The Presidency vs City Press

Complainant: The Presidency

Lodged by: Bongani Majola

Article: ANC at risk of losing Mandela Bay – Zuma

Date: 21 October 2015

Respondent: City Press

?Complaint

President Jacob Zuma’s acting spokesperson Mr Bongani Majola complains about a story headlined ANC at risk of losing Mandela Bay – Zuma published in the newspaper City Press on August 30, 2015 and says it was a gross fabrication.

He says the President did not attend a dinner in Port Elizabeth on that day and he did not say the words reported by City Press.

On September 6, 2015, a week after the original story was published, City Press followed up, stating: “We have subsequently discovered that while the essence of the comments (attributed to President Zuma) were correctly captured, they were not made at the dinner but during a separate engagement with the ANC leadership.” The newspaper apologised “for the error”.

In her response to the subsequent complaint from the Presidency to the Ombudsman, City Press editor-in-chief, Ms Ferial Haffajee says: “We erred in naming the meal where the President had made the warning a dinner and not a lunch.”

Analysis

The article in question is topped by a picture of President Zuma supplied by GCIS and the caption reads: “Jacob Zuma replaces a tap while Water Affairs Minister Nomvula Mokonyane looks on. This week the president launched the government’s War on Water Leaks programme, designed to train 15 000 young people nationally. Water losses cost the country R7 billion each year.”

The story has a striking subhead DAMAGE CONTROL and was written by Lubabalo Ngcukana:

“President Jacob Zuma has warned that the ANC runs the risk of losing the Nelson Mandela Bay Metropolitan Municipality if it doesn’t connect with people on the ground.

“In what sources called ‘damage control’ after the ANC lost a crucial ward in the city, Zuma and Water and Sanitation Minister Nomvula Mokonyane launched their War on Water Leaks programme at the Dan Qeqe Stadium in Zwide on Friday.

“The stadium is close to Veeplaas, which is part of the ward the ANC lost to the United Democratic Movement last week.

“Zuma also walked around the area fixing leaking taps.

“Later in the evening, Zuma took to the podium at a gala dinner at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium.

“He told the largely ANC audience that if the party did not take drastic steps, it would lose the metro….

“ANC Eastern Cape chairperson and Premier Phumulo Masuelle and a number of MECs were at the event. Also there was Charles Nqakula, who chairs the task team that is temporarily running the ANC in the Nelson Mandela Bay region.

“Four independent sources said Zuma, who plans to remain in Port Elizabeth until today to take stock of ANC’s problems in the region, was concerned, along with the national leadership of the ruling party, about how they would perform next year…”

This story vividly paints a picture of the gala dinner.

It is already one strike against the newspaper when the editor concedes: “We erred in naming the meal where President had made the warning a dinner and not a lunch.”

But it gets worse when the newspaper again changes its story in response to my emailed questions, shifting the location and the circumstances around Zuma. This time the remarks were made at “closed party sessions”.

The full response was: “The closed party sessions were held in the council chambers at the Port Elizabeth City Hall in the morning. After that, there was the event at the Dan Qeqe stadium, followed by the lunch at the Nelson Mandela Bay stadium, which was attended by the President and other VIP guests as well as local dignitaries who had come from the Dan Qeqe event. The comments which we quoted were made in the closed party sessions at the council chambers in the morning.”

Another glaring strike against the newspaper is that it had stated in its story that Zuma was sleeping over in Port Elizabeth until the Sunday “to take stock of ANC’s problems in the region”.  It hasn’t responded to the Presidency’s assertion that by 16:30 on the Friday, President Zuma was back in Pretoria.

The newspaper offered to give me the names of their sources on condition it would be for my eyes only. City Press is to be commended for showing that much confidence in the Ombudsman.

It is noteworthy that in response to his editor’s questions on the day the story was published and after the Presidency had put out a press statement about it, the reporter filed a sources declaration that still emphasised that his sources were at lunch at the Nelson Mandela Stadium, thus indicating that at the time he believed the President spoke at the lunch.

After receiving the names of the sources, I asked for the reporter’s notes of the interviews with the four sources. In the notes there are entries about Zuma meeting the provincial leadership at the City Hall, which left me asking why the reporter was not writing his story from the notes.

But more telling is that nowhere in the notes do the sources report on what Zuma said.  He has recorded general discussions about the problems of the region.

The ANC’s Eastern Cape spokesperson Mlibo Qoboshiyane is the only person who is on the record in the story. He is quoted as saying the president and national leadership of the party were “naturally worried about the possibility of losing the metro to other parties”.  He is also reported as saying the ANC would be launching an election strategy specifically for the Nelson Mandela Bay metro region.

The quote from Qoboshiyane doesn’t say what President Zuma actually said. It too seems to be a general statement about the President and the national leadership being “naturally worried” about the possibility of losing the metro to other parties.

No story as coherent as the published one emerges from the notes. I’ve come to the conclusion that the City Press story was cobbled from snippets about what had happened in a behind-closed-doors meeting.

Was it reasonable for the publication to believe that there could be some truth to it?

In her response, Ms Haffajee writes: “In the previous week, the Minister in the Presidency, Jeff Radebe, had told us that the party was concerned about its political fortunes in the cities, especially ahead of a local government election next year.”

In fact President Zuma revealed the weaknesses in the ANC at its National General Council in Midrand, but in this case we are not dealing with general trends: we are dealing with events in Port Elizabeth on August 28. What did Zuma say to his top people there?

Sadly the newspaper didn’t enlighten us.

The harm to the Presidency and to the ANC, however, is not as serious as it would have been had the newspaper written about problems that did not exist.

What we do know is that the ANC and Zuma are fully aware of the problems in that city, and that is why they created the Regional Task Team and sent in Danny Jordaan as mayor. It was precisely to clean up the mess.

If ever there was a meeting such as the one described by City Press you would expect the president to go in asking for progress reports rather than lecturing his representatives in the region.

To ensure a credible story, at the very least, the editor – or in her absence, the deputy – should have insisted on knowing the names of the unnamed sources, asked why they would not go on record, and asked for the recordings or notes of the interviews before the story went to print to protect both the publication and its readers.

Finding

The complaint is upheld as I find that City Press is in breach Section 11.2 of the Press Code, that states: “The press shall avoid the use of anonymous sources unless there is no other way to deal with a story. Care should be taken to corroborate the information.”

Not enough was done to corroborate the story.

Sanctions

The newspaper is ordered to retract the story, apologise to the Presidency and to publish a summary of this ruling as prominently as the offending story. The summary has to be approved by the Press Ombudsman before it is published.

Appeal

Our Complaints Procedures lays 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.