Omphemetse Molamu vs The New Age

Complainant: Omphemetse Molamu

Lodged by: O. Molamu

Article: I’m a victim of a honey trap – Mbalula claims spooks paid woman to rubbish his name

Author of article: Thokozani Mtshali

Date: 6 December 2011

Rrespondent: The New Age

Complaint

Ms Omphemetse Molamu complains about a story in The New Age, published on 8 November 2011 and headlined I’m a victim of a honey trap – Mbalula claims spooks paid woman to rubbish his name.
Molamu complains that:
  • the story falsely states that “the woman was paid R150 000 to rubbish his (Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula’s) name by National Intelligence operatives”;
  • The New Age did not seek her comment (prior to publication); and
  • neither the newspaper nor Mbalula has proof of the alleged payment.
Analysis
The story, written by Thokozani Mtshali, says that Mbalula believed that he was the victim of a honey trap set for him by operatives of the National Intelligence Agency (NIA). This reportedly came after claims by “a young North West woman” that she fell pregnant when she and Mbalula had unprotected sex. The story says that this woman was paid R150 000 “to rubbish” Mbalula’s name. He reportedly denied that he had unprotected sex (he said the condom had burst) and that the woman was pregnant.
I shall now look at the merits of the complaint:
Paid R150 000 to rubbish Mbalula’s name
The full sentence in dispute reads: “And, the woman was paid R150 000 to rubbish his name by National Intelligence operatives meddling in ANC’s squabbles in the run-up to next year’s elective conference in Mangaung, Mbalula told The New Age in an interview yesterday.” (emphasis added)
Molamu complains that the newspaper stated it as a fact that the woman pas paid R150 000, whilst it should have reported that she was “allegedly” paid.
The New Age denies that the story in general and the disputed sentence in particular were presented as fact – the story was clearly based on an interview with Mbalula “in which he expresses his opinion on a number of issues”. The newspaper argues that this is evident from the headline, as well as from the use of quotation marks throughout the story. It also points to the fact that the sentence in dispute ends with the words “Mbalula told The New Age”, and argues that this makes it clear that, again, the story ascribes this allegation to Mbalula.
The newspaper adds that:
  • inasmuch as the story reflects Mbalula’s views, the newspaper has merely exercised its Constitutional right to freedom of expression;
  • the story was in the public interest as it concerned a Cabinet Minister and the NIA; and
  • the content of the article, in so far as it concerned the relationship between Molamu and Mbulele, was largely in the public domain.
I cannot fault The New Age’s response on any of its arguments mentioned above. In fact, I would have argued along the same lines. Specifically, the sentence in dispute is indeed not presented as a fact, but clearly as Mbalula’s opinion.
Not asking Molamu for comment
Molamu complains that the newspaper did not seek her comments.
The New Age admits that it did not offer Molamu a right of reply prior to publication. However, the newspaper says that it did offer her a front page interview to enable her to put forward her side of the story – an offer that she refused as she was insisting on a front page apology. The newspaper says that an apology would be inappropriate. It argues that, as Molamu complained that she was not asked for comment, the publication of her comment is the “most reasonable and effective” way to rectify matters.
Molamu responds that the newspaper’s failure to ask her for comment remains a breach of the Press Code – and again insists on an apology.
I note that the story does not identify Molamu – it consistently mentions “a woman”. I then checked with the newspaper if it had identified her in earlier stories. The editor responded that the newspaper did not carry any stories about this matter, either before or after the publication of the story in dispute.
It is true that the Press Code does require publications to ask the subject of their reportage for comment. However, when that subject is not identified in the story, or in earlier stories in the same publication, the newspaper’s obligation to get comment diminishes.
The question, therefore, is where to draw the line. Has the newspaper’s obligation to ask Molamu for comment been lessened to such an extent that the lack thereof does not constitute a breach of the Press Code?
In this case, I do not believe that the newspaper has breached the Code, simply because “the woman” is not the focal point of the story (although, admittedly, she does play an important part in the article) – the story is firstly about Mbalula, who was interviewed by the newspaper, and secondly about the NIA and about “the fierce war being waged by factions within the ANC for control of the party”.
If “the woman” was the focal point of the story, I would have re-considered the matter.
The fact that other newspapers identified her prior to the story in dispute is not The New Age’s business.
I have to add, however, that it would have been better if the newspaper did ask her for comment. I therefore appreciate the newspaper’s offer to give Molamu a right of reply and hope that she would come to accept that proposal.
No proof of the alleged payment
Molamu complains that neither Mbalula nor the newspaper has proof of the alleged payment.
The newspaper does not respond to this part of the complaint.
I do not know if Mbalula has proof of payment or not. What matters, though, is that the newspaper merely reported his opinion. Therefore, there is no onus on the newspaper to find proof of this payment.
Finding
The complaint is dismissed in its entirety.
Sanction
There is no sanction.
Appeal
Please note that our Complaints Procedures lay down that within seven days of receipt of this decision, anyone of the parties 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