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SANEF Council Meeting November 2010 – Ombudsman’s Report

Press Ombudsman’s report to Sanef Council

Port Elizabeth

November 21, 2010

At the last Sanef Council meeting, in Durban in September, we reported that the Press Council had agreed to review its constitution, the Press Code and its Complaints Procedures.

That work is continuing in earnest and the Task Team will present a report to the Council on Tuesday November 23.

The task team will report that it has had great cooperation – from the Sunday Times with the design of the advert inviting members of the public to participate in the review, from newspapers – both the big and community ones – and from online publications such as BizCommunity and Media-on-line, in placing the adverts.

Radio and television channels, SAPA and the newspapers have also carried stories announcing the review.

Very few South Africans can legitimately say they are not aware of the review.

The Task Team has received submissions from the Law Society of SA (Represents 20 000 attorneys and 5 000 candidate attorneys.), Centre for Constitutional Rights (FW de Klerk Foundation), Media Monitoring Africa, Harvey Tyson (former editor of The Star), the Institute for Accountability in Southern Africa (Paul Hoffman SC), Gerrit Boonstra (ex-journalist), Peter Rankin, Ralf G Will, Trudie Blanckenberg, John Kane-Berman (Chief Executive, Institute of Race Relations), Dr John Kiley, David Robert Lewis (in his personal capacity and not on behalf of his organisation the Alternative Media Forum), Jane Duncan, Reg Rumney, Guy Berger, Anna Lerner (Tweet organised by Media Matters), Akanyang Merementsi (Tweet through Media Matters), FXI, Film and Publications Board, Siki Dlanga, Anonymous (via fax), Tshwane University of Technology (Compiled by lecturer in media law Fanie Groenewald), Thabo Leshilo & Hoosen Kolia (in personal capacities and not on behalf of their employer Avusa), Gwen Ansell (Media trainer), Mark van der Velden (Editor of SAPA and member of Sanef), Ziyad Motala (Professor of Law), and Sanef.

The Task Team acknowledges the extraordinary efforts of the people and organisations that sent submissions, such as:
• The Rhodes academics Guy Berger, Jane Duncan and Reg Rumney, who were part of a colloquium on ‘Media, Democracy and Transformation’ in October where the theory and practice of media accountability, the adequacy or otherwise of existing media accountability systems, the performance of the media self-regulatory bodies (the Broadcast Complaints Commission of South Africa and the Press Council of South Africa) and the ethical trends emerging from their judgments were discussed. Their research has opened various avenues.

• The FXI, that independently commissioned research on media accountability systems for their submission,

• Media Monitoring Africa, that not only made a substantial contribution but also asked its lawyers to draft its amendments to our current documents.

The Task Team will report the depth of the inputs but will also ask Council to extend its time frames to March 2011 to allow for a wider range of inputs. This will also give the team a chance to do some more research, take oral evidence and do a road show to the main centres like Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban, and the Eastern Cape for open hearings.

The extra time will also give the team a chance to survey the editors and the complainants who use our system.

The Team will also report that in evaluating the submissions, it will use the following three criteria:

• Will the proposal lead to improvement in the quality of journalism in South Africa?

• Will the proposal make our system more efficient and effective?

• Is the suggestion practical?

The Team will report that it will not accept a suggestion merely to appease anybody.

ANC on review

In the meantime, the ANC’s Communications Unit has sent the Press Council a letter signed by Jackson Mthembu. Because of its importance we quote large portions of it:

“The ANC believes strongly that independent and diverse media will help supports, promotes, deepens, consolidates and strengthens our democracy, nation building, social cohesion and good governance.  The Constitution Act of 1996 has enshrined in the Bill of Rights the freedom of speech, access to information and a free media. South Africans commitment to media freedom is unshakeable.

“The ANC (in its 52nd Conference), having regard to:
• the continuous shabby journalism,
• declining of journalism standards,
• inaccurate, unfair and irresponsible reporting,
• the inadequate powers of the Press Ombudsman to deter and discourage this practise,
• continuous noncompliance and adherence to the very existing Press Code,
• lack of accountability from the media;
resolved that SA must have a strong and effective self-regulation of print media that promotes professionalism and discourage bad journalism.
“The ANC welcomes the Press Council of SA (PCSA) decision to undertake a complete review of its constitution, the SA Press Code and complaints procedures, as a response to the debate in the country following the ANC 52nd Conference Resolutions held in December 2007; and therefore note the possible changes to the Ombudsman’s office.

“It is our hope that your review will look into the effectiveness of the existing self-regulation body, its strengths and weaknesses, inter alia, structure, capacity, powers, funding model, etc. Further, your review should look into the independency (sic) of the system and its appeal mechanism, including the desirability of establishing an independent appeal mechanism like or the proposed Media Appeals Tribunal (MAT), intended to oversee complaints lodged against those who may violate the Press Council Code of Conduct, for citizens who may not be satisfied will a ruling of the Press Ombudsman and Press Council.

“The ANC will await with interest the outcomes of your review and establish whether these:

 complement and strengthen self regulation,
 enhance media credibility and accountability,
 discourage irresponsible reporting,
 promotes high standards in the media,
 encourage professionalism, and
 strengthen our democracy.

“South Africa will investigate (through a public inquiry) the effectiveness of the existing self-regulatory mechanism having regard to the structural challenges (if any), the capacity of the Press-ombudsman, funding model of the current self-regulatory mechanism and protocols of governance in relation to the funding mechanism, and the lack of sanctions that discourage unprofessionalism and bad journalism.

“This investigation will be conducted by the democratically elected Parliament of the Republic and (will) look into media accountability mechanisms in the public interest, the balancing of the rights enshrined in the Constitution like right to dignity, freedom of expression and media, guided by the values enshrined in our Bill of Rights, i.e. Human dignity, Equality and Freedom, including investigations into the best international practices without compromising the values enshrined in our Constitution, this includes what regulatory mechanisms can be put in place to ensure the effective balancing of rights, this may include self-regulation, co-regulation and independent regulation. The Parliamentary inquiry will explore the possibility of establishing an independent statutory appeals mechanism, which is not a pre-publication censorship, which should complement and strengthen the Press-ombudsman within the framework of the Constitution of the Republic…

“It is our belief that the outcomes of your review will assist South Africa through the Parliamentary inquiry in truly serving and protecting the public interest. The envisaged Parliamentary inquiry is a holistic review of the effectiveness of mechanisms (including laws, regulatory structures etc) in place to ensure accountability of the media while reinforcing the rights enshrined in the Constitution.”


Before we elaborate on complaints have received in this period we should mention an issue that is raised frequently in the submissions, the size and positioning of apologies. This office can argue until we are blue that the apologies that are ordered by our office match the offence but what readers see are the ones that emanate from the publications themselves – often a line or two hidden on page 2 under the general heading “Matter of Fact” or “Verduidelekings”. Readers see these as an attempt to deceive – if a complaint is laid, the newspaper can claim to have apologised, when there was no genuine intention to apologise.

We urge editors to review their response to errors in their newspapers: please match the apology to the offence, for the credibility of journalism.

Complaints September 14 – November 19, 2-10

Total so far for 2010: 186

Complaints for the period mentioned above: 60

Findings published on website for this year: 57


1. Ilanga published an apology about pictures of naked children before adjudication.
2. A report headlined D’oh! Homer Simpson is Catholic, Vatican declares. After consultation with a prominent Catholic, this complaint was withdrawn.
3. After an informal hearing, the Sunday Times published an apology for not asking the complainant for comment.
4. After an informal hearing, the Inner City Gazette published an apology for quoting the complainant, who instead said “no comment”.
5. The Sunday Sun published an apology to a complainant who reportedly had assaulted his wife in public.
6. The Citizen afforded the complainant a right of reply.

Complaints rejected

1. Three complaints were lodged much (years) too late.
2. The complainant could not provide the article in dispute.
3. The complaint was about a statement in a newspaper that was true.
4. A “complaint” that was directed at a newspaper and only copied to our office.
5. A letter was published that adequately addressed the matter of a complaint about a picture of a circumcised man.
6. A complaint asking for an apology after an apology has already been published (two such complaints).
7. The journalists were under no obligation to interview the tenants of a building after a hijacking attempt.
8. A complaint about the alleged glorification of dog fights.
9. No waiver (three times).
10. The complainant did not share the satirical views of the journalist regarding Helen Zille.
11. The complainants “argument” was ignored in a court report, while there never was such an argument.
12. Legal action is threatened.
13. A complaint that he was never interviewed. However, the complainant’s email became part of a public document and there was no need to interview him.
14. An editorial was formatted to incite Mr Robert Mugabe to take violent action against his alleged unfaithful wife.
15. Gaye Derby-Lewis’ complaint that she “smuggled” in – the wording in the story was materially the same as a news release by the DCS.
16. A complaint that said the newspaper equated illegal immigrants with criminals. “Illegal” implies that the law was broken.
17. A complaint by Prof Ziyad Motala that a column was racist and that it stereotyped Indians.
18. A complaint about jokes in a newspaper. Some of the jokes were vulgar, but they still were within the existing moral climate.
19. Our office cannot decide for a newspaper which letters to publish.
20. A letter by a complainant has already been published in the newspaper.
21. A complainant who was never mentioned in the two articles submitted.
22. The complainant neglected to clarify his complaint.

Ruled on (visit http://www.presscouncil.org.za for full findings)

1. Ms Doreen Theys complained about a story in the Highway Mail, published on August 6, 2010 and headlined Crime digs in – claim Rockdale Avenue residents. Theys said that two statements in the story were inaccurate, misleading and inflammatory (that crime in her street had increased and that telephone lines in the area had been dug up by APK Construction workers). The first part was dismissed; the second upheld. The newspaper was reprimanded. Permission for leave to appeal was dismissed.
2. The SABC complained about a story in the Sunday Times, published on July 11, 2010 and headlined SABC news boss Molefe bans Mbeki – Luthuli House refuses to say if it gave the order. A formal hearing was held, with Brian Gibson and Lizeka Mda as panel members. The complaint was multi-faceted. The bulk of the complaint was dismissed. Sunday Times was reprimanded for not stating that it had properly verified its information as well as for being inaccurate regarding the claimed presence of a source at the meeting where Molefe was present. The newspaper was directed to correct this mistake. The SABC asked for leave to appeal.
3. Auditing firm Pasco Risk Management complained about a story in The Star, published on July 26, 2010, and headlined Commission clears land-deal councillors – Probe results disagree with auditing firm’s initial findings. Pasco said that several statements/allegations were inaccurate and that the headline was misleading. The bulk of the complaint was dismissed. However, the newspaper omitted important information and reported inaccurately and unfairly with regards to two sentences. The newspaper was reprimanded and directed to publish a correction.
4. Ms Linda Gordon complained about three stories, two editorials and a letter to the editor in The Times. The background to the complaint is the seizure by Israel of the cruise liner Mavi Marmara, which was part of a flotilla of ships that left Turkey in May 2010 en route to Gaza. She said that the newspaper made no attempt to record the circumstances surrounding the attack, that there was no empathy for the Israelis who were lynched, and mentioned other issues. The complaint was dismissed in its entirety, except for the omission of an important statement made by one of the flotilla organizers. The Times was reprimanded and directed to publish that statement.
5. The Flamingo Primary School complained about a story in the Diamond Fields Advertiser, published on August 17, 2010 and headlined Parents queue at school for a desk. The school complained about several statements relating to ill-discipline and safety, as well as that it was not asked for comment. The complaint was dismissed in its entirety, except for the newspaper’s failure to ask the school for its comment (causing possible unnecessary harm). The newspaper was directed to apologise to the school.
6. Mr Mike Masina, chief whip of the Steve Tshwete Municipality in Middleburg, complained about a story in Nkangala Informer, dated August 2010 and headlined The big race is on!!. Masina said the story inaccurately stated that he attended and addressed rallies organized by a coalition that wants to oust the mayor and that he was lobbying for the position of mayor. The complaint was upheld in its entirety. The newspaper was directed to prominently publish an apology.
7. Mr John Stewart complained about two front page stories in the Roodepoort Record that dealt with the “illegal” operation of a mosque. He said that these stories contained several inaccuracies and misrepresentations. The complaint was dismissed in its entirety. However, by the newspaper’s own admission the sentences stating that a “number of residents” of the area were not happy with the way the mosque was operating were false. The newspaper was reprimanded.
8. The Radical Honesty White Refugee organisation complained about a story in City Press, published on July 30, 2010 and headlined Rightwing group tries to scupper Reitz trial. The complaint is that the headline falsely stated that the RH was “rightwing”; it also objected to the word “scupper”, as well as that it was never asked for comment. The complaint was dismissed in its entirety. A request for leave to appeal was dismissed.
9. Magna FS, a company that focused on computer systems development, complained about a report in Beeld in which it was held singularly or mainly responsible for chaos with the announcement of matric results in 2008. The complaint was mainly upheld and the newspaper was directed to publish an apology.
10. Ms Sonono Khoza complained about two stories in the Sunday World headlined Say ‘yes, yes’ says Sonono – Khoza’s daughter wants to wed Zuma first (page 2); and Merry wives of Nkhandla. The newspaper was reprimanded for not verifying its information and for not asking Khoza for comment and directed to apologise to her for possible harm caused.
11. The Department of Environmental Affairs complained about two stories in Cape Times, headlined Fisheries in disarray as MCM management vacuum bites and Movement of officials probed after complaint. A hearing was held in Cape Town. The main finding was that the newspaper should be commended for using so many sources to independently corroborate the information, and for trying so hard over a long period of time to get to the bottom of a rather complicated matter. However, the newspaper has also neglected to ask the DEA for comment on several critical issues reported on. For this, the newspaper was directed to apologise to the DEA. The newspaper was reprimanded for some inaccurate reporting.

1. Mr Clifford Motsepe (a board member of the SABC, a national executive committee member of the ANC Youth League and head of the Housing and Local Government Department in Limpopo) complained about a story in Sunday Independent, published on February 28, 2010 and headlined SABC told to drop Malema story. The Star’s appeal was upheld, on the grounds that the newspaper did make use of more than one source.
2. All the other appeals were rejected.


Two hearings were held. The next hearing is scheduled for November 29.

Joe Thloloe and Johan Retief