Minister Fikile Mbalula vs Daily Dispatch


Wed, Jun 17, 2020

Finding Complaint 6613

Date of Publication:  12/10/19

Headline: “Mbalula ‘takes wrong turn’

Online: Yes

Author: Malibongwe Dayimani

Particulars

This finding is based on a written complaint from Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula, a written response from Ms Adrienne Carlisle, the internal ombud of the Daily Dispatch, and further points of clarification with the newspaper.

Complaint 

The Minister of Transport, Fikile Mbalula, complains that a story in the Daily Dispatch under the headline, “Mbalula ‘takes a wrong turn’ contained “false information” about a visit he made to the Eastern Cape as a result of ongoing tensions between taxi operators and bus drivers. He complains that the story is not truthful, accurate nor fair. It projects “hearsay” as fact, lacks balance, and “intentionally and negligently departs from facts by peddling falsehoods as facts and conflating old stories in order to fit the negative narrative.”

Specifically he complains that the following clauses in the Press Code were transgressed:

The media shall:

1.1   take care to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly;

1.2   present news in context and in a balanced manner, without any intentional or negligent departure from the facts whether by distortion, exaggeration or misrepresentation, material omissions, or summarization;

1.3   present only what may reasonably be true as fact; opinions, allegations, rumours or suppositions shall be presented clearly as such.

  1. The text

1.1 The article appeared under the headline, “Mbalula takes a wrong turn”, with a strap that read: “Transport minister denies visiting the wrong province on taxi war mission.”

1.2 The intro to the article reads: “Transport minister Fikile Mbalula has been accused of flying to the wrong province in a bid to broker peace in ongoing taxi wars, arriving in the Eastern Cape instead of his intended destination of KwaZulu Natal.”

1.3 It goes on to say that “accompanied by his staff”, he was on a mission to end the “bloody violence” in KZN after a Translux bus driver was shot and killed and a driver of a second bus shot and wounded.

1.4 “However”, it says, he ended up in the East London Industrial Development Zone with the Eastern Cape transport MEC, Weziwe Tikana-Gxothiwe, “in tow”.

1.5 It quotes Mr Mbalula’s spokesperson as “vehemently” denying that the minister had made an “embarrassing blunder” and adds that the taxi bosses said, “this was very much the case.”

1.6 It quotes the SA National Taxi Association (SANTACO) regional chair, Sandile Sifolo, as saying that the minister thought the bus driver had been killed in the Alfred Nzo district in the Eastern Cape.

I corrected the minister and told him that the killing took place in uMzimkhulu (in KZN) and he was embarrassed and apologised, saying he didn’t mean to accuse us (taxi drivers) of killing people.”

1.7 Mr Sifolo goes on to say the taxi drivers took advantage of the minister’s presence to speak about “long-standing” issues in the local taxi industry.

1.8 A “taxi boss”, who did not want to be named, told the newspaper that he and other operators knew the minister was “misled” about the location of the killing but did not alert him as they saw it as a “nice opportunity” to raise issues affecting the taxi industry in the Eastern Cape.

1.9 It then quotes the Minister’s spokesperson, Ayanda Allie-Payne “insisting” the meeting had not been a “mistake”.

There have not been any fatal incidents in the Eastern Cape but tensions exist… the minister has never been under any misapprehension about where the killing of the Autopax driver occurred.”

She said the meeting was convened in the Eastern Cape because this was where the “bulk” of incidents where bus drivers were harassed and attacked have occurred. She described recent incidents in Kokstad and uMzimkhulu as “a spillover” from Eastern Cape incidents.

1.10 It also quoted Eastern Cape transport spokesperson, Unathi Binqose, confirming there had been no recent attacks but saying there had been “simmering tensions…so we can’t just wait until someone is killed.”

1.11 It also quotes the provincial police spokesperson, Thembinkosi Kinana, saying there were “no recorded reports of attacks on or killings of bus drivers in the province.”

1.12 In conclusion it cites an incident in 2017, where Mr Mbalula, then police minister, posted pictures of 10 “suspects” arrested by police in connection with the murders of 11 people in Cape Town.

He was left with egg on his face after it turned out that six of the “suspects” were actually innocent family members who were transporting a dead relative in a coffin to his funeral in the Eastern Cape.”

  1. The arguments

Minister Fikile Mbalula

2.1 Mr Mbalula argues the article, published in the Daily Dispatch and also in the online edition of its sister newspaper, The Herald, contained “false” information. This information was corrected by his spokesperson Ayanda Allie-Payne, but her clarification to the reporter was reported as a “denial”.

2.2 He says it was false that he had flown to the Eastern Cape in error, instead of KZN to sort out ongoing taxi wars as there were none in that province that would have necessitated his visit. His trip to the Eastern Cape was as a result of “ongoing tensions between taxi operators and bus drivers “dating back to 2012”, which had resulted in the killing of an Autopax bus driver in Ixopo in KwaZulu-Natal.

2.3 He says the statement that he “on a mission to bring an end to the bloody violence in KZN after a Translux driver was shot and killed” is also false. “Firstly, there was no Translux bus driver shot and killed in KwaZulu-Natal. The bus driver who was shot and killed was a City to City driver, a sister company to Translux, both owned by Autopax, a PRASA subsidiary. Secondly, I have never been on a mission to bring an end to violence in KwaZulu-Natal as the incidents in KwaZulu-Natal were a spill-over from the Eastern Cape tensions. We have reason to believe that the driver killed in iXopo was followed from the Eastern Cape.”

2.4 He says it is not true that he was under the misapprehension that the driver was killed in the Eastern Cape, nor did he suggest so at the meeting with the taxi operators. He said prior to the Eastern Cape meeting, he had visited Autopax and met with management and labour unions. “I was particularly concerned that the tensions affected a number of areas in the Eastern Cape and numerous incidents have been reported over time since 2012. These areas include Engcobo, Qumbu, Queenstown, Mthatha, Mt Frere, Tsomo, Tsolo.”

2.5 He cites the quotes in the article ascribed to taxi operators that he had made “an embarrassing blunder” as “devoid of any truth”.

“It is rather interesting that the journalist relies on faceless sources when he could have tested the veracity of the information leaked to him from various stakeholders who attended the meeting.”

2.6 On the part of the report attributed to Mr Sifolo, who said he corrected him in the meeting about the location of the killing of the bus driver (in uMzimkhulu), and that he (Mr Mbalula) was “embarrassed and apologised”, Mr Mbalula says this is not true.  “The meeting in East London was planned as a consequence of the conflict that has dogged the Eastern Cape since 2012. If Mr Sifolo did indeed utter the statements attributed to him, I am not in a position to speculate as to why he would peddle false statements.”

2.7 On the part of the report that recounted the 2017 incident, he says it has “no bearing” on the conflict between taxi and bus operators in the Eastern Cape “and only serves to accentuate the sensational nature of the article aimed at project me in a negative light.

“It is therefore my considered view that the journalist had no intention to report

on the meeting fairly and truthfully, but was rather more interested in creating

sensation where none existed. His dismissal of Ms Paine’s clarification without

verifying the same with Provincial authorities such as SAPS and Provincial

Department of Transport, or even bus operators, confirms this.”

2.8 He argues the article “relies on hearsay and projects this as fact without any evidence of seeking corroboration from diverse sources who were at the meeting…(It) lacks balance and intentionally and negligently departs from facts by peddling falsehoods as facts and conflating old stories in order to fit the negative narrative.”

2.9 He asks that the Daily Dispatch and Herald apologise “unreservedly for the harm the malice the article has caused” and retract it.

Ms Adrienne Carlisle for the Daily Dispatch

2.10 The Daily Dispatch answers most of Mr Mbalula’s argument point by point.

It says it gave the minister space to present his side of the story: “He may classify this as a ‘clarification of facts’ rather than a ‘denial’ but the Dispatch could not couch it in those terms. We had in front of us firm allegations by taxi operators and bosses (including SANTACO regional chair Sandile Sifolo) that the minister had visited the wrong province in his peace brokering mission. Sifiso told the writer of the story (Mr Malibongwe Dayimani) in no uncertain terms that the minister had clearly been under the impression that the killing of the bus driver had taken place in the Alfred Nzo district in the Eastern Cape and had then apologised about his mistake after he was firmly corrected and told the incident had taken place in KZN. 

We had no choice but to couch what the minister’s spokeswoman had said in response to these allegations as a ‘denial’. We quoted her as fully as possible and we led the entire story with a blurb that the minister ‘denies visiting incorrect province on taxi war mission’. The allegations were placed within the context that the blurb set.”

2.11 The reporter also sought to clarify/confirm what Ms Allie-Pain had told him about “the bulk of incidents” where bus drivers were harassed and attacked are in the Eastern Cape and that the cases outside of the province were a “spillover”.

2.12 He contacted Eastern Cape police spokesperson Brigadier Thembinkosi Kinana who confirmed there were no recorded reports of attacks on (or killings) of bus drivers in the province.

2.13 Mr Dayimani went further and contacted the Eastern Cape transport department spokesperson Unathi Binqose who confirmed there had been no recent attacks, but said “simmering tensions are there, so we can’t just wait until someone is killed”. “We did not omit the latter qualification which shows that the story was in no way malicious or unfair. Everybody was given the necessary space to have their say.”

2.14 On the contention over whether the minister had come to the “wrong” province, the Dispatch says the reporter had received a call from a senior South African National Taxi Association person saying Mr Mbalula had wanted to meet with taxi industry bosses over the killing of an Autopax  bus driver. He explained to Mr Dayimani, the reporter, that the bus driver was killed in KwaZulu-Natal and that Mr Mbalula had been misled into visiting the wrong province. “He said they were not intending warning the minister as they planned to use the opportunity to raise their own issues. Both [this source] and Mr Sifolo  confirmed the minister had thought the killing had taken place in Alfred Nzo. The Dispatch would not have cited the anonymous source without confirmation from Mr Sifolo.”

2.15 On the arguments by Mr Mbalula that the bus driver who was shot dead was from the company City to City, not Translux, that the incidents of violence in KZN were a “spillover” from the Eastern Cape, and that he had “reason to believe” that a driver killed in Ixopo was followed there from the Eastern Cape, the Dispatch says: “Ms Allie-Paine never once said in her response that the driver killed in iXopo was followed from the Eastern Cape. However, we DID report on what she DID say i.e. that the violence was a spillover from the Eastern Cape.”

2.16 The paper accuses the minister of “nit-picking” over the company the slain bus driver worked for. Most news reports had described the driver as being from Translux, which is a sister company of City to City, and both belong to Autopax.

2.17 On Mr Mbalula’s statement that incidents had occurred in various parts of the Eastern Cape, including Engcobo, Qumbu, Queenstown, Mthatha, Mt Frere, Tsomo, Tsolo, the Dispatch says: “The Eastern Cape police and the provincial department of transport did not confirm what the minister claims. The closest the department came to confirming this was to say there were “simmering tensions”, which is markedly different to saying that incidents of assassination were related to similar incidents in the province. The police said there were no such reported incidents.”

2.18 The newspaper also denies the minister’s claim that it relied on “faceless sources”. “One source asked not to be named but what he said was confirmed by Mr Sifolo who was the person who said:  “I corrected the minister and told him that the killing took place in uMzimkhulu [in KwaZulu-Natal] and he was embarrassed and apologised, saying that he didn’t mean to accuse us [taxi drivers] of killing people”.

2.19 On Mr Mbalula’s argument that Mr Sifolo’s statements were “false”, the Dispatch replies: “Mr Sifolo made certain statements. Mr Mbalula denied those statements. This is exactly what we wrote.”

2.19 Replying to his argument that the 2017 incident was referenced only to paint him in a negative light, the newspaper replies: “The reference to this incident was a reminder that the minister had previously made mistakes.”

2.20 On the minister’s argument that the reporter sought “sensation” both by dismissing Ms Paine’s clarification and failing to verify the same with Provincial authorities such as SAPS and Provincial Department of Transport…”, the Dispatch says: “On the contrary. The article quotes both provincial department of transport spokesperson Unathi Binqose and provincial police spokesperson Brigadier Thembinkosi Kinana.”

2.21 In conclusion, the paper says the article was balanced and fair and was not based on hearsay. It quoted two senior taxi bosses who both attended the meeting, including SANTACO regional chair Mr Sifolo. “The minister was given the opportunity to respond and the response was captured in full in the article.”

The story had several sources, including SANTACO members, the organisation’s regional chair Mr Sifolo, the police, and the provincial transport department. Ms Allie-Paine’s response was run in full: “It was necessarily couched as a denial as there was a contrary version of events that was put to the Dispatch, which was what the newspaper sought a response to in the first place.”

  1. Analysis

3.1 Minister Mbalula accuses the newspaper of various breaches of the Press Code, mainly that the story was “false”, that an allegation was taken as “fact”, and that the article was unbalanced.

3.2 In the main the story was about a difference of understanding between taxi operators in the Eastern Cape and himself.

3.3 The impression created by the taxi operators may be initially ambiguous but the context of the story makes clear that it is not that the Minister somehow got on the wrong plane and ended up in the wrong province. The context shows he was focusing on an issue – the attacks on bus drivers – that had not, according to the taxi operators, been prevalent in the Eastern Cape.

3.4 This view is clearly attributed to the taxi operators. The headline used quotation marks: “Minister ‘takes a wrong turn’”. I could not find this quote in the story but it is appears to be a play on expressions in the taxi industry. The fact that it is in quotation marks, and that the strap that follows reflects the Minister’s denial, would denote to any reasonable reader that there is a dispute about whether the Minister was in the “wrong” province or not.

3.5 Moreover, the introduction to the story clearly says he was “accused of” flying to the “wrong province”. It does not say that he did so.

3.6 The reporter did not attend the meeting, but his reporting reflects two distinct versions of the Minister’s visit: one from taxi operators, the other from the ministry.

Both sides are quoted to show these different versions: an anonymous taxi operator says the Minister was “misled” about the location of a recent shooting of a bus driver but his spokesperson, Ms Ayanda Allie-Paine says this was not the case. Her version, that the violence against bus drivers in KZN, was a “spillover” from violence in the Eastern Cape was clearly presented.

3.7 Moreover, Mr Sandile Sifolo, the regional chair of SANTACO, recounts to the reporter specific details of this exchange: the Minister, according to his version, thought the bus driver had been killed in the Alfred Nzo district, but then Mr Sifolo “corrected” him and told him the killing was in uMzimkhulu, in KZN.

3.8 On the part of the report that states that a “Translux” driver was killed rather than an “Autopax” or “City to City” driver, this is an error. But it is a relatively minor error: Translux and City-to-City are both subsidiaries of Autopax. The Minister says an Autopax driver was killed, which is correct as this is the parent company. The Daily Dispatch refers to various other news reports that state that a “Translux” driver was killed. The paper could have checked the precise subsidiary company of Autopax whose driver was the victim of the attack.

3.9 The Minister, in his complaint, names a number of other locations in the Eastern Cape where bus drivers had been attacked - Engcobo, Qumbu, Queenstown, Mthatha, Mt Frere, Tsomo, Tsolo. But the newspaper points out his spokesperson, Ms Allie-Payne did not say this to them. It reported what she did say: that there was a “spillover” of violence from the Eastern Cape to KZN, and she cited incidents in Kokstad and uMzimkhulu as examples of this

3.10 The minister also asks why the paper did not check with “other stakeholders” at the meeting, nor with provincial authorities.

However, the newspaper did check: it quotes both the Eastern Cape transport department and the Eastern Cape police who both confirmed there were no recent recorded reports of attacks or killings of bus drivers in the province. However, the transport department spokesperson reports “simmering tensions” and says “we can’t just wait until someone gets killed.”

3.11 It also quoted, by name, Mr Sifolo, in addition to the unnamed taxi operator. So to say it relied only on “hearsay” is not accurate.

3.12 On whether Ms Allie-Paine’s statement was a “denial” or a “clarification”: Ms Allie-Paine put forward an alternative narrative to that outlined by the taxi operators who claimed the Minister had come to the “wrong” province. The newspaper reported this. It was a different viewpoint and a different interpretation of the facts so to call it a “denial” seems reasonable to me. The most important point is that she was quoted and given space to put a reasonable alternative explanation to the taxi operators’ version of events.

3.13 On the complaint that the newspaper recounted an old 2017 incident which had “no bearing” on the reported meeting about transport issues, I agree with the Minister that it appears as though it contributes to a “negative narrative.”

3.14 In fact the inclusion of the anecdote about 10 suspects being arrested on the N1 and falsely accused of murder while transporting a coffin containing a dead relative to the Eastern Cape seems a departure from the tightly focused story about the meeting with the taxi operators.

3.15 But it is useful to recall the facts of that incident: 10 men were arrested and made to lie on the road, handcuffed, for some time until Mr Mbalula (then minister of police) arrived. He then tweeted about it including a picture of them in the post. There were concerns at the time that he had violated their rights by identifying them through the tweets.

One news report quoted Wits law professor, James Grant, saying it was a contravention of the SA Police Services Act to have posted pictures of them before they appeared in court.[1]

3.16 As it happened, all the suspects were released without charge.

3.17 So while it is understandable that the Minister may be aggrieved by the inclusion of this anecdote in a story about a meeting with taxi operators, I nonetheless have to weigh this up with the fact that he is a public figure. This is not only because he is a minister of State, but also because he frequently seeks out publicity on social media.

It may have seemed mean-spirited of the newspaper to include this anecdote but it is hardly illegitimate given that the public actions of public figures can – and do – last beyond the event.

Finding

The article reflected both sides of a disputed event. One person, out of the two, who made the claim that the minister was in the “wrong” province was clearly identified.

The minister’s spokesperson was quoted at some length.

In addition, the reporter checked with local authorities about whether there had been incidents of attacks on bus drivers in the province.

The “false claims” the Minster says the article contained were clearly attributed. Although one source was not named, another was.

In addition, official sources in the province were used to check on whether there had been incidents of violence against bus drivers in the province.

However, the newspaper should have been more precise about the bus company the driver who was killed had worked for. This is a minor error though and does not affect the truthfulness or balance of the story.

There are clearly two versions to this story, but the Minister’s spokesperson’s response was fairly reflected.

On the issue of whether it was gratuitous for the newspaper to mention the 2017 “arrest” incident which involved the Minister, it may have been unpalatable to him, but I cannot find a breach of the Press Code in this, given that he is a public figure who actively drew attention to his involvement in this particular incident.

Ascribing the wrong name to the bus company is a Tier 1 offence, and only a reprimand is issued for that. There is no sanction.

The rest of the complaint is dismissed.

Appeal

The Complaints Procedures lay 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.

Pippa Green

Press Ombudsman

June 15, 2020