Kamal Timmal vs North Coast Courier

Complainant: Kamal Timmal

Lodged by: Kamal Timmal

Article: Students cry foul play

Author of article: Nokhuthula Ntuli

Date: 15 May 2014

Respondent: North Coast Courier

Complaint

Timmal, the principal of Eskilz Development Agency in Tongaat, is complaining about a page 4 story published in North Coast Courier on 18 April 2014, headlined Students cry foul play.

He complains that the following matters in the story were inaccurate:

  • the name of the college; and
  • that former students threatened to report him to the SETA for failing to pay them.

Timmal adds that the journalist omitted/neglected to:

  • report the reason for non-payment to students; and
  • do proper research (verify her facts).

He concludes that the:

  • journalist was biased in favour of the students, which amounted to unfair reporting towards him; and
  • allegations in the article have impacted negatively on his dignity and reputation, as well as on the financial status of the college.

General comment: Timmal also complains about other issues, saying the learners failed to inform the reporter about these. Surely, this part of his complaint is not covered by my mandate. The journalist cannot be held responsible if her sources neglected to give her information that she did not expect they had in the first place. (This is not the same as verification.)

The story

The story, written by Nokhuthula Ntuli, said former students of the college claimed that Timmal was swindling them out of their stipend (a monthly allowance paid by government to people taking part in learnerships). These sources reportedly said that Timmal (illegally) paid them only part of their stipends (R760 instead of R960), and that he paid the shortfall only after they threatened to report him to the college’s funding body (Fibre Processing and Manufacturing, Sector Education and Training Authority – FP&M Seta). The dispute was also about the premises for classes and the facilitator who had left the college in February, “leaving the college without a teacher”.

Analysis

Inaccurate statements

Timmal complains that the story called the institution “Eskills Development Agency”, while it should have been “ESKILZ Development Agency”. He also denies that former students threatened to report him to the SETA for failing to pay them, as reported by Ntuli.

Stephenson replies: “The students’ complaints were taken seriously by this newspaper because [they]had in fact laid a formal complaint with the…SETA. As reported, the FP&M Seta was to investigate the complaints.”

He does not reply to the misspelling of the name of the college.

Firstly, the SETA’s marketing and communications manager, Elmien Baumann, reportedly said they needed time to investigate the students’ allegations before they could comment. Because the SETA did not complain that this statement was false, I accept that this part of the report was justified.

Secondly, I accept that Ntuli misspelt the college’s name. However, I also take into account that she committed the same misspelling in her email to Timmal prior to publication (dated April 3). That is when the latter should have alerted her to this mistake. In these circumstances, I am not going to blame the reporter for the error in the text.

Omissions

Timmal complains that the journalist omitted to report the reason for non-payment to students (he says they were only paid for classes they attended), and argues that Ntuli should have verified this piece of information.

Stephenson notes that the story reported Timmal’s short-payments. He says that, according to the story, he “apparently told the students he did not know that he was supposed to pay them during holidays, but in the complaint to the Ombudsman he maintains that [the short-payments were because]the students had missed classes” – and yet it was also reported that he eventually did pay them the shortfall. “Mr Timmal does not dispute that he made up the difference and the students’ complaint was therefore quite valid.”

The editor concludes that Ntuli made a valid effort to verify the facts as presented by the students, and offered Timmal several opportunities to respond to the allegations and to present his version of events. “The allegations and his response at the time have been presented fully and fairly.”

The newspaper’s argument is solid: The story indeed said that Timmal had duly refunded the students – a statement that he notably does not dispute in his complaint to this office. Why would he have paid the extra money if he had acted correctly by withholding it in the first place?

This is not to accuse him of anything untoward – my one and only point is that, because Timmal refunded the money after the students had complained, the necessity to have reported the reason given to this office for not doing so has largely fallen away.

Biased, unfair reporting

Timmal complains that, given the inaccuracies and omissions in her story, Ntuli was clearly biased in favour of the students, which amounted to unfair reporting towards him. He adds that she did quote him in the story, which indicated that the publication of such a damaging and unfounded story was a choice that she had made (to dilute the information he had given her).

Stephenson replies that Ntuli’s story was based on interviews with students, as well as on two communications with Timmal – one telephonically, the other via email (which is in my possession).

He also attests that the journalist was fair in her reporting (see his other arguments on this matter above).

Timmal does not deny that Ntuli contacted him twice. I am satisfied that his responses to the journalist via email were satisfactorily covered in the story. Consequently, I have no reason to believe that the reporter was biased towards the students and unfair towards Timmal.

Negative impact

Timmal complains that the allegations in the story have impacted negatively on his dignity and reputation, as well as on the financial status of the college.

The editor argues that it was reasonable to publish the story as it was in the public interest.

I accept that the story had several negative impacts on Timmal and the college. However, the duty of the press is to avoid causing unnecessary harm, as aptly described in the Preamble to the Press Code. Surely, it is not the newspaper’s fault if students made allegations that a SETA was going to investigate their grievances. In this matter, the North Coast Courier was merely the messenger.

Finding

The complaint is dismissed.

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