Platreef Resources vs The Radar

Complainant: Platreef Resources

Lodged by: Charles Phahlane

Article: Community structures up in arms against mining company ‘Blood Reef’, published in its 31 October – 13 November 2013 edition. Together with the front page headline, a large picture was published of a bandaged person, saying: The Victim: Klaas Morerwa. With that went two more pictures of security guards armed with rifles, stating: The Alleged Perpetrators.

Author of article: Lesiba Kola

Date: 7 February 2014

Respondent: The Radar

COMPLAINT

Platreef Resources (PR) complains about a story headlined on the front page Community structures up in arms against mining company ‘Blood Reef’, published in its 31 October – 13 November 2013 edition. Together with the front page headline, a large picture was published of a bandaged person, saying: The Victim: Klaas Morerwa. With that went two more pictures of security guards armed with rifles, stating: The Alleged Perpetrators.

The article itself appeared on page 2, headlined ‘Battle lines’ are drawn. The picture of Morerwa was also used with the story on the inside page.

Phahlane complains that the:

  • newspaper allowed commercial and non-professional considerations to influence its reporting;
  • story was factually incorrect, unsubstantiated, unbalanced, damaging and deliberately inflammatory (details below);
  • the headlines and pictures were misleading; and
  • company was not asked for a response.

THE TEXT

The story, written by Lesiba Kola, said that community leaders in Mogalakwena were up in arms against PR. There reportedly had been ongoing “battles” on the “field” and in courts since the company started prospecting in 2000. Then, the crux of the story: “The battle has intensified today with nearly all affected villagers crying foul.” According to Mr Sello Kekana, the chairman of two local forums, the problem started when PR failed to consult properly, “hijacking” villagers’ land and drilling without entering into surface use agreements with the affected communities.

Towards the end of the story Kole related that “incidents of violence, use of force and assault by a security company allegedly contracted to Platreef Resources has been reported in the past in some of the affected villages…”

ANALYSIS

Commercial, non-professional considerations

Phahlane says that, prior to the publication of the story, Twilight asked PR to sponsor the newspaper’s expenses in their entirety to an amount of R482 590 per year. After The Radar had received no response from PR, it complained of not having received any such payment. Twilight’s letter went on to make a series of allegations against PR, some of which are contained in the article. “The gist of the letter constitutes a threat that if [PR] did not make payment as allegedly promised, the [newspaper]would publish these allegations.”

He concludes that this constituted an attempt to extort money from PR, in which case the story would not have been published (read: bribery). He adds that PR told Twilight that it was not willing to fund its newspaper as that would have eroded the independence of community media – PR therefore did not respond to what it considered to be a threatening letter.

The Radar replies that the opposite is true – proposals to fund the newspaper were invited by PR (one proposal by PR’s Masehlaneng CLO, Mack Monana, and the other by PR’s general manager, Mr Jacob Motswaledi). “This was after [PR’s] Government Relations Manager, Mr John Dombo invited the [newspaper]for a proposal…”

Kopole adds that Twilight is a not-for-profit organization and depends on sponsors, hence it responded positively when invited by PR to submit such a proposal.

According to the document that was made available to this office, there is no evidence that the newspaper in fact requested money, nor is there any evidence of bribery. The references in the letter to alleged “damaging information” about PR were justified, given the social responsibility and duty of the publication.

When considering these arguments in unison, I can find no trace of any kind of intimidation by The Radar against PR, or of allowing commercial or other non-professional considerations to influence or slant reporting (Section 3.1 of the Press Code).

Statements in dispute

Phahlane lists the following statements that he says were factually incorrect, unsubstantiated, unbalanced, damaging and deliberately inflammatory:

  • “Community structures in Mogalakwena are up in arms against Platreef Resources” – (stated as fact);
  • “There’s been ongoing ‘battles’ on the field and in courts since the company started prospecting” – (stated as fact);
  • “The battle has intensified today with nearly all affected villagers crying foul” – (stated as fact);
  • “…Platreef Resources failed to consult properly, ‘hijacking’ villagers’ ploughing land and drilling without entering into surface use agreements with the communities” – (attributed to Kekana);
  • “…we never get any honest answers [from the company]” – (attributed to Kekana);
  • “The so-called affected villages share a collective outcry of daylight robbery as the company does ‘business as usual’, disregarding legislative framework and matters of compliance” – (stated as fact);
  • “Someone somewhere is taking money and lining his pockets at the expense of our poor communities” – (attributed to a “fuming community leader”); and
  • “Incidents of violence, use of force and assault by a security company allegedly contracted to Platreef Resources has been reported in the past in some of the affected villages, and for the first time The Radar has published some of the pictures captures” – (stated as fact).

He says that these allegations either referred to PR’s relationship with the community, or to its mining operations.

Community

Phahlane denies that the community was “up in arms” against PR. He also contests the use of the word “battles” between the two and an “outcry of daylight robbery”. Instead, he says that PR has made every effort to foster a good relationship with the community. “While it is possible that there may be individuals who are unhappy with [PR’s] presence…it is wholly inaccurate…to make such bold statements…”

He also says that no such violent acts by the security company have been reported to the appropriate authorities, nor has there been any outcome of court proceedings to justify such an allegation.

Mining operations

Phahlane says that PR was in the process of obtaining appropriate licences in according with the law and accepted industry practices. “As such, the…allegations that [PR] has failed to comply with the regulatory framework and has used illegal means to obtain its licences are false.”

The Radar replies that:

  • its story was verified with a number of eye-witnesses prior to publication. It was also verified with the victim as well as with other community members who were present “when the incident happened at Ga-Kgobudi on the 18 July 2012”. The editor says that the guards shot a number of people with rubber bullets on that day, and argues that PR did not want the story to be published as it would have negatively impacted on the company;
  • it is an “open secret” that PR’s relations with communities are far from healthy. It cites some examples of court cases to substantiate this argument;
  • the expression of “daylight robbery” has become the “slogan” of al PR’s consultative and public participation meetings – it explains, amongst other examples, that communities have asked about Surface Use Agreements and the Social and Labour Plan, which “form part of the entire social and community benefit package”, but nothing was ever forthcoming;
  • it merely fulfilled its duty and responsibility to the community as a community newspaper – it was just the bearer of the news, not the source of it;
  • there were other incidents of violence between the guards and the community as well, in which Morerwa was inter alia wounded (this case was reported and Mahwelereng police station on 03/01/2012);
  • the story did not say that PR used illegal means to obtain its licences – the phrase “disregarding legislative framework and matters of compliance” spoke to the rights of the community.

These are my considerations:

Firstly, I need to distinguish between statements reportedly made by Kekana and another community leader, and others that the journalist stated as fact. Surely, community leaders had a right to their views, and likewise the newspaper was justified in publishing these opinions as opinions – as long as it did not breach any sections of the Press Code, which I can find no trace of.

This leaves me with the statements of fact in the story, with the obvious question if the reportage was justified in this specific instances. Given the examples of court cases between PR and some affected communities, and the fact that the company deemed it necessary to employ armed guards (some of whom were masked), I submit that these statements were indeed also justified.

Misleading headlines, pictures

Phahlane complains that the words “up in arms” and “Blood Reef” (a “play on PR’s name) in the main headline falsely implied that the latter was responsible for a blood bath in the community. He includes the words “battle lines” in the second headline in his complaint, and adds that the pictures conveyed the false and misleading message that Morerwa’s injuries were caused by a group of heavily armed security guards employed by PR.

He says: “The security guards were armed only with paintball guns and [PR] is not aware of any serious injuries caused by the use thereof”, and adds that these guards were only employed a few months after the alleged incident. Instead, Morerwa’s injuries were caused by “inter-community fighting” and were unrelated to PR (he notes that the story never stated that Morerwa was injured by the company’s security guards).

The Radar admits that it used the wrong picture of “yet another victim”. The person in the picture rather was Mr Aubrey Malinga.

However, it says that that PR needs to explain the presence of the heavily armed security guards. “Rifles are tokens of war, and if [PR] indeed means well in the community, then the men masquerading in broad daylight with big rifles wouldn’t have been there. These are ruthless guards who shot and wounded innocent community members fighting for their rights on their communal land.”

The editor adds that the headline spoke to PR “about the blood of innocent people it’s spilling in the name of development”. He states that the guards used rubber bullets and not paint balls.

The newspaper maintains that both the pictures and the headline gave a true reflection of what had happened, and “…irrespective of the right picture not used, the honest mistake…neither decreases the intensity of the injustices perpetuated by [PR], nor does it exonerate [the company].”

It adds that the guards were masked on the day to avert possible identification.

Given my argument above, it follows that I can find nothing wrong with the headlines or the pictures. The use of the wrong person is regrettable, but since there was no complaint by the affected parties I am willing to let this go – it was an honest mistake, which did nobody any kind of harm.

Not asked to respond

The story says: “The Radar has tried to get in touch with Mr Gopolang Makokwe, Platreef Resources’s Vice President on his cell phone and by email without success, before going to print.”

Phahlane says that Makokwe has no record of receiving any such communication from the newspaper, “and we put it to the [newspaper]to prove this allegation”. He adds that the publication was aware that PR’s spokesperson was Mr Jeremy Michaels and not Makokwe. “It is submitted that if the [newspaper]had any real intention of seeking a right of reply from [PR], it would have contacted Mr Michaels.”

The Radar replies that it called Makokwe on his cellular phone after failing to get a response from two emails sent to him. Makokwe did answer this phone call, but he informed the newspaper that he was in a meeting and that he would call back – which he never did. The publication says it learnt only later that Michaels had received the emails, but PR’s head of communications never responded.

I have some correspondence at my disposal, forwarded by Makokwe to Phahlane, Michaels and three others, dated 23 September 2013, and saying: “I just got this from Hussein. Please contact him and find out what he is on about.” This email contained a request to respond to some questions.

The editor states that none of those people bothered to contact him.

I am therefore satisfied that The Rader fulfilled its duty on this issue.

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