Collins Letsoalo vs Sunday Times

Complainant: Collins Letsoalo

Lodged by: Mr Emmanuel Motalane

Article: Road agency chief gets pricey protection.

Date: 17 December 2012

Respondent: Sunday Times

Complaint

Mr Collins Letsoalo complains about a story in the Sunday Times on 2 September 2012 and headlined Road agency chief gets pricey protection.

He complains that the story:

·         was misleading in many ways (see details below); and

·         placed his life in danger by publishing his security details.

Analysis

The story, written by Prega Govender, said that acting CEO of the Road Traffic Management Corporation Letsoalo had a chauffeur and a bodyguard at a cost of R350 000 a year, because he feared that his life was in danger.

Misleading

 

Letsoalo complains that the story misleadingly:

·         portrayed him as living a flamboyant lifestyle by suggesting that he had a chauffeur while his predecessor merely had a driver;

·         created the impression that he was not entitled to a driver;

·         portrayed him as being abusive of state resources;

·         suggested that he was the only CEO who had a bodyguard; and

·         created the impression that he was not entitled to a driver.

He also says that the intention of the story was to disparage his name by publishing the above and by exposing details of his salary.

The Sunday Times:

·         says that there is no difference between a driver and a chauffeur and therefore the suggestion that Letsoalo was more flamboyant that his predecessor is without merit;

·         denies that the story said or implied that Letsoalo was not entitled to a driver (or a chauffeur). “It did (however) reflect staff concerns and it did raise questions about the allocation of resources to pay the salaries of the driver and the bodyguard when the parastatal was cash-strapped. But this is not the same as creating the impression that he was not entitled to them”;

·         says that its reporter did ask the question if other heads of agencies have bodyguards, but states that he did not receive a response to this question; and

·         denies that mentioning his salary amounted to an attempt to discredit or disparage him. “The money comes from taxpayers and they are entitled to know how it is spent.”

An internet search revealed that a chauffeur is a person employed to drive a luxury passenger motor vehicle. Originally such drivers were always personal servants of the vehicle owner – but nowadays in many cases specialist chauffeur service companies, or individual drivers, provide both the vehicle and the driver.

The Sunday Times is therefore correct – a chauffeur and a driver are essentially the same thing. The point is that the ordinary reader would probably have thought the same.

The rest of the newspaper’s argument is also sound – the story mentioned a source who reportedly said that Letsoalo was not entitled to a driver, but did not state it as fact, and his remuneration is in the public interest.

Placing his life in danger

Letsoalo complains that the story placed his life in danger by publishing his security details.

Sunday Times replies that the story quoted him as saying that he sought protection after having received death threats and that a threat analysis had been undertaken by the department. “We submit that by doing so, we discharged our duty.” The newspaper denies that it placed his life in danger by publishing the names of his driver and bodyguard. It also states that his car’s registration number was only partially visible in the published photograph. It also argues that publications regularly publish pictures of heads of state with their bodyguards “and this is never regarded as a security threat.”

Again, I cannot fault the newspaper.

Finding

The complaint is dismissed.

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