Decision to Adjudicate: Anton Kruger vs The Village News and Hermanus Times
Fri, Sep 4, 2020
Decision to adjudicate
Complaints numbers 8213 and 8214
These two complaints are closely related and deal with principally the same issue and similar stories.
Hence, I am going to deal with them simultaneously.
Village News (complaint 8213) (June 23, 2020)
Headline: Overstrand Muni Manager cleared of allegations”
Author: De Waal Steyn
Hermanus Times (Complaint 8214) (June 29, 2020)
Headline: Groenewald in the Clear
Author: Rick Marais
Mr Kruger complains that in reports in both newspapers about a specially commissioned report by the Overstrand municipality which investigated allegations of misconduct by the municipal manager, Mr Groenewald, neither he nor his organisation, LiberTAS, were invited to comment, nor were their views represented. This was despite the fact that LiberTAS had laid the complaint against the municipal manager.
The acting Public Advocate declined to accept the complaints as he found there had been no prima facie breaches of the Press Code. In accordance with section 1.8 of the Press Council’s Complaints Procedures, Mr Kruger is appealing that decision, requesting that I adjudicate his complaints.
1.1 Mr Kruger complains that the articles were “biased”, “misleading”, “factually inaccurate” and that the newspapers did not contact him for comment.
1.2 My colleague, the acting Public Advocate, declined to send this complaint on for adjudication on the grounds that both articles “focused on the report of [the special investigator,] Adv Pieter-Schalk Bothma, which was scheduled to be considered by the Overstrand Council at a council meeting. (It appears that the newspapers got the report, published in the agenda for the June council meeting.)”
Mr Kruger then appealed the Public Advocate’s decision to decline the complaint.
1.3 Apart from brief contextual background painting the backdrop to the appointment of Adv Bothma to investigate the conduct of Mr Groenewald, both articles confine themselves to the report alone. There is no indication that they “contacted the investigator”. The article are about the official report.
1.4 There are no other comments from any of the players in this long-standing dispute.
1.5 Mr Kruger says he was “humiliated” by the report. This speaks to Clause 3 of the Press Code on “Privacy, Dignity and Reputation”. The clause invokes the media to:
3.3. exercise care and consideration in matters involving dignity and reputation, which may be overridden only if it is in the public interest and if:
3.3.3. the reportage amounts to a fair and accurate report of court proceedings, Parliamentary proceedings or the proceedings of any quasi-judicial tribunal or forum; or
3.3.4. it was reasonable for the information to be communicated because it was prepared in accordance with acceptable principles of journalistic conduct; or
3.3.5. the content was, or formed part of, an accurate and impartial account of a dispute to which the complainant was a party;
1.6 He also says he was not contacted for the right of reply – implying a breach of clause 1.8, which says the subject of adverse reportage must be given a right of reply.
1.7 But both articles were simply reporting the contents of an official report by an investigator appointed by the Council in response to the complaint laid against Mr Groenewald by Mr Kruger and his organisation.
It focused entirely on that subject and thus fell into the category of exception 3.3.3 and 3.3.5 above.
1.8 This also applies to the “right of reply”. The LiberTAS complaint was referenced in the articles, but no one else party to the dispute was contacted for comment as the article was a straightforward report on the official outcome of an investigation that was to be tabled before the Council.
1.9 The report indicated, according to both articles, that the investigator tried several times to meet with Mr Kruger but these attempts had not been successful.
This is not an indication of “bias” but a reflection of what was in the official report.
1.10 It appears that Mr Kruger may be taking out his dissatisfaction with the official report on the newspapers, which were simply reporting it accurately.
1.11 Mr Kruger also complained that a press release and a letter by him had not been published by the newspapers concerned.
On the face of it, it would be in the interests of fairness for the newspapers concerned to reflect Mr Kruger’s views in a letter or opinion piece.
1.12 However, the Ombud can rule only on transgressions of the Press Code based on what had been published and cannot compel a newspaper to use particular editorial items.
1.13 Moreover, both newspapers had carried the views of Mr Kruger and his organisation in some depth before this report was tabled. In the Village News a report that ran under the headline, “Muni investigates complaint” published on 10 March, 2020, quoted the complaint by LiberTAS and Mr Kruger in some detail;  and in the Hermanus Times under the headline, “Groenewald case to be investigated”, published on 23 March, 2020. 
1.14 The articles that Mr Kruger complains about focused solely on an official document to be tabled before a Council meeting. The acting Public Advocate was correct when he found there was no “justification for your demand that your comment should have been sought. The newspapers gave reasonable reports on a document to be tabled in a council meeting.”
1.15 I can see no prima facie transgression of the Press Code in either article and thus decline to adjudicate.
September 4, 2020