Phosane Mngqibisi vs. Sunday Times


Mon, Dec 10, 2012

 

Ruling by the Deputy Press Ombudsman

December 10, 2012

This ruling is based on the written submissions of Mr Themba Langa, for Mr Phosane Mngqibisa, and the Sunday Times newspaper.

Complaint

Businessman Phosane Mngqibisa complains about a front page story in the Sunday Times on 2 September 2012 and headlined Pule’s flights of fancy with boyfriend revealed. The story continued to page 2 under the headline Minister and friend were frequent flyers.

Mngqibisa complains that the newspaper:

·         illegally obtained the information about his travel arrangements from a department official;

·         published his private information in the absence of a public interest or his consent; and

·         ascribed wrongdoing to him for having undertaken business trips as a part of the business delegation of the government and for falsely imputing the coincidence of his travel with the alleged accusation of romance.

Analysis

The story, written by Stephan Hofstatter, Rob Rose and Mzilikazi wa Afrika, was about Minister of Communications Dina Pule’s frequent overseas trips with Mngqibisa, who was also linked to a company that organised Pule’s ICT Indaba in Cape Town. He was reportedly accused of looting part of the R36.2-million in “sponsorship cash” meant for the indaba. The two reportedly travelled overseas together on at least 19 occasions. The article alleged that Mngqibisa used sponsors’ money, intended for the Indaba, to buy Pule an expensive pair of designer shoes. The story added that an amount of R15 million, from sponsor MTN, was diverted to his company.

Illegally obtaining information

 Mngqibisa complains that the Sunday Times “illegally” obtained the information about his travel arrangements from a department official. The person, he argues, had no legal authority to provide his private travel information to the newspaper.

The Sunday Times denies that it obtained the information unlawfully. The newspaper says that Mngiqibisa has not made out an argument to show that the travel information is protected by the Constitution. It states that Mngqibisa drew the reporter’s attention to some of the trips when he was approached for comment, and he in fact told the newspaper about a further six trips which the reporter had omitted.

Art. 2.1 of the Press Code states: “News should be obtained legally…unless public interest dictates otherwise.” This means that the Code does allow journalists to obtain news illegally – but then, of course, it must serve the public interest and there must have been no other way of obtaining the information.

I shall indicate shortly why I think that these criteria have been met.

This means that, even if the information was obtained illegally, it still was not in breach of the Press Code.

I have no interest in the question if the source acted lawfully or not – my only interest lies in the newspaper’s conduct.

Publishing private information

Mngqibisa argues that in the absence of a public interest and of his consent, the Sunday Times should not have published private information. He adds that the newspaper used his private information “within the scope and context of the ICT sponsorship deals which are governed by private contracts and not statute”.

, and says that the travel information was private and protected by the Constitution. Mngqibisa adds that he did not give permission for his private information to be published.

The newspaper denies that the story has invaded his privacy and argues that it was in the public interest – it says that he used sponsorship money to buy Pule a pair of expensive shoes, and he benefitted financially from the ICT Indaba.

I note that Mngqibisa did not withhold his travel information from the journalist, nor did he object to providing information which he now claims is “private”.  

Moreover, the number of trips gave rise to the question why Pule singled out this one businessman to travel so frequently with her. If it was official business (and some of these reportedly were), the readers have a right to know.

While it is true that their “relationship” was a private matter, it is also possible that both benefitted from that relationship – Mngqibisa was involved in an Indaba, set up by Pule, and he allegedly benefitted financially from this; Pule may have benefitted from Mngqibisa’s involvement in the Indaba – he reportedly gave her an expensive pair of designer shows, presumably bought with the proceeds of the sponsorship intended for the Indaba. As she declined to speak to the reporter, the newspaper was entitled to rely on the information regarding the shoes. Compelling public interest considerations prevail in these circumstances.

The information in the story leads to a fair conclusion of a possible conflict of interest and of public interest, which justified the newspaper in its reportage.

Imputing wrongdoing

Mngqibisa complains that the Sunday Times “imputes wrongdoing … for having undertaken business trips as a part of the business delegation of the government”, and that the newspaper “falsely imputes the coincidence of (his) travel with the alleged imputation of romance”.

The newspaper says that Pule’s spokesperson was asked if she denied the romance. The spokesperson replied: “No. I’m not saying that.” The publication argues that this appeared to confirm that Pule and Mngqibisa had a romantic relationship. It states that it is for Mngqibisa to deny this relationship.

Mngqibisa replies that these allegations have been disproved by reports supplied by independent auditors, he says.

However, this vague reference to reports by auditors is unhelpful as no information is put before me to show that the Sunday Times breached the Press Code.

In light of their silence about the nature of their relationship the newspaper cannot be blamed for thinking that the facts pointed to a personal one. The “romantic relationship” between them was based on two bits of information: the interview with Pule’s, and the number of trips they had shared. Based on that, and on Mngqibisa’s and Pule’s silence, the newspaper was justified in its reporting.

Finding

The complaint is dismissed.

Appeal

Please note that our Complaints Procedures lay down that within seven days of receipt of this decision, either party 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 contacted at Khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.

Johan Retief

Deputy Press Ombudsman