University of KwaZulu-Natal vs The Witness

Complainant: University of KwaZulu Natal

Lodged by: M Sejal Desai, media liaison officer, University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN)

Headline: Con leaves students homeless – Accommodation scam devastates at least 500 UKZN students

Page: 1

Online: Yes

Author of article: Kerushun Pillay

Date: 31 March 2019

Respondent: Yves Vanderhaeghen, editor

HEARING

This ruling is based on all relevant correspondence, as well as on a meeting between the parties and me, held at Pietermaritzburg on 29 March 2019.

At the meeting the complainant was represented by Desai, Mr Kgotlaetsile Marumola (manager: student residences), Mr Mdukhy Mabaso (H.O.D. DSRA, Pietermaritzburg campus), Ms Ziyanda Mqikela (SRC deputy president, Durban campus), Mr Samkelo Gudazi (chairperson SRC, Pietermaritzburg campus), and Ms Adéle van Heerden (legal advisor). Vanderhaeghen, Pillay and Ingrid Harrison (news editor) attended the meeting for the newspaper.

Complaint                                            

The UKZN management complains that the following statements in the article were false, misleading and baseless, namely that the:

·         protest was largely motivated by student frustration about an alleged scam regarding the payment of residence fees;

·         university was increasing its fees to cover for corruption, which included an investigation of its medical school; and

·         student quoted in the story, one Thandeka Luyanda Ncube from Vryheid, was registered at the university.

They add that the:

·         reporter largely used only one, unnamed source;

·         headline was misleading; and

·         journalist did not afford them reasonable time to respond.

In conclusion, management complains that the reportage was unnecessarily damaging of the its reputation and could stimulate protest action on its campuses.

The text

The article said students at UKZN’s Pietermaritzburg campus had vowed to disrupt academic activities until students who were allegedly victims of a multi-million rand residence placement scandal had been housed.

Pillay reported that the campus’s student representative council (SRC) had alleged that members of UKZN’s student affairs department had charged unknowing students for placement in residences for this year, even though these places apparently did not exist. The SRC alleged about 500 students are now without a place to stay because of the “fraud”, claiming UKZN was probing the allegations and has already found there to be a multi-million rand racket.

The Pietermaritzburg SRC on Monday led a group of students in protest over this and other issues related to fees, where they disrupted lectures, against a backdrop of first-day chaos at KwaZulu-Natal universities.

The journalist also reported he had seen an SRC memorandum to management about this matter.

An SRC member at the Pietermaritzburg campus who did not want to be named reportedly said:

·         “Students are stranded. Some are forced to sleep on the floor at friends’ places. They are coming to UKZN to find their rooms are locked. We demand the university fixes this because students are being punished for something they didn’t do”;

·         “UKZN is increasing its fees to try to cover the cost it suffered by corruption here; it also includes the cost of investigating the medical school. And NSFAS bursaries don’t increase to meet fee increases”; and

·         “We want management to provide housing to students left stranded, and also to register those who haven’t paid previous years’ fees yet, so long as they commit to paying them.”

Pillay also quoted Ms Thandeka Luyanda Ncube, “a first-year student who has travelled from Vryheid to study at UKZN” as saying she was one of those affected by the residence placement. “I was accepted for residence and I thought that when I got here I would be sorted into a residence, but they told me there is nothing available.”

UKZN reportedly did not respond to specific questions, but the university in a statement confirmed that the academic programme has been suspended until further notice.

“University management has received a memorandum of grievances from the … SRC. The suspension will allow management space to engage with student leadership and address matters whilst ensuring the safety and security of all concerned,” acting spokesperson Normah Zondo reportedly said.

Analysis

Reasonable reporting?

Before I get into the nitty-gritty of the complaint, I first need to consider if Pillay prepared his article in accordance with acceptable principles of journalistic conduct. In simpler terms, the question is if he was justified to publish the information he had garnered from his (anonymous) source, as well as from the person who had claimed to be a first-year student.

Several factors count in the journalist’s favour. For example, he:

·         did not stay behind his desk, but in fact went to the scene to see first-hand what was happening and to talk to relevant people;

·         sent an email to the university with several questions early that morning – from his perspective, that would have given a spokesperson enough time to respond;

·         spoke to a member of the SRC;

·         tried to get comment from the chairperson of the SRC;

·         spoke telephonically to a person who was introduced to him as a student; and

·         phoned the university’s office to ensure that his questions were received.

The university argued that:

·         it, including Desai’s office, had been teargassed that day, and that her office had been inundated with media queries – which is why they did not respond to Pillay’s questions. Desai argued that Pillay should have done more in order to get comment;

·         the person to whom the journalist had spoken had probably not been a member of the SRC and, if he was, he was not in a position to speak to the media as the chairperson was the only one mandated to do so;

·         an SRC memorandum that contained the issues the students were concerned about did not include any mention of a “scam” – and that Pillay therefore should have done more to verify his information; and

·         the SRC’s chairperson denied that the reasons for the protest on campus included the scam allegation.

Firstly, both Vanderhaeghen and Pillay emphatically stated that the person whom the latter had quoted indeed was an SRC member. Although the university is doubtful of this information, I have no reason to disbelieve the editor.

At the meeting, Pillay explained that he first talked to this source and then tried to speak to the SRC chairperson himself. However, he said the latter had told him he was too busy to speak to him, and instead referred him back to the SRC member to whom he spoke in the first place.

The newspaper’s argument is that, even if this source was not mandated to speak to the press, the word of the SRC member did carry some authority as the chairperson had referred the matter back to this source.

Also, when I asked the chairperson for his version of events, he said he could not remember what had happened. That was not helpful. Therefore, in light of the fact that he did not contradict Pillay, I accept the reporter’s word on this matter.

If this source was not mandated to speak to the press, but did so anyway, surely that was not the reporter’s fault.

I conclude, then, that the journalist did enough to verify his information (for reasons I have documented above, which I do not need to repeat) and that he prepared his article in accordance with acceptable principles of journalistic conduct.

My first fundamental decision, therefore, is that Pillay was justified to report his source’s allegations as allegations – as long as he did not report those as fact.

Allegations presented as fact?

Scam; reason for protests

Having decided that Pillay was justified to report his information, the next question is how he should have reported it.

At the heart of this matter is the question if he reported the allegations as allegations (which he was justified to do), or whether he reported those as fact (which he was not justified to do, as he was not able to establish the veracity thereof).

In this regard, I need to make an important distinction between two closely related, but also distinct allegations:

·         The existence of a scam; and

·         The statement that students protested because of this alleged scam.

Pillay got both these pieces of information from his anonymous source and should therefore have treated those in the same way (i.e. report the allegations as allegations, and not as fact).

A careful reading of the article makes it clear that Pillay consistently reported the existence of a scam as an allegation – which, as I have argued, he was justified to do (whether such a scam in fact existed or not).

However, he does not do so with the allegation that this alleged scam was part of the reason for the students’ protests. Without fail, he presented this allegation as fact.

This is clear right from the outset. For example, the introductory paragraph to the article read: “Students at UKZN Pietermaritzburg campus have vowed to disrupt academic activities until students (stated as fact) who were allegedly victims of a multi-million rand residence placement scandal was housed (stated as an allegation).”

Indeed: The statement that the protest was about the scam was stated as fact, while the one about the scam itself was reported as an allegation.

The whole of the second paragraph is about the allegation of a scam.

Then came the third paragraph: “The Pietermaritzburg SRC yesterday led a group of students in protest over this…” (My emphasis.) Again, the reason for the protest, inter alia, was presented (as fact) that students were protesting over the alleged scam.

This is my second fundamental decision: Pillay (correctly) reported the scam as an allegation, but he (unjustifiably) reported as fact that the alleged scam was a reason for the protests.

Fees increased to cover for corruption

The complaint about the statement that it was increasing its fees to cover for corruption, which included an investigation of its medical school, cannot be upheld – not because these allegations were true, but because Pillay quoted the source and had no reason to disbelieve this person or to think that she or he was not speaking on behalf of the SRC.

Ncube, the ‘student’

Pillay quoted one Thandeka Luyanda Ncube from Vryheid about the issue of accommodation. At the meeting, the reporter informed me that his source put this person on the phone as one of those who have been “scammed”.

However, efforts by the university show that she was not registered at the institution.

At the time, the reporter had no reason to disbelieve his information that Ncube as a student at the university. Whether that was true or not, is not for me to say.

One, unnamed source

I have already dealt with this issue.

Let me repeat, though: Having spoken to an SRC member, and especially after the chairperson referred Pillay back to this person, I accept that the reporter was justified to believe that this person was speaking with authority.

The issue, as I have pointed out, was not if he should have used the information garnered from this source, but how he should have done it.

The headline

The headline did not reasonably reflect the content of the article – while the story presented the scam as an allegation, both the headline and the sub-headline stated this as fact. It effectively changed the question mark in the story into an exclamation mark.

At the meeting, Vanderhaeghen conceded that this was a mistake.

It is encouraging to work with an editor who does not defend his newspaper for the sake of defence, and does not try to defend the indefensible.

Unreasonable time to respond

I have sympathy with the difficult situation the media liaison office of the university had to deal with on that particular day.

However, it was not Pillay’s fault that the university did not respond to his questions. He sent his email early in the morning and even phoned back to make sure that the office had received his correspondence.

Reputational damage

I now turn to my third, and last, fundamental decision.

While it is not my task to establish whether or not there was a scam, I am deeply concerned about the consequences of the reportage. The burning question is this: What ifthe information garnered from the anonymous source was wrong?

While my adjudication is not a forensic investigation, after the meeting I am convinced that some, if not all, of the source’s information was false.

These are my considerations:

·         The protest was organised by the SRC. Surely, the chairman of that body should know what he was complaining to the university about – and he flatly denies that the alleged scam was part of it. This fact alone puts a serious question mark behind the veracity of this information. At the time the reporter had no reason to disbelieve the information – but surely he now has;

·         The vice-chairperson of the Durban campus’s SRC also denied any knowledge of a scam;

·         Various persons from the university who have a mandate to speak on its behalf also denied any knowledge of a scam;

·         The SRC had prepared a memorandum in which it set out all the problems and frustrations it wanted to share with the university – and a scam was not part of it; and

·         As far as my knowledge goes not a single one of the 500 students who allegedly suffered because of this scam has laid a charge of fraud with the Police.

Given all of these considerations, I have no evidence whatsoever that such a scam exists and therefore I tend to disbelieve the source’s information on this issue.

Regarding the allegation that the protests were inter alia about such a scam: Not only do I not have any evidence to support it, but I also have a flat denial to this effect from the SRC chairperson himself.

This time I do not “tend to disbelieve” this information – I have enough to go on to say that this piece of “information” was false. After listening to the university, and especially to the two SRC members who attended the meeting, I am convinced that the alleged scam did not play any role in the protests.

Given this scenario, I need to add that I disbelieve every word that came out of this source’s mouth. I do not know who this person is, and neither do I want to know. It is enough for me to categorically state that he had lied when he told Pillay that the protests were about the scam. I have no reason whatsoever to believe his other statements – that Ncube was a student at the university who had been scammed, and neither his statements about the medical school and that the university had increased its fees to cover for corruption.

 

Given all of these considerations, I return to my initial question: What if this information was false?

The likelihood of this is so great that neither I nor the newspaper can afford to ignore it. Surely, the university has suffered huge reputational damage – all the officials concerned are under a cloud (who were those responsible for this fraud?), which also goes for the institution itself (that was accused of increasing fees to cover for corruption).

In conclusion, it is important to ask the question who was responsible for this reputational damage – which, to a large extent (if not totally), was undeserved, unfair and unnecessary.

The person who should carry most of the blame is the source himself.

The rest of the blame should be shared between the newspaper and the university’s liaison office.

The journalist is to be blamed, not for reporting the allegations as allegations (I am adamant that he could not realistically have foreseen the possibility that his main source was lying to him), but for stating as fact that the alleged scam formed a part of the students’ protests. The sub-editor responsible for the front-page headlines is also to blame.

The university itself is also not blameless, as it did not timely respond to Pillay’s questions (even though the situation it was facing was extremely difficult) – which should and could have made a material difference to the outcome of the story.

The way forward

It is the task of my office to rectify such false impressions as effectively as possible. My decisions in this regard will be guided by the considerations mentioned above.

Finding

Parts of the complaint upheld

The complaint about the reporting as fact the allegation that an alleged scam had formed part of the reasons for the students’ protests was in breach of the following sections of the Press Code:

·         1.1: “The media shall take care to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly”; and

·         1.3: “The media shall present only what may reasonably be true as fact; opinions, allegations, rumours or suppositions shall be presented clearly as such.”

Both the main headline and the sub-headline were in breach of Section 10.1 of the Code that states: “Headlines … shall not mislead the public and shall give a reasonable reflection of the contents of the report … in question.”

Parts of the complaint dismissed

The parts of the complaint that are dismissed were about:

·         the reporting on the existence of an alleged scam (not because it was true, but because the journalist was justified at the time to report this allegation as an allegation);

·         the statement that the university was increasing its fees to cover for corruption, which included an investigation of its medical school (not because it was true, but because the journalist was justified at the time to report this allegation as an allegation);

·         Ncube (not because it was true, but because the journalist was justified at the time to report this allegation as an allegation);

·         using one, anonymous source is (because the reporter had reason to believe his source was authorised to speak on behalf of the SRC); and

·         not giving the university reasonable time to respond to the reporter’s questions.

Seriousness of breaches

Under the headline Hierarchy of sanctions, Section 8 of the Complaints Procedures distinguishes between minor breaches (Tier 1 – minor errors which do not change the thrust of the story), serious breaches (Tier 2), and serious misconduct (Tier 3).

The breaches of the Press Code as indicated above are all Tier 2 offences.

Sanction

The Witness is directed to apologise to the university for:

·         stating as fact in the:

o   story the allegation that an alleged scam had formed part of the reasons for the students’ protests; and

o   headline that the scam existed and that 500 students had suffered because of it; and

·         the reputational damage this has caused the university and its personnel undeservedly, unnecessarily and unfairly.

The newspaper is directed to publish:

·         the apology:

o   on its front page, immediately underneath the headline containing the words “apology” or “apologises”, and “UKZN”; and

·         online (at the top of that page).

This text should include the gist of my remarks to the effect that, while I do not blame the newspaper for reporting the allegations as allegations, and that I have categorically stated that the source had lied to the journalist on at least the reason for the students’ protests – if not on more, or all of the other statements.

The text should:

·         be published at the earliest opportunity after the time for an application for leave to appeal has lapsed or, in the event of such an application, after that ruling;

·     refer to the complaint that was lodged with this office;

·     end with the sentence, “Visit www.presscouncil.org.za for the full finding”;

·     be published with the logo of the Press Council (attached); and

·     be prepared by the publication and be approved by me (after I have given the university an opportunity to comment on the text).

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.

Johan Retief

Press Ombud