that:

·      Kirk brought Yengeni into the story despite media briefings where the role of the Defence Review Committee (DRC) was explained – which is a policy drafting committee and not a procurement committee;

·      the story implies that Zuma has instructed the SANDF or the Navy to buy a warship; and

·      Yengeni is in the DRC to justify Zuma’s decision.

Kirk replies that:

·       his report makes it clear that the DRC is not an acquisition committee, but a body that makes decisions on what the SANDF will look like and what strategic equipment it will require;

·      the DRC will have a bearing on whether or not ships will be bought;

·      one member of the DRC has already said that he will suggest to this committee that “we should only purchase equipment from shipyards and from nations that we already do business with”;

·     Yengeni is a member of the DRC and therefore it is fair to say that he will “partly” decide which shipyards would build such ships (if they were ordered);

·     he got comment from the SA Navy; and the project was not canned, but only delayed.

The editor denies that the report is untrue and that it is based on wrong information. He referred to the reporter’s “inside information” that several ships are being looked at. He also says that Yengeni’s role is fairly stated.

 

This part of the complaint is about accuracy and verification.

Firstly then, on accuracy: I’ll start with Zuma before moving on to Yengeni.

Mabaya’s argument that the decision to research the matter was taken in 2005, and then canned in 2008 – before Zuma’s time – is not sufficient to convince me that the intro is inaccurate. The story does not say that Zuma initiated the matter, all it says is that he “wants” an aircraft carrier – which may very well be true.

The story does not imply that Zuma has instructed the SANDF or the Navy to buy a warship either, as Mabaya alleges. All it says, is that such a project is registered (which does not necessarily say that the project will be completed).

Besides, Kirk also:

·         quotes a spokesman for the SA Navy, Greyling van den Berg, as saying that matter “has been official deferred until such time as the Defence Review…has been approved by Parliament and promulgated”;

·         quotes the same spokesmen to the effect that “…the project could (and not would) be reactivated”;

·         says that “…the acquisition is technically temporarily on ice…”; and

·         mentions Navy “insiders”, which suggests that he based his information on these sources.

Most of these quotes point to the fact that the matter was not finalised yet and that there was therefore no final “instruction” from Zuma to this effect.

This leaves me with a situation where I cannot decide if the statements in dispute are accurate or not. What I can say, though, is that I have no grounds to believe that the journalist’s reportage was unreasonable.

The second part of the intro identifies Yengeni as the man who will be a part of the decision to decide who will get the contract to supply the warship. This sentence includes the word “partly” with reference to Yengeni’s decision-making function. The implication is that other people will also be involved in making the decision – which is accurate.

Now, verification:

The story does not indicate that an attempt was made to contact either Zuma or Yengeni. The newspaper also does not respond to this matter.

 

The Press Code is clear that The Citizen should have tried to contact them, failing which Kirk should have mentioned its failed attempt to do so.

The inclusion of spokespersons from two other organisations must be welcomed, but the exclusion of comments by the principal subjects, one of whom is identified in the headline, is unfair.

Headline

Mabaya complains that the headline implies that Zuma instructed the SANDF or the Navy to purchase a warship.

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

Art. 11.1 of the Press Code requires a headline to give a reasonable reflection of the contents of the story. This headline meets that requirement.

However, if the content of a story is false, and that is reflected in the headline, it follows that the headline will also be false. In this case, I have already said that I cannot decide on the veracity of the statement, and that I have no grounds to decide that the journalist’s reportage was unreasonable.

Therefore, this goes for the headline as well.

 
Finding

Inaccurate, unverified statements

The part of the complaint on accuracy is dismissed.

The newspaper failed to verify its information with the principal subjects of the story. This is in breach of the following articles of the Press Code:

·         Art. 1.4: “Where there is reason to doubt the accuracy of a report and it is practicable to verify the accuracy thereof, it shall be verified. When it has not been practicable to verify the accuracy of a report, this shall be mentioned in such report”; and

·         Art. 1.5: “A publication should seek the views of the subject of serious critical reportage in advance of publication… If the publication is unable to obtain such comment, this shall be stated in the report.”

Headline

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

Sanction
 

The Citizen is reprimanded for not asking Zuma’s and Yengeni’s views prior to publication.

The newspaper is also directed to:

·         get comment from both Zuma and Yengeni, if indeed they wish to do so;

·         include that comment in the text below that it is to publish; and

·         publish that text on page 3:

 
Beginning of text:

The office of the Press Ombudsman has reprimanded The Citizen for not asking comment from Pres Jacob Zuma and MP Tony Yengeni regarding a story on 17 January 2012, headlined Zuma now wants to buy a warship.

This comes after The Ministry of Defence and Military Veterans lodged a complaint with the office of the Ombudsman.

The story (and the matter in dispute), written by Paul Kirk, said that Zuma wanted an aircraft carrier and that the decision about who would get the contract to supply the warship was partly up to Yengeni, a member of the Defence Review Committee.

Deputy Press Ombudsman Johan Retief said that Zuma and Yengeni were the subjects of the story and that the Press Code required of us to have asked their opinion on this matter.

 

He stated that he was in no position to determine the accuracy of this statement, but added that he had no grounds to believe that the journalist’s reportage was unreasonable.

Retief also dismissed the complaint about:

·         Yengeni, saying that the latter indeed was “partly” responsible for a decision in this regard; and

·         the headline, on the same grounds than he dismissed the complaint about accuracy.

 

Zuma and Yengenis said…(if appropriate).

 

Visit www.presscouncil.org.za (rulings, 2012) for the full finding.

 
End of text.
Appeal
 

The Complaints Procedure permits a party to apply for leave to appeal against a decision of the Press Ombudsman. An application for leave to appeal, fully setting out the grounds, may be made to the Chairperson of the South African Press Appeals Panel, Judge Ralph Zulman. He may be contacted at Khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.

 
Johan Retief
Deputy Press Ombudsman

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