Dinga Nkhwashu vs The Star

Complainant: Dinga Nkhwashu

Lodged by: Dinga Nkhwashu

Article: “Premier lied about business interests”

Author of article:  Moloko Moloto

Date: 30 September 2013

Respondent: The Star

Complaint

Mr Dinga Nkhwashu complains about a story headlined “Premier lied about business interests”, published in The Star on 26 July 2013.

Nkhwashu complains that the story:

  • falsely stated that the Premier of Limpopo had lied when he stated in a radio interview that he had no business interests; and
  • implied that every member of the ANC was corrupt, a liar and a thief.

Analysis

The story, written by Moloko Moloto, said that Limpopo Premier Stan Mathabatha “who promised to root out corruption, has publicly lied about his private business interests”. He reported that a few hours after Mathabatha had been sworn in, he flatly denied that he had been a businessman. “But The Star can reveal that the premier is listed as an active co-director of New Era Life Insurance (Pty) Ltd, the same company in which the late controversial businessman Sandi Majali owned shares.” Mathabatha reportedly stated on radio that he did not have a single company, and that he only owned cattle.

However, the story continued to state that the premier had been a managing director of the Limpopo Development Enterprise (LimDev), a provincial government entity. Moloto then quoted Mathabatha’s spokesman, Kenny Mathivha, as denying that the premier had lied. “He said Mathabatha had become New Era’s director by virtue of being managing director of LimDev. ‘When he resigned (from LimDev), all those were relinquished,’ said Mathivha.” He reportedly added that Mathabatha was “puzzled” that he was still listed as an active director. The spokesman then called it a “technical mistake, as far as we know”.

Premier lying about business interests

Both the story and the headline reported it as fact that Mathabatha had lied about his business interests.

Nkhwashu complains that this was not true.

The Star replies that:

  • company registration records indicated that Mathabatha remained an active director of New Era;
  • the premier did not deny being on the list of directors for that insurance company; and
  • his spokesman admitted it by calling it a technical mistake.

The newspaper asks: “Why did the premier omit to mention his ‘active’ directorship of New Era at the radio interview, when he was aware that he was still recorded as not having resigned?” The publication adds that its political editor Piet Rampedi asked Mathivha to provide him with both the appointment and the resignation letters relating to the premier’s activity at New Era. “This information has still not been received.”

Nkhwashu replies that the premier did not own 5% shares in New Era – he was not a shareholder, but “merely a director” of that company. He adds that Moloto “should know the difference between a director and a shareholder” – the latter does not “necessarily imply” having beneficial business interests. He explicitly denies that Mathabatha benefitted from his position as director, and notes that the reporter knew this fact prior to publication (and therefore accuses him of irresponsible journalism).

He also says that the Premier merely represented his former employer in New Era. “It is therefore reasonable of him to expect that his name be removed and be replaced by his successor, upon him leaving LimDev.” He also argues that Mathabatha therefore were involved in an official, and not in his private capacity (as stated in the story).

I asked the newspaper for a response to the above (private capacity; not a shareholder; no personal benefits).

The Star says that the Premier did not use the opportunity in the radio interview to clarify the “technical mistake” when he was asked if he had business interests. The newspaper then adds the following (all-important) sentence: “The question is, if the Premier is no longer under the employ of LimDev, which he represented in New Era, whose interests has he been representing since then, as an active director?” (emphasis added)

The publication also adds that the story did not mention that Mathabatha had received any personal payment from New Era.

The question here is what constitutes “business interests”. Normally, the term would have financial implications. However, when someone is listed as a director, “technical mistake” or not, one surely is justified to call that person a businessman – especially if he is not representing any other company in that regard.

Please note that this office is not a court of law, and I am therefore not making a judgment as to the veracity of the statement in question. I am merely ruling that, with the information at its disposal, The Star was justified in its reportage.

Implying all ANC members were corrupt, liars, thieves

Nkhwashu complains that the above-mentioned “false reporting” fed into the perceptions that all ANC members were corrupt and could not honestly hold public office. “The essence of this allegation is that they only hold office so that they can loot the public purse…” He concludes that, by falsely accusing the premier of having lied about his private business interests, the story “has fed and further perpetuated this notion…”

He says that this was borne out by comments from the public on the newspaper’s website, and adds that the comments by the public on The Star’s website were insulting and should have been moderated by the publication.

I cannot entertain this part of the complaint as comments by the public are not presently included in the Complaints Procedures of the Press Council. This issue has been raised recently by Sanef, and it is quite possible that it may be included in this office’s mandate in the near future. However, that is not the case at this stage.

Secondly, if its reporting has “fed into” perceptions that all ANC members were corrupt and could not honestly hold public office, surely the blame regarding those perceptions cannot be put at The Star’s door.

In general

Nkhwashu also says that the newspaper’s executive editor was not the editor of The Star and that she therefore did not have direct knowledge of the issues at hand and was not in a position to respond to his complaint. “It could therefore be argued convincingly that her ‘response’ is baseless and therefore should be disregarded in its entirety.” He argues that the editor himself was the correct person to respond.

That is not true. Editors often delegate the function of responding to complaints to a senior member of the staff. Secondly, this office cannot dictate to newspapers which person should respond to complaints.

Finding

The complaint is dismissed in its entirety.

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

Johan Retief

Press Ombudsman