Cassel Mathale vs Sowetan

Complainant: Cassel Mathale

Lodged by: Mr Phuti Mosomane

Article: Health MEC has failed – Nehawu

Date: 01 April 2011

Respondent: Sowetan

COMPLAINT
Mr Cassel Mathale complains about a story in the Sowetan, published on December 7, 2010 and headlined Health MEC has failed – Nehawu.
Mathale complains that:
  • he never received any documentation relating to Segabutla’s alleged corrupt activities;
  • he never had a meeting with the secretary of the Forum of Limpopo Entrepreneurs, Mr Siviko Mabunda;
  • the journalist did not give his office an opportunity to respond to the allegations made against him; and
  • he is offended by the caption that calls him deaf.
ANALYSIS
The story, written by Frank Maponya, says that the biggest union in the health sector, Nehawu, has called on Limpopo Premier Cassel Mathale to fire his health and social development MEC Miriam Segabutla. Nehawu reportedly said that Segabutla must be replaced as “she had failed as MEC”. The same call, the story continues, was made by the Forum of Limpopo Entrepreneurs and the Junior Doctors Association of South Africa (Judasa). The story says that Judasa’s secretary, Mabunda, met with Mathale “to give him documents relating to Segabutla’s alleged corrupt activities”. Among other things, Segabutla is accused of paying R16,5 million to two companies with links to her lawyer, Mr Gert van der Merwe. The story says that the payment was made despite the companies having promised to do the job for free.
Matahle’s picture appears in the story, with the following caption: ‘Deaf’: Premier Cassel Mathale.
We shall now consider the merits of the complaint:
No documentation relating to Segabutla’s alleged corrupt activities
The sentence in dispute says: “The forum’s secretary, Siviko Mabunda, also met with Mathale to give him documents relating to Segabutla’s alleged corrupt activities.”
Mathale denies that he ever received such documents.
The newspaper bases its response on Mabunda’s affidavit. After stating that he had a meeting with Mathale, he says: “…and I did hand over the corruption documents concerning Dep. Of Health and Social Development…”
There is, however, a discrepancy in this affidavit, as Mabunda also says the following: “…I called his (Mathale’s) PA to confirm that indeed she gave him the documents.”
As this looked like a possible contradiction to me, I asked the newspaper for clarification (also on February 15). But again, it neglected to respond to this specific question.
From the affidavit, Mabunda does not clearly state to whom he gave the documents. (The story states that the purpose of the meeting with Mathale was to hand over documents to him.) From the reference to the PA, though, it may be concluded that he did not give the documents to the premier himself, but perhaps rather to his PA.
Apart from the rather confusing “contradiction” referred to above, the inevitable conclusion (based on the affidavit) is that Mabunda himself was not sure whether Mathale actually received the documents – or else he would not have asked the premier’s PA for confirmation.
The newspaper should have been more careful here; it should have realized that its own source was not sure about this matter.
And yet the newspaper states this as a fact; and without attribution.
On the balance of probabilities, I am therefore giving Mathale the benefit of the doubt.
No meeting with Mabunda
The story says that Mabunda met with Mathale regarding Segabutla’s alleged corrupt activities.
Mathale denies any such meeting.
The newspaper bases its response on the same affidavit that states: “I want to put it under oath that I did have a meeting with the premier of Limpopo Province (Mr Mathale) in his office…” Mabunda also states that he is “ready to produce vodacom phone transcripts where we discussed our meeting…”
On February 15, I asked the newspaper several questions and also requested it to supply me with these phone transcripts. On March 30 the newspaper responded – without any reference to the transcripts.
In his reply to the newspaper’s response to his complaint, Mathale says that, when someone seeks a meeting with him, his office asks the person to write a letter to request the meeting and also to out-line what they want to see him about. He continues: “We then write an acceptance letter to confirm the time and date for the meeting…”
Mathale argues further: “If indeed there was a meeting let him produce the letter from our office that confirms the time and date…”
This sounded like a reasonable suggestion to me, so I:
  • asked the newspaper (on February 15) to furnish me with a letter from the premier that confirms the time and date of the alleged meeting;
  • said that, if the newspaper could not do that, I needed an explanation of how it was possible for Mabunda to meet the premier in his office without such a document (I mistakenly mentioned Maponya’s name when it should have been Mabunda, but the intention should have been clear); and
  • asked the newspaper to confirm the time and date of this alleged meeting.
Sowetan responded to my e-mail on March 30, addressing another issue – but it neglected to address this matter.
On March 30, Mosomane repeated his willingness to furnish me with a copy of the premier’s diary once he has received the date and time of this alleged meeting.
It is reasonable to conclude that the newspaper would have given me:
  • the time and date of the meeting, if indeed it ever happened; and
  • phone transcripts, if they existed.
Based on the above, as well as on the improbability that Mabunda gave the premier the documents in person, I have serious doubts as to whether such a meeting ever took place and if the phone transcripts exist.
It should also be noted that the sentence in dispute is not attributed to a source – it is stated as a fact.
I am again giving Mathale the benefit of the doubt.
No opportunity to respond
The story does not quote Mathale directly or indirectly, neither does it state that the newspaper tried to contact him for comment.
Mathale complains that the journalist did not give his office an opportunity to respond.
The newspaper states that Maponya said that he had contacted Mosomane before publication, adding that Mosomane promised to respond to the newspaper soonest.
However, when I asked for some proof (e-mail, fax, SMS or telephone record) that Maponya did contact Mosomane, the newspaper could not do so. In later correspondence, the newspaper states: “Maponya concedes that he never called Premier Mathale’s spokesman to seek their side of the story.”
This is unfortunate – not only did Maponya not contact Mathale’s office to seek its view, as Art. 1.5 of the Press Code dictates, but he also lied about it to his newspaper and therefore also to this office.
Offended by the caption calling him ‘deaf’
Mathale says that he is offended by the caption that calls him “deaf”.
The newspaper “agrees” with him and says this is an unfortunate summation of the expression “turns a deaf ear to”, which was used in the story.
Although the premier only complains about the caption, there is also a sentence in the story that says: “But Mathale continues to turn a deaf ear to the union claims.” (This, presumably, is why Mathale is called “deaf” in the caption and also why that word is printed in inverted commas.)
This sentence is not attributed to any source, let alone verified – it is merely stated as a fact.
If Mathale indeed never received documentation regarding Segabutla’s alleged activities, the sentence and therefore also the caption would be unfair to him.
FINDING
No documentation relating to Segabutla’s alleged corrupt activities
Mabunda himself was unsure whether the premier received the documents (he asked Mathale’s PA for confirmation to this effect). Yet, the story states this as a fact, without any attribution – a “fact” that the newspaper had a chance to prove, but failed to do.
The sentence that states that Mabunda handed over documentation to Mathale is in breach of Art. 1.1 of the Press Code.
No meeting with Mabunda
It is reasonable to conclude that the alleged meeting between Mabunda and Mathale never took place – the newspaper would have given our office the time and date of the meeting or a copy of a relevant letter if indeed the meeting did take place. The same goes for the phone transcripts. Note that the sentence in dispute is stated as a fact and is not attributed to a source – a “fact” that the newspaper had a chance to prove, but failed to do.
The sentence that states it as a fact that Mabunda met with Mathale is in breach of Art. 1.1 of the Press Code that states: “The press is obliged to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly.”
No opportunity to respond
Maponya conceded that he never called the premier’s spokesperson to seek their side of the story. This omission is in breach of Art. 1.5 of the Press Code that states: “A publications should usually seek the views of the subject of serious critical reportage in advance of publication…”
Offended by the caption calling him ‘deaf’
Our office has already decided that, most probably, the alleged meeting between Mabunda and Mathale never took place and that Mathale never – in person – received documents from Mabunda relating to alleged corrupt activities by Segabutla. Both the sentence stating that Mathale “continues to turn a deaf ear to the union claims” and the caption (‘DEAF’) is therefore unfair to Mathale.
This is in breach of Art. 1.1 of the Press Code that states: “The press shall be obliged to report news…fairly.”
SANCTION
Sowetan is reprimanded for stating it as a fact (a “fact” that is not reasonably true) that:
  • Mabunda handed Mathale documentation (breaching Art. 1.1); and
  • Mabunda met with Mathale (breaching Art. 1.1 of the Press Code)
The newspaper is directed to retract both statements.
Sowetan is reprimanded for:
  • not asking the premier’s office for comment prior to publication (breaching Art. 1.5);
  • stating that Mathale continues to turn a deaf ear to union claims (breaching Art. 1.1); and
  • calling Mathale “deaf” (Art. 1.1).
Sowetan is directed to apologise to Mathale for calling him “deaf”.
The newspaper is directed to publish a summary of this finding (not the whole ruling) and sanction. Our office should be furnished with the text prior to publication. Please add the following sentence at the end of the text: “Visit www.presscouncil.org.za (rulings, 2011) for the full finding.”
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