Mayor Kgosientso Ramokgopa vs Sunday Times

Complainant: Executive Mayor of Tshwane, Mr Kgosientso Ramokgopa

Lodged by:  Executive Mayor of Tshwane, Mr Kgosientso Ramokgopa

Article:  Ghost of Juju looms large in metro fight.

Author of article:  Dominic Mahlangu

Date: 12 June 2016

Respondent: Susan Smuts, legal editor of the Sunday Times newspaper

Complaint

Ramokgopa complains that the story falsely left the distinct impression he had said that Mr Julius Malema’s expulsion from the ANC had been a mistake that came back to haunt the party.

The text

Dominic Mahlangu wrote, “Julius Malema’s expulsion from the ANC is a mistake that has come back to haunt the party as the EFF may eat into its votes. Tshwane mayor Kgosientso Ramokgopa this week told the Sunday Times that the EFF’s growing popularity posed a serious threat to the ANC in the region going into the August polls. Ramokgopa also believes that the recent dismissal of another popular ANC leader … could cost the party dearly if this is not managed properly.”

The newspaper’s response

Ramokgopa complains the second sentence created the impression that he had used the words in the first one – which he never did.

He calls this incorrect reporting, designed to mislead the public and to misrepresent the facts. He also argues that the journalist paraphrased and interpreted what he had said in a sensational manner, and edited his words so as to grab the attention of readers and sell newspapers.

As proof of this “confusion”, Ramokgopa refers to an online Citizen article (26 April 2016, headlined Recalling Mbeki, expelling Malema – the ANCs two biggest mistakes), in which that newspaper paraphrased his words “purportedly uttered by myself”.

In another such story (May 4, headlined Bring Juju back to the ANC), the Citizen reported that he (the mayor) had said “Malema’s expulsion was a mistake that had come back to haunt the party, as the EFF may eat into ANC votes”.

Ramokgopa concludes that these two quotations confirmed the confusion created by the Sunday Times article, ascribing words to him that he never said.

He concludes, “The consequence of such an impression … is that I have been accused of disagreeing with and criticising the decisions made by the top leadership of my organisation, the ANC.” This, he submits, has caused damage to his reputation as a mayor and as chairman of the ANC Tshwane region. He says this careless reporting was unfair and misrepresentitave of what he told the journalist, and calls the reporting either malicious or negligent.

Smuts says the story did not attribute the first sentence to Ramokgopa, “although it did rely on the interview that followed for substantiation”.

She adds that the second sentence was a fair summary of what Ramokgopa had said. She says Mahlangu’s notebook reflects the following phrases: “Big mistake to hav(e) rem(oved) (Malema)”, and “Big mistake – Molema (sic)” at different points in the interview.

She argues, “We submit that this should be accepted as evidence that Mr Ramokgopa did in fact say that it was a mistake to have Malema expelled from the party, despite his denial (to this effect). Our reporter did not make this up.”

The legal editor admits that Ramokgopa did not utter the words “come back to haunt the party as the EFF may eat into votes”. However, she says he did say, “[Malema’s] expulsion from the party was unfortunate and we have to take lessons from it. We can’t wish him and others away, and going into these elections, we will have to double our efforts to retain the vote”.

Smuts points out that Ramokgopa did not complain about that sentence.

Asking me to dismiss the complaint, she argues, “We submit that this statement supports the introduction to the story and that there is no material difference in the message that the respective words convey. To suggest that he may suffer political harm as a result of a negligible nuance of meaning is without merit.”

She offers Ramokgopa a right of reply in the form of a letter – an offer which he rejects.

Analysis

Smuts’s argument that the article did not contribute the first sentence to Ramokgopa is weak. Of course it did not do so directly, but the context provided by the second sentence, together with the third one (starting with “Ramokgopa also believes…” – emphasis added) did not leave much room for argument – the reasonable reader would have interpreted the first sentence as coming out of the mayor’s mouth.

Of this, I have little doubt.

The question, therefore, is if this was fair to Ramokgopa – even if he did not use those exact words, was his summary of what the mayor said a fair reflection of what he had actually uttered?

According to Mahlangu’s notes (to which Ramokgopa did not object, even though he had the chance to do so), the mayor told the journalist that Malema’s “removal” was a “big mistake”.

I have no reason to doubt this – which means that the journalist was justified with regards to the first part of the first sentence (which also referred to a “mistake”).

This leaves me with the second part of the first sentence (which mentioned that the mistake may come back to haunt the ANC). I appreciate Smuts’s admission that Ramokgopa did not utter those exact words. However, she attests that Ramokgopa did tell Mahlangu that Malema’s expulsion from the party was “unfortunate” and that they had “to take lessons from it”. (Again, Ramokgopa does not contest this, even though he was given the chance to do so.)

That, I submit, is materially the same thing.

This leaves me with one more issue. Whenever someone is quoted (if inverted commas are used), the media should ensure that the words are accurate.

In this case, though, the first sentence did not use any inverted commas. That was an indirect quote – which is why I have no ground to find against Sunday Times on this issue.

Finding

The complaint is dismissed.

Appeal

Our 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.

Johan Retief

Press Ombud