Mayor of the Amathole District Municipality vs Daily Dispatch

Complainant:  Executive mayor of the Amathole District Municipality, Ms Nomasikizi Konza

Lodged by:  Mike Smith, senior director: public law of Smith Tabata Attorneys

Article:  Mayor in bid to flog broke ADM’s assets – Council rejects sale of land and property and opts to hike water and sanitation for local municipalities

Date: 3 June 2016

Respondent:  Sibusiso Ngalwa, editor of the Daily Dispatch

Complaint

Konza is complaining about a story on the front page of the Daily Dispatch of 29 February 2016, headlined Mayor in bid to flog broke ADM’s assets – Council rejects sale of land and property and opts to hike water and sanitation for local municipalities.

She complains that the story falsely stated that:

·         she had tried to persuade Council to raise funds by selling fixed property;

·         she had suggested that a shortfall be funded by a hike in water and sanitation costs; and

·         Council had pressurized her into scrapping the plan to sell fixed property.

The mayor adds that the:

·         reporter did not:

 

o   verify the accuracy of the allegations;

 

o   seek her view on the proposed report prior to publication; and

·         headline was false and misleading.

The text

The opening sentences to the story, written by Zwanga Mukhuthu, say it all: “The mayor of the same municipality that shelled out millions for a beauty contest and a boxing match towards the end of last year, tried last week to persuade her council to sell off property to pay staff salaries and bills. But Amathole District Municipality councillors united across the political divide at last week’s meeting to block mayor Nomasikizi Konza’s proposal.”

The journalist also reported that Konza had submitted a report to Council with a list of 28 “non-core” properties and proposed that these should be disposed of to raise capital, that she tried to persuade Council to sell off property to pay staff salaries and bills, and that, when Council disagreed, she made a U-turn and instead urged the municipality to find alternative ways to raise funds, namely by increasing water and sanitation charges.

The arguments

Konza denies that she ever tried to persuade Council to sell fixed property to raise funds. On the contrary, she says she advised Council that the recommendation about the selling of property should be taken out of the agenda.

She also denies that she (or any other councilor present) suggested that a shortfall be funded by a hike in water and sanitations costs, as was reported.

The mayor provided this office with a verbatim transcription of the presentation she had made to Council on February 23.

She adds that the speaker (of the council) never told the journalist that Council had pressurized her into scrapping the plan (to sell property), and instead to increase water and sanitation tariffs (she says the speaker denies that he ever made such a statement to the reporter).

Ngalwa says the complaint has no leg to stand on. At the core of the story, he argues, was the fact that the municipality was struggling financially and that it had proposed to sell its property to cover the cost of its human resources. “Our report clearly indicated that there was a unanimous decision by Council to oppose the proposal to sell the municipality’s properties.”

He says that the mayor admitted that she had presented the report to Council. However, from his reading of her complaint he says it appears that she was seeking to distance herself from that document – arguing that she was not the author. “That would be bizarre.”

The editor submits that the mayor’s report in fact proves the newspaper’s point. He cites that document as stating that, during the Council discussions a question was posed as to whether “it is wise to sell properties and the answer is a big no. It will leave the institution bankrupt of asset… Therefore institution will not dispose the properties but will look on how we can be able to make (up) the shortfall.”

He also notes that, from the same document, “the mayor reported that the recommendation … stating that the land must be sold should be taken off as there wil no longer be disposal of any land.” He argues that this further backs the newspaper’s story stating that, after the report had been tabled, it was roundly rejected by Council. “The change of heart, on the part of the mayor – informed by the council discussion – constituted a ‘U-turn’ from the original position i.e. to sell land.”

Ngalwa also maintains that the suggestion to fund the relevant shortfall by a hike in water and sanitation costs was a proposal at the meeting. He notes the article quoted the speaker as describing the final decision as follows: “It was decided that the municipality will have to strenghten and increase revenue collection on top of finding other ways to raise capital.” He adds that this was exactly what the mayor was saying, and the story reported.

The editor contends that the reporter did not have to further verify his information, as he quoted from the mayor’s council report.

Ngalwa also notes that the article had indeed quoted the speaker. “It is untrue that he did not speak to us or did not make the comments attributed to him. We even have a recording to that effect…” He argues that this office should not take the mayor’s comments about the speaker into consideration, as the latter could have complained himself if he felt he was misquoted.

In conclusion, he says that, “[while] Amathole Municipality resolved not to sell their properties, the fact remains that it was one of the options. Therefore our report was fair and accurate, in keeping with the spirit and letter of the press code”.

In her reply to Ngalwa’s response to her complaint, Konza says it appears that the editor is confused about the sequence of events when a report is presented at a Council meeting. Firstly, such a report is presented and then discussed, upon which it is then either accepted, amended or rejected. She notes the document she sent to this office is a verbatim transcription of what she had said at the meeting. She says she posed a rhetorical question, whether it was wise to sell properties, and the answer was a big no. To this she added, “It would leave the institution bankrupt of assets.”

She also said that the recommendation in question should be removed from the report as there would not be any disposal of land. “The editor is alleging that what I said during the presentation were in fact questions raised by Councillors during a discussion after I presented the item. He then further alleges that these questions had caused me to change my original position on the sale of land and refers to this as a ‘U-turn’.”

The mayor adds that, following her ‘U-turn’, Council did not discuss or decide to oppose the proposal. “The only comments made were supportive of the changes I had made in the report. This is the misinterpretation that I refer to in my complaint.”

She also notes that the verbatim report did not refer to a hike in water and sanitations costs.

Ngalwa asks why the mayor only provided this office with one page of the verbatim document, and not the full transcript.

He asks that, if the final process is that a report is either accepted, amended or rejected by Council (as stated by Konza), “[then] how is the decision not to sell land not a ‘U-turn’ from the initial recommendation to sell land? In the end council decided not to sell land … but going into the meeting the mayor walked in armed with a report which recommended such.”

The editor concedes that the newspaper may have erred in misinterpreting the information from its sources regarding the hiking of water and sanitation costs. However, the article did put this matter right when it quoted the speaker, who said, “It was decided that the municipality will have to strengthen and increase revenue collection on top of finding other ways to raise capital.”

Analysis

The following matters are not in dispute:

·         The mayor presented a report to Council;

·         Included in this report was a recommendation that consideration should be given to the selling of fixed property to raise funds;

·         The report was that of the mayor, and therefore the proposals contained in it can be considered as coming from her; and

·         The proposal in question was rejected – partly because the mayor herself indicated that it should be scrapped.

Therefore, with the information at its disposal at the time, the newspaper’s story was essentially correct and justified – and therefore, I cannot find against the Daily Dispatch on the matter of the selling of property.

However, at our meeting it became clear that the mayor only read the report a day before the meeting, and it was stated that she was against the proposal to sell property in the first place.

Given this context, which the Daily Dispatch did not have at its disposal prior to publication (through no fault of its own), we reached consensus that it would only be fair to the mayor if the editor grants her space to explain the situation, together with a reference to my involvement in the case.

I explained that I cannot “order” the newspaper to do so, as it has not breached the Code on this matter – all I could do was to ask the editor to comply, who immediately adhered to my request.

He also undertook to correct the misinterpretation of the information from its sources regarding the hiking of water and sanitation costs.

The complaint that the reporter did not verify the accuracy of the allegations, and that he did not seek her views on the proposed report prior to publication, cannot succeed. When the media report on a document that is officially tabled at a public forum, there is no obligation on any journalist to verify the correctness of that document – what is contained in such a document, is newsworthy in itself. Besides, the meeting in question was not open to the public.

Given all of the arguments above, I cannot conclude that the headline was false and misleading.

Finding, sanction

I am satisfied that the consensus we reached was fair to all parties, and I leave the matter up to them to address it further (as agreed upon). Therefore, I am not coming to a formal finding or make any sanction.

Johan Retief

Press Ombud