Oasis Group Holdings vs. The Argus

Wed, Feb 29, 2012

Ruling by the Deputy Press Ombudsman

August 30, 2010
This ruling is based on the written submissions of Mr Ridwan Kajee, for Oasis Group Holdings, and The Argus newspaper.
Oasis Group Holdings complains about a letter in The Argus published on June 24, 2010 and headlined Objections go unheeded as historic manor is destroyed.
The gist of the complaint is that Oasis is said to be in cahoots with Cape Town City, suggesting bribery. The two sentences in dispute read:
  • “The city…appeared to be in cahoots with Oasis…”; and
  • “That residents are overruled stimulates speculation about bribery.”
Oasis also says that:
  • no attempts were made to verify the content;
  • the views of the subject were not sought; and
  • Kadalie, as a regular columnist for the Cape Argus, is bound by the standards of the South African Press Code.
The other complaint – that the newspaper refused to publish an advertorial by Oasis – could not be entertained as this falls outside the scope of our mandate.
The letter, written by Ms Rhoda Kadalie, says Cape Town residents have overwhelmingly opposed the destruction of a historic manor which stood in the way of a proposed property development by Oasis. The Residents Association (RA) and Oasis, she continues, have been long since been at loggerheads about the proposed development. Kadalie writes that provincial minister Tasneem Essop overturned the requests of the RA and that, despite a promise to the contrary, the manor has been destroyed.
Consider the following general points with regards to letters to the editor:
  • The decision what letters to publish is the sole prerogative of a newspaper and falls outside the mandate of this office;
  • Ditto for how to edit/shorten letters;
  • A letters column provides a basis for the public to air its views which, in the interest of the robustness of the debate, should allow for wide-ranging and diverse opinions;
  • Even this forum has its limitations – propaganda for war, incitement of imminent violence and advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion and that constitutes incitement to cause harm is unconstitutional. Clearly, it also excludes libel; and
  • It is a legal principle that a newspaper and its publishers are liable for defamation in any material that they publish. This includes letters to the editor.
We shall have to steer carefully between these considerations when we now consider the merits of the complaint:
‘The city…appeared to be in cahoots with Oasis…’
Our office is not a court of law – we cannot establish whether or not it is true that Cape Town was in cahoots with Oasis. Our task is to determine if the sentence in dispute is a reasonable position for an author to take and therefore for a newspaper to publish.
Here are the facts in a nutshell: The RA opposed the proposed development; Essop dismissed the RA’s opposition; and the development went ahead.
The conclusion that the city may be in cahoots with Oasis is therefore as such not an unreasonable one.
The use of the word “appeared” in the disputed sentence substantiates this conclusion. The sentence does not say that the City are in cahoots with Oasis – only that it appears to be the case. It is not stated as a fact, but as a (reasonable) possibility.
‘That residents are overruled stimulates speculation about bribery’
Again, the sentence is phrased cautiously – “speculation” about bribery is said to be stimulated. It does not say that bribery has indeed taken place; it also does not say that it appears to be the case. The statement, as it stands, may even be true. This, of course, does not by a long way suggest that Oasis indeed bribed the City or City officials.
No attempt to verify
News reports have to be verified, not letters to the editor.
The views of the subject not sought
The views of the subject has to be sought for news reports, not for letters to the editor.
Bound by the Press Code
Oasis calls Kadalie a “regular columnist” for the newspaper, a “journalist” and a “senior member of the media” and concludes that she therefore is bound by the Press Code.
The Argus denies that Kadalie is or ever was a columnist for the newspaper.
The fact of the matter is that it does not matter at all if she is a journalist/columnist/senior member of the media. Anyone can write a letter to the editor. As such, it is published in the person’s personal capacity.
The complaint is dismissed in its entirety.
Please note that our Complaints Procedures lay down that within seven days of receipt of this decision, anyone of the parties may apply for leave to appeal to the Chairperson of the SA Press Appeals Panel, Judge Ralph Zulman, fully setting out the grounds of appeal. He can be reached at khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.
Johan Retief
Deputy Press Ombudsman