ANC (Eastern Cape) vs Sunday Times

Complainant: ANC

Lodged by: Mlilo Qoboshiyane, ANC Spokeperson

Article:  ‘Power put before pupils’; As Zuma woos support, Eastern Cape suffers (editorial comment); and When education                          takes a back seat to politics (review article).

Date: 21 December 2012

Respondent: Sunday Times

Complaint

Mr Mlibo Qoboshiyane complains about three articles in the Sunday Times on 15 April 2012 and headlined:

·         ‘Power put before pupils’;

·         As Zuma woos support, Eastern Cape suffers (editorial comment); and

·         When education takes a back seat to politics (review article).

Regarding the first story, the ANC complains that:

·         the headline did not reasonably reflect the content of the story;

·         the statement that Pres Jacob Zuma was placing personal ambitions ahead of thousands of school children in the Eastern Cape was unsubstantiated; and

·         the story omitted comment from two people whom the newspaper had interviewed.

The second and third articles were opinion articles. The ANC complains that these articles merely perpetuated the unethical (first) story.

Analysis

The first story, written by Sibusiso Ngalwa, was about the relationship between cabinet and the Eastern Cape education department. As a result of the provincial department’s problems, cabinet had reportedly decided to intervene. More specifically, Zuma had reportedly been accused of placing his personal political ambitions ahead of thousands of poor school children in the Eastern Cape.

The second and third articles commented on this story.

The story

Headline

The ANC complains that the headline (‘Power put before pupils’) did not reasonably reflect the content of the story.

Sunday Times disagrees – it says that both the Sadtu provincial secretary and an ANC leader accused the president of going soft on the provincial department because he had his eye on a second term. It argues that the headline was placed in quotations “which signals to the reader that it is attributed to a person rather than being a mere statement of fact”.

The newspaper’s argument is correct – the headline was based on comment from a source, which was reflected in the story, and it was presented as comment and not as fact.

Personal ambitions ahead of school children

The intro to the story reads: “President Jacob Zuma has been accused of placing his personal political ambitions ahead of the future of thousands of poor school children in the Eastern Cape after he backtracked on a cabinet decision to take over control of the crisis-prone provincial education department.”

The ANC complains that this statement was unsubstantiated and that there was no evidence in the story to this effect.

I take into account that the story did not state the allegation as fact, but presented it as an accusation. Even if this accusation was unsubstantiated, it still probably remained true in that such an accusation had been made – and therefore the newspaper was justified in reporting the accusation as an accusation.

Comment omitted

The ANC complains that story omitted comment from Eastern Cape ANC provincial secretary Lubalo Mabuyane and the former Department of Education Superintendent-General Advocate Modidima Mannya – it says that they were interviewed, but not quoted in the story. The ANC argues that they were central to the story and as allegations were made against them in the article their comments should have been published.

Sunday Times says that the conflict between the provincial education department and the national department had been in the public domain for months and therefore it was not necessary to publish all the details of each development in each story.

The newspaper says their comments were not relevant as they did not address the cabinet decision. In fact, their comments were overtaken by events. The story was not about Mabuyane or Mannya.

Sunday Times refers me to comments made by Justice Edwin Cameron from the Constitutional Court in the matter between Mr Robert McBride and the Citizen. It says that Cameron stated that it was not necessary for each story to incorporate all the facts in full as they may be incorporated by reference.

“He also stated that readers do not read articles in isolation and are likely to bear in mind recent news coverage when reading articles. We submit that these comments should be applied to our coverage” (as the story was part of a series of events which had been covered by the newspaper and other media).

The newspaper says that it was not necessary to publish comment from Mannya, because it was not reporting on the merits of the conflict, but rather focused only on developments at cabinet level – but since he had been central to prior events, his comments were reflected in a companion story on page 4 of the same edition.

The publication also says that Mabuyane’s comments were of marginal relevance to the story.

The ANC responds that, if this office accepts the argument of the Constitutional Court’s ruling, journalism in South Africa is no longer guided by the Press Code, but by judgements made by judges “who have no clue” as to how journalism works. “Journalists and their Newspapers don’t practice Journalism based on court Judgments but based on the South African Press Code…”

That, with all respect, is not correct – this office is indeed guided by both the Press Code and by court judgments, after which we apply the Code.

The story was about the cabinet decision relating to taking control of the Eastern Cape education department. The implications of Zuma’s delay in effecting the take-over was one of the issues in the article; the other leg of the story consisted of the comments by Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga.

The story did not make any allegation against Mannya; his name was used with reference to the provincial government refusing to sack him – and again Motshekga was quoted as saying that an agreement had been reached that Mannya would have to go. In the next paragraph Motshekga says the province would have to re-deploy Mannya. “He’s not part of the plans,” she said.

These references to Mannya are not allegations that demand his response.

The ANC does not say what comments Mannya and Mabuyane made to the journalist during the interview. In the absence thereof, the view of the Sunday Times that the comments were irrelevant to the article must prevail.

The “exclusion” of Mabuyane and Mannya did not in any way create unfairness in the story. Their exclusion was based primarily on considerations of relevance and did not affect the balance or fairness of the article.

The opinion articles

The ANC says that as the articles did not contain the comments of Mannya and Mabuyane they were unfair, unethical, biased and inaccurate.

Sunday Times says that the articles were a fair assessment of the situation and that it was entitled to express its views the way it did.

For the reasons stated above, the exclusion of the persons mentioned did not make the articles unfair or unbalanced. The reporter was entitled to select his or her sources and to determine what weight to give to each selected source.

The ANC does not challenge any of the facts in the story, but it says that the provincial education department and the Eastern Cape ANC were prejudiced by the articles. The ANC does not give any further detail of the prejudice suffered.

Based on the material in the story, the reporter was justified in expressing his or her views, which were based on the facts that have been marshalled. The opinions expressed appear to be conclusions drawn from the facts and these opinions also appear to be honestly stated.

This means that the articles met the criteria as set out in Art. 8.3 of the Press Code that states:  “Comment by the press shall be an honest expression of opinion, without malice or dishonest motives, and shall take fair account of all available facts which are material to the matter commented upon.”

Finding

The complaint is dismissed.

The ANC is urged to consider the Sunday Times’ offer to publish a letter by them.

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