Cassel Mathale vs Sunday Independent

Complainant: Cassel Mathale

Lodged by: Mashadi Mathosa

Article: Mathale ‘blocks’ corruption probe

Author of article: Candice Baily

Date: 14 June 2013

Respondent: Sunday Independent

Complaint

Mr Cassel Mathale complains about a story in Sunday Independent on 14 April 2013, headlined Mathale ‘blocks’ corruption probe.

The premier complains that the:

·         reporter did not attempt to contact him; and

·         story inaccurately stated that he did not return the newspaper’s messages.

Analysis

The story, written by Candice Baily, said that Mathale was frustrating Public Service and Administration Minister Lindiwe Sisulu’s attempts to charge corrupt officials. He was allegedly refusing to institute disciplinary action against several heads of departments who were accused of corruption before he had received forensic reports to this effect. The Treasury’s intervention team reportedly refused to give him these reports “as they feared this could compromise the investigation”.

No attempt to contact Mathale

Mathale complains that Baily did not try to contact him. He admits, though, that Baily did contact Mathosa “who responded to all her correspondence”.

Sunday Independent says that it is normal journalistic practice not to contact political principals directly, but rather their communication personnel (which it did). “Contacting the two employees (Mathale’s communication people) is, according to this practice and custom, enough to reach the conclusion that we did indeed contact the premier.”

The editor explains that the decision to contact Mathale directly “was the last resort after an exasperating and unsuccessful process to sensitise the two employees regarding the gravity and seriousness of our report and our repeated plea for an interview with the premier”.

I asked the newspaper for proof of its attempt to contact Mathale. The newspaper then provided me with a copy of this itemized billing.

The newspaper previously said that Baily phoned Mathale on April 12 on the number 082 379 1312. Baily added that when they called, the phone rang once, but then gave the message “the number you have dialled is not available” – it did not have a facility to allow the caller to leave a message, “which means that the calls were not reflected on the itemized billing of the reporter’s invoice”.

However, the newspaper says that the invoice does show that Baily left a text message later that day.

Mathosa replies that the number that Baily used has not been in use since February 2013. “If she had indeed tried to contact Mr. Mathale on this number she would have realized that the number no longer exists and her text message would have been reported as undelivered.”

I was bothered by one issue. This was my question to Baily: “On the one hand you say that you sent the premier text messages, but on the other hand you say that the same number was not available. Are you saying that you believe that your text messages went through to a number that was not available? Or were you not sure that they went through?”

This was her answer: “I can safely assume that the SMS went through, as my service provider has charged me for the SMS and it is therefore reflected on my itemized billing.”

I checked this, and it is true. This is enough for me to conclude that, while the number that Baily used may have been the wrong one, at the time of publication she believed that she did contact Mathale – and therefore she was justified in her reportage.

These are other considerations:

·         Mathosa does not deny the newspaper’s statement that it had on numerous occasions requested an interview with Mathale – I therefore accept that these requests were made; and

·         By contacting Mathale’s communication personnel, the newspaper indeed contacted the premier himself.

Not returning messages

The story said that Mathale “did not return text messages and calls”.

Mathale complains that Baily misrepresented the facts by this statement (as he never had received any such messages).

After my decision that the reporter truly believed that she did contact Mathale, it follows that she was also justified in making the statement in dispute.

However, I also understand Mathale’s dissatisfaction on this issue. I accept that he did not in fact receive Baily’s messages, which – form his perspective – resulted in him getting the short end of the stick.

This aspect will reflect in my “sanction”.

Finding

The complaint is dismissed in its entirety.

Sanction

There is no formal sanction.

However, believing that Mathale indeed got the “short end of the stick”, I am asking the newspaper to consider rectifying this matter on its own. I believe this is the right thing to do, even though I am not in a position to direct it to do so (as I have dismissed the finding).

Appeal

Our 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 Adjudication Panel, Judge Bernard Ngoepe, fully setting out the grounds of appeal. He can be contacted at Khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.

Johan Retief

Press Ombudsman