Cassel Mathale vs City Press

Compliant: Cassel Mathale

Lodged by: Chris Rammutla

Article: Why Cachalia was sacked – Sources say premier axed his treasury MEC because he resisted unnecessary expenditure.

Author of article:  Piet Rampedi

Date: 22 July 2011

Respondent: City Press

Complaint

Limpopo Premier Cassel Mathale complains about a story in City Press, published on February 13, 2011, and headlined Why Cachalia was sacked – Sources say premier axed his treasury MEC because he resisted unnecessary expenditure.

Mathale complains that the story as well as the headline untruthfully implies that he had re-constituted his cabinet for an ulterior and improper purpose, namely to get rid of Mr Sa’ad Cachalia, and that he therefore had lied when he gave reasons for the re-constitution of his cabinet.

Analysis

The story, written by Piet Rampedi, says that, according to sources in government and in the ANC, Mathale “fired arguably his best-performing MEC, Saad Cachalia, because of differences over control of public funds and Cachalia’s stance against what he considered to be unnecessary expenditure…” Rampedi writes that, according to sources, relations between the two men soured because Cachalia resisted pressure to allocate additional funds to projects that he felt were not a priority. Reportedly, one of these projects was a request to establish a TV studio in the premier’s office. The story says that Mathale’s spokesperson declined to comment and merely referred the newspaper to an earlier media statement that reportedly said that the reason for Cachalia’s sacking is “the desire to enhance service delivery and the determination to improve the living conditions of people”.

The story lists the “incidents” that Cachalia opposed which (according to sources) “could have” sealed his fate as follows:
• A R40-million bid to establish a TV studio in Mathale’s office;
• A request by the local government and housing department for R90 million to buy land in Lephalale;
• An amount of R20 million for the Polokwane municipality to market the province’s hosting of the 2010 soccer world cup;
• A request to facilitate a multi-billion-rand loan facility from the Development Bank of Southern Africa on behalf of Roads Agency Limpopo;
• The awarding of a R20-million contract to FNB as the new provincial government banker; and
• An amount of R60 million requested by the Mopani district municipality to help address a water crisis in the area.

I shall now consider the merits of the complaint:

The story

Ulterior, improper purpose

Mathale complains that the average person would conclude from the “incidents” mentioned above that he had re-constituted his cabinet for ulterior and improper purposes, namely to get rid of Cachalia. He says that readers, after reading the story, would think that he sacked Cachalia because:
• of differences over control of public funds;
• relations between himself and Cachalia soured after the latter resisted political pressure to allocate funds to projects he felt would amount to unwarranted spending; and
• certain incidents could have sealed his fate.

Instead, he says, Cachalia was not re-appointed because of “a desire to enhance service delivery or improve the living conditions of people”.

This reportage, he complains, implies that he lied when he explained why Cachalia had been “sacked”.

Mathale says that the following is the “true and correct position”:
• With a view to enhancing service delivery and improving people’s living conditions, particularly in the rural areas, he was entitled and indeed obliged to re-constitute his cabinet; and
• Cachalia was one of a number of former MECs who were not re-appointed.

Rammutla says: “In light of the true and correct position as outlined…above, the following is clear: the Premier did not re-constitute his Cabinet for an ulterior or improper purpose. Nor did he leave out Mr Cachalia from his new Cabinet for such a purpose. What had been stated by the alleged unnamed sources was simply not correct.”

Mathale concludes that the story was calculated, if not designed, to harm and undermine his reputation and dignity.

City Press argues that the story must be read in the context of what preceded its publication, meaning that it must be assumed that readers would have had knowledge of the article’s content. The newspaper refers to:
• an SABC news bulletin on January 28, 2011, which stated that “service delivery” necessitated the move;
• a website report in City Press on the same day, which said that Cachalia’s fate came as “a surprise” since he was seen by many as a top performer in Mathale’s cabinet, and also quoted Mathale’s office as saying that the re-shuffle was “aimed at enhancing service delivery and improving the lives of the Limpopo people”;
• a “public outcry” over Cachalia’s removal as is evident in an SABC news broadcast on January 29, which quotes opposition parties as saying that he was fired because of his “tight financial control”; and
• a report posted on the website www.polokwanecity.co.za, which quotes opposition parties as expressing concern about the dismissal and the possible escalation in corruption as a result thereof; it also says that Cachalia was replaced by someone who was seen as a “close ally” of the premier.

City Press refers our office to a recent ruling by the Constitutional Court that says that newspaper readers “tend to show interest in current affairs” and that it is “wrong to assume that newspaper readers read articles in isolation”, especially when stories were “closely linked in time…and theme…to a current controversy”.

The newspaper argues that the appointment and termination of personnel in a provincial government involves taxpayers’ money and is therefore a matter of public interest. It says: “When a senior official, who by all accounts has been performing well at his task, is dropped and replaced by a person seen as the premier’s ally, it is the duty of the press to probe the reasons for that action.”

City Press says that:
• it has relied on various sources, including four senior bureaucrats, two provincial ANC leaders and two mid-level government officials;
• the story ascribes the reasons for Cachalia’s “axing” to allegations made by these sources, and that these allegations are not presented as statements of fact;
• the sources not only confirmed what was already alleged in public by opposition parties and aired on national television, but these sources also pointed the newspaper to specific incidents which “could have sealed” Cachalia’s fate;
• the incidents that the story describes in some detail support the allegations already made in public; and
• the part of the story mentioned above stands un-contradicted.

The newspaper adds that, when approached for comment, the premier’s office simply referred its journalist to his earlier statement, which was already aired on national television and reported on in the press. It says that this statement merely stated that Cachalia’s axing was due to “the desire to enhance service delivery” and “to improve the living conditions of our people” – and that the premier therefore failed to respond to the specific allegations regarding Cachalia’s axing “notwithstanding being afforded the opportunity to do so”.

City Press concludes that its reportage was reasonable.

In his reply to the newspaper’s response, Mathale says that nowhere does City Press address the projects that allegedly sealed Cachalia’s fate. He says: “They are actually attempting to take us away from the focus of our complaint and the story.”

The premier also argues that the newspaper’s quotation of the Constitutional Court is “totally bad, misplaced and irrelevant” as the allegations about the projects have never before been made by any paper, including City Press. He adds that it is not even a fact that he re-shuffled Cachalia because of the reasons the newspaper put forward.

Mathale says that he does not know whether the newspaper indeed spoke to all those people it claims to have spoken to, “but the fact of the matter is that what the City Press has written in their article is not correct”.

He refutes the newspaper’s argument that the alleged incidents that resulted in Cachalia’s re-shuffling are un-contradicted. He says: “We doubt if our complaint was studied carefully. Our response indicates very clearly that ‘We are distancing ourselves from your claims’.”

My role is not to determine whether the “incidents” mentioned above have actually led to Cachalia not being appointed again – it merely is to try to determine if the newspaper’s reportage was fair, just and reasonable.

It was.

Here are my considerations:
• City Press correctly points out that the story does not present the “incidents” as statements of fact – these instances are attributed to sources;
• Note the careful way that Rampedi quotes these sources – they reportedly said that the incidents “could have sealed” Cachalia’s fate, not that they “did seal” his fate;
• This means that there is no valid reason to believe that the newspaper made out the premier to be a liar;
• I have no reason to disbelieve the newspaper when it spells out how many (credible) sources it used;
• The newspaper had the right, and indeed the duty, to report what its sources said – even if these sources were wrong;
• The information at my disposal points to the fact that the premier’s office did not adequately respond to specific allegations (with respect, the reasons put forward for Cachalia not being re-appointed are vague and they do not really provide any solid explanation);
• The newspaper’s argumentation about the “context” of the story and its reference to a decision by the Constitutional Court is redundant, as the article itself is strong and balanced enough to stand on its own legs;
• The story does quote the premier’s office to the effect that the changes were motivated by “the desire to enhance service delivery and the determination to improve the living conditions of our people”; and
• The story was newsworthy.

Based on the above, I cannot support Mathale’s conclusion that the story was calculated, if not designed, to harm and undermine his reputation and dignity. Instead, the reportage was fair and reasonable.

The headline

The headline adequately reflects the content of the story, as required by the Press Code.

Finding

The complaint is dismissed in its entirety.

Sanction

There is no sanction. City Press is free to publish this finding or a summary thereof, without the approval of this office.

Appeal

Please note that our Complaints Procedures lay down that within seven days of receipt of this decision, anyone of the parties 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 reached at khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.

Johan Retief
Deputy Press Ombudsman