Mvusiwekhaya Sicwetsha vs Business Day

Complainant: Mvusiwekhaya Sicwetsha

Lodged by: Mvusiwekhaya Sicwetsha

Article: Zuma packs electoral list with loyalists – Alliance partners not snubbed despite ideological tumult.

Author of article: compiled by four journalists

Date: 11 April 2014

Respondent: Business Day

Complaint 

Scwetsha is complaining about an article published in Business Day on 12 March 2014, headlined Zuma packs electoral list with loyalists – Alliance partners not snubbed despite ideological tumult.

He complains that the:

  • headline was misleading; and
  • statement that Pres Jacob Zuma fired former Pres Thabo Mbeki (in 2008) was factually incorrect.

Analysis

The story, compiled by four journalists, said that Zuma had “strengthened his hand” in the ANC “as those close to him secured spots as candidates for the National Assembly in the May 7 elections”, and that the electoral lists were “packed with Zuma loyalists”.

Misleading headline

Sicwetsha complains that the headline was misleading in that it suggested, without any proof, that Zuma had ensured that his loyalists were on the electoral list for Parliament – and yet there was no mention in the story of how he did this.

He explains that the ANC’s lists for the national and provincial parliaments were discussed by the National Executive Committee, and not by Zuma himself. “To insinuate that Zuma packed the list with his loyalists and don’t provide readers with proof [to this effect]is being editorially mischievous.”

This “bullied” Zuma and portrayed him as a politician who went against organizational processes. He says that the headline should have read: Zuma loyalists pack ANC list – “that’s if one takes the angle of the paper”.

Sicwetsha says that the story itself put this in a better and non-abusive manner (“… the electoral lists announced yesterday are packed with Zuma loyalists across the alliance”). This sentence “defeats the insinuation of the headline …”

He also argues that the inclusion of Mr Fikile Mbalula (who did not campaign for Zuma’s re-election in Mangaung) on the list proves that Zuma has not packed the list with his loyalists. The story also suggested that the nomination of both Mbalula and Mr Malusi Gigaba “could be an endorsement of their performance, further defeating the insinuation made by the headline that Zuma packed the list with his loyalists”.

Sicwetsha adds that the sentence that Mbalula’s inclusion “… signaled that he remained popular in the ANC, and some may be ‘remembering the energy he brought on mobilizing voters in 2009 election’ (attributed to Prof Somadoda Fikeni) showed that the nomination process was done by ANC structures and the list reflected the completion of a democratic process within the ANC.

“This (also) defeats the insinuation made by the headline that Zuma packed the list with his loyalists.”

Business Day replies that Zuma was the leader of the ANC and as such was the main public face of the organisation. “To suggest there is a material distinction in meaning in the context of this report (the headline and the report travelling together both in print and online) is disingenuous.”

Matthewson says the Press Code stipulates that headlines should give a “reasonable reflection” of the contents of stories, and does not ask for a literal repetition thereof.

In his reply to this response, Sicwetsha says the newspaper’s argument about Zuma is not relevant – what is at issue is a misleading story headline, which contravenes Section 10.1 of the Press Code.

He also argues that:

  • the process of putting together the ANC list for Parliament and the provinces was not done by Zuma or the NEC – ANC branches and structures started it. This culminated in the provincial list conferences and in the national list conference;
  • ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe and other members were on record as  saying that the process was a democratic one involving branches and structures and that the national list was not going to change materially;
  • ANC members voted for each person on the list – Zuma did not compile the list; and
  • the headline ignored these processes and attempted to inaccurately caricature a wrong picture about the list. It was not supported by anything in the story, and ignored the information that the media had received from the ANC. It was therefore a lie.

My considerations

Technically speaking, Sicwetsha is correct – one must be careful not to disregard the democratic processes within the ANC that preceded the compilation of the lists of candidates.

On the other hand, I also need to keep in mind that Zuma is the leader of the ANC. In that sense he is not only ultimately responsible for what happens in that party, but he also must have a huge influence on what transpires – especially on something as important as electoral lists.

That accounts for the intro to the story, which said that Zuma had strengthened his hand (and not that Zuma’s hand was strengthened). I submit that Business Day had some leeway in this regard – it was therefore justified in its reportage on this matter, which includes the headline (which was based on the intro).

The fact that Mbalula and others were included on the lists is neither here nor there – the story did not say that the lists consisted exclusively of Zuma loyalists, only that they were “packed” with them.

Zuma fired Mbeki

The story said that Zuma had fired Mbeki (in 2008).

Sicwetsha complains that this is not true as “it was the ANC’s National Executive Committee that took a decision to recall Thabo Mbeki as President of the Republic and not Zuma”.

He says, “I must conclude by arguing that, it is disheartening that newspapers continue to disregard facts when reporting stories about Jacob Zuma by allowing emotional and commercial interests to take them to hyperbole of epic proportions.”

Matthewson argues that, in political writing, there is a “degree of licence” that allows for some “broad interpretative space”.

Sicwetsha replies: The newspaper’s degree of license for a broad interpretive space is allowed in the opinion or comments section of their paper. But even then its comment was unfair, considering the demands of Sections 7.2 and 7.3 of the Press Code.

My considerations

The same argument I used above also applies in this matter.

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 for the appeal. He can be contacted at Khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.

Johan Retief

Press Ombudsman