McIntosh Polela vs The Citizen

Complainant: McIntosh Polela

Lodged by: McIntosh Polela

Article: Polela nabbed for alleged poaching

Author of article: Paul Kirk

Date: 10 April 2013

Respondent: The Citizen

Complaint
Mr McIntosh Polela, suspended Hawks spokesman, complains about a story on page 3 in The Citizen on 11 February 2013, headlined Polela nabbed for alleged poaching.
Polela complains that the story falsely stated that:
• he was arrested;
• the Police had confiscated his weapons; and
• a case of poaching was opened against him.
He adds that the newspaper:
• relied on a single source (no attempt to verify the information); and
• incorrectly reported that its reporter had sent texts to him to which he did not reply, and that he had switched off his phone shortly after the journalist had called him.
Analysis
The story, written by Paul Kirk, said that Polela had been arrested by wildlife officials after he had been caught “red-handed” with two antelope carcasses on his vehicle while allegedly trespassing on a nature reserve. He and some other men reportedly eventually had surrendered to wildlife officials (after a stand-off) and had then been taken to the Himeville police station where a case of poaching was opened.
Arrested
The story stated that wildlife officials had “arrested” Polela.
He denies this.
The Citizen says that it did publish a follow-up story the next day, headlined Polela not arrested as probe continues into hunting accident. This story appeared on page 4, together with a box on the front page (Polela not arrested, probe goes on). (The headline of the copy of this story at my disposal read: Polela not held over hunting – cops.)
The new story stated that the Police denied that they had arrested Polela.
I note, with appreciation, that this correction was published promptly and prominently, as required by Art. 2.6 of the Press Code.
However, I also notice that the story did not say something to the effect of “as we have incorrectly reported yesterday” – let alone include an apology. The Citizen should have taken more responsibility for its incorrect reportage.
Confiscated
The story stated that the farmer who allegedly witnessed the incident, Mr Simon Acutt, “told The Citizen that a high- powered custom-built rifle fitted with a silencer and a high-powered telescopic sight were confiscated by police and sent for ballistics examination”.
It added that a source in KZN Wildlife said: “The rifle will be tested to see if it is linked to other poaching cases and the matter will be investigated. There will also be an investigation to see if the gun is licensed.”
Polela complains that it is not true that his equipment was confiscated. He says that the Police did check his weapons and licenses, after which they told him to “guard against hunting illegally in the land of white farmers”. He states that the Police then left him and his group to continue hunting.
He adds that he and some friends were hunting on “communal land” (on “our part of the land” called Pevensey, where he says he grew up and had hunted since he was young). He later explains that the Police came after Acutt had confronted him and his group.
I note that the story did not state it as fact that the Police confiscated Polela’s weapons – it attributed this information to Acutt.
Inasmuch as the journalist had reported information from his source (and had attributed this formation to this source), he was justified to do so. However, this does not mean that the information was correct. The Citizen is therefore under a moral obligation to publish the correct facts if indeed it emerges at a later stage that Polela’s weapons were not confiscated.
Case of poaching opened
The sentence in dispute read: “Polela and several other men…surrendered to wildlife officials and were taken to Himeville police station where a case was opened.”
Polela denies that a case (of poaching) was opened against him.
Kirk says that a police officer told him that a case was opened and  gave him a case number.
I phoned the Himeville police station, where an official confirmed that a case of poaching was opened against Polela. According to this person, the case was still under investigation.
Single source
Polela complains that The Citizen relied on a single source (Acutt) and that the reporter did not try to verify his information.
Kirk denies this. He says that a source contacted him, after which he asked a professional hunter for advice. He says that he then phoned an attorney, who was also a hunter. After that, he approached the Police for information, who allegedly confirmed that Polela had been involved in a poaching case. He adds: “The source told me that a group of policemen had left the station earlier and had arrested Polela and confiscated his rifles.”
He says that only then did he contact Acutt, who allegedly confirmed this information.
He adds that he also spoke to a contact in Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife’s anti-poaching unit, who confirmed his information. He allegedly also spoke to someone in the office in Pietermaritzburg where records are kept of licenses, who “confirmed” that Polela did not have a permit to shoot game at night, or to hunt outside of the official hunting season, and that he did not have a permit to shoot common reebuck.
Whether the information at Kirk’s disposal was correct or not, is not the issue here. What is relevant, is the question how many (credible) sources the reporter had and if he tried to verify his data.
I have no reason to disbelieve the reporter on this matter, and to me it is clear that he did enough to try and verify his information – he had a source, the Police, Acutt, and the person in the anti-poaching unit. He also spoke to someone at the Pietermaritzburg office.
No reply to texts; switching off phone
The story said: “When he was contacted at 9.30am yesterday, Polela said he was sleeping, then turned his telephone off. SMS and e-mailed requests for comment were sent to him but got no response.”
Polela complains that this is not true. He says that he had only switched off his phone around 16:30 when he arrived at the National Stadium to watch the AFCON final between Nigeria and Burkina Faso.
He also denies that he received any text messages. He says that this office will find no proof of such messages if we check his phone, and adds: “I welcome the Ombudsman checking my phone.”
I therefore asked Polela on March 5 for a copy of these records. The following day he replied that he would ask Vodacom to provide him with the data, which he promised to send to me as soon as possible.
Up to now, this was not forthcoming (more than a month after his promise).
Kirk says that, following all his information-gathering as described in the previous subsection, he then contacted Polela. This was approximately 10:0 on a Sunday. He says that, based on Polela’s comments on Twitter, he was sure that the latter understood his questions. He also states that Polela had his contact details. “He could easily have responded to my questions – which I believe he had heard and understood perfectly.”
I find this explanation sufficient and acceptable; also, it is rather odd that Polela never supplied me with copies of those records as he had promised – even though he had more than enough time to do so.
Finding
Arrested
The newspaper is commended for promptly and prominently correcting its inaccurate reporting about the “arrest”. However, this was not done not satisfactorily (read: fairly) as the newspaper did not take enough responsibility for its mistake.
This is in breach of Art. 2.1 of the Press Code that states: “The press shall be obliged to report news…fairly.”
Confiscated
This part of the complaint is dismissed.
Case of poaching opened
This part of the complaint is dismissed.
Single source
This part of the complaint is dismissed.
No reply to texts; switching off phone
This part of the complaint is dismissed.
Sanction
The Citizen is cautioned for not properly correcting its mistake regarding Polela’s “arrest”.
It is directed to publish the following text on page 3:
Beginning of text
The Press Ombudsman cautioned us for not properly correcting our mistake regarding suspended Hawk’s spokesman McIntosch Polela’s “arrest” after an alleged game poaching incident.
Polela lodged a complaint with the Press Ombudsman about a story on page 3 on 11 February 2013, headlined Polela nabbed for alleged poaching.
The story, written by Paul Kirk, said that Polela had been arrested by wildlife officials after he had been caught “red-handed” with two antelope carcasses on his vehicle while allegedly trespassing on a nature reserve. He and some other men reportedly eventually had surrendered to wildlife officials (after a stand-off) and were then taken to the Himeville police station where a case of poaching was opened.
Ombudsman Johan Retief said that he had noted, with appreciation, that we published a prompt and prominent correction regarding the incorrect reporting of Polela’s “arrest”, as required by Art. 2.6 of the Press Code.
He added: “However, I also noticed that the story did not say something to the effect of ‘as we have incorrectly reported yesterday’ – let alone include an apology. The Citizen should have taken more responsibility for its incorrect reportage.”
Retief dismissed the rest of the complaint, namely that the story (according to Polela) falsely stated that:
• the Police had confiscated his equipment;
• a case of poaching was opened against Plolela (he says that an official at the Himeville police station confirmed to him that such a case had been opened and that it was still under investigation); and
• Kirk had sent texts to Polela to which he did not reply, and that he had switched off his phone shortly after the reporter had called him.
He was also satisfied that our reporter did not rely on a single source and that he adequately tried to verify his information.
Retief added, though, that while we were justified in reporting that our source said that Polela’s weapons were confiscated, this did not necessarily mean that our information was correct. “The Citizen is therefore under a moral obligation to publish the correct facts if indeed it emerges at a later stage that Polela’s weapons were not confiscated,” he said.
Visit www.presscouncil.org.za for the full finding.
End of text
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 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