Rachard Samuel vs Sunday Independent

Complainant: Rachard Samuel

Lodged by: Mr Themba Langa of Langa Attorneys

Date: 14 December 2012

Respondent: Sunday Independent

Complaint

Samuel complains about a story in the Sunday Independent on 7 October 2012 and headlined Another official guilty of bursaries for leases.

He complains that the story incorrectly stated that:

·         he had been charged and/or found guilty of anything linked to leases (mentioned in both the headline and the story) and that his children were awarded bursaries as a result of his collusion with service providers for leases; and

·         he had been charged with accepting bribes from a service provider.

He also says that the story omitted to state the correct context.

Analysis

The story, written by Candice Bailey and Dianne Hawker, was about Samuel who reportedly had been found guilty of accepting bribes. The journalists wrote that this was linked to leases which were irregularly awarded and for which some officials received “financial compensation”.

Leases: charged, guilty, bursaries

Samuel complains about the following sentences:

“A second Public Works official has been found guilty of accepting bribes – getting R170, 000 in university bursaries for his two children in exchange for favours in the department.

“The verdict comes as the Special Investigations Unit, which is probing the department, says they have collected evidence that officials were colluding with service providers.

“Leases were irregularly awarded to these companies in return for significant financial compensation, says spokesman Boy Ndala, who added that they were currently investigating 58 irregular leases”.

The word “leases” also appeared in the headline.

The newspaper concedes that the use of the word “leases” was inappropriate, but adds that the gist of the story was correct – “…Samuel was involved and found guilty on charges related to payments for benefit of his person and his children as contained in the disciplinary findings by the department dated 13 September 2012”. It cites a few sentences from documents containing these findings to support its argument.

It adds: “The findings also included that Mr Samuel was found guilty of misconduct by ‘using your (his) position as a senior DPW official and regional manager for private gain’.” It concludes: “It is therefore unreasonable to expect us not to have used the word bribe in its connotative form in respect of the above finding.”

I asked the newspaper for copies of the disciplinary hearing between the department and Samuel. It sent me three documents: the charge sheet, the findings and the sanction.

I am satisfied that the newspaper, in its response to the complaint, correctly quoted these documents. I also note that Adv JG Rautenbach stated in his sanction that the latter has failed to disclose the bursaries that his children received.

This means that the newspaper was justified in reporting that his children did receive bursaries – the newspaper only got it wrong when linking the bursaries to leases. In other words, the message was correct, but the motivation thereof was wrong.

As no mention was made of an amount I asked the newspaper for clarification.

The editor replies: “In a response to our question regarding officials involved in disciplinary processes, the Department of Public Works’ Phillip Masilo (the minister’s legal advisor) said on October, 4: ‘Mr Rachard Samuels was charged for receiving benefits from service providers in a form of bursaries for his two children (university bursaries approximately R170 000)’.”

That is good enough for me.

Samuel did not explain on what basis his children were given bursaries and whether the enterprises that awarded the bursaries were in any way linked with the department or himself. The absence of an explanation is not helpful and does not advance Samuel’s case against the newspaper.

Charged for accepting bribes

The sentence in dispute read: “In July Rachard Samuel, the deputy director for inner city regeneration, was found guilty. He had been charged for receiving benefits from service providers.”

The newspaper says that the findings included that Samuel had been found guilty of gross misconduct “by using his position for private gain”. Therefore, it argues that it was not unreasonable to use the word “bribe”.

Definitions of the word “bribe” that I have checked all contain the element of giving something to someone with the intention of altering or influencing the recipient’s behaviour.

As Samuel received a benefit in the form of bursaries for his children it is not unreasonable to suppose – as the newspaper did – that the benefit constituted a bribe. Why else would a benefit be given if not to receive some advantage?

I also note that Samuel’s children received bursaries from companies that he had a working relationship with.

Based on the documentation that the newspaper provided me with, the newspaper had been justified in its reportage.

Context

Samuel says that the story should have stated the correct context by pointing out that the Public Service Regulations, which he was accused of contravening, did not apply in his case. It should also have stated that the Department had failed to prove its case against him. He argues that this was unfair, malicious and defamatory as the (false) impression was created that he was involved in collusion and benefitted from corruption – which in turn harmed his reputation.

The point about the Public Service Relations is not relevant – the documentation at my disposal proves that he was charged and found guilty.

But more needs to be said. The story was about “another official” (and others) who was found guilty. This was newsworthy as Samuel was being paid with public money, and the newspaper was therefore justified in publishing the story. It was also justified in using Samuel as the angle to the story.

However, he was also found not guilty on several other charges – a fact that the story omitted to state. Even a sentence or two would have done the trick. Omitting it altogether was not fair to Samuel, as he was the main focus of the story.

Finding

Leases: charged, guilty, bursaries

The newspaper concedes that the use of the word “leases” was inappropriate as this was the wrong reason for the matters that Samuel was found guilty on. This is in breach of Art. 1.1 of the Press Code that states: “The press shall be obliged to report news…accurately…”

Charged for accepting bribes

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

Context

The failure to mention that Samuel was not found guilty on all charges was unfair to him and in breach of Art. 1.1 of the Press Code that states: “The press shall be obliged to report news…fairly.”

Sanction

Sunday Independent is reprimanded for publishing the wrong reason as the basis for the findings against Samuels and for omitting to mention that he was not found guilty on all charges.

The newspaper is directed to:

·         publish a summary of this finding (not the full ruling) and the sanction in an appropriately prominent manner. The text should start with a correction stating that Samuel was not involved in a leases scandal;

·         then set the context;

·         state the number of complaints that Samuel was found to be guilty of and not guilty of;

·         decide for itself whether or not to elaborate on the parts of the complaint that were dismissed;

·         end the text with the following sentence: “Visit www.presscouncil.org.za for the full finding”;

·         furnish our office with the text prior to publication; and

·         publish this text before the end of the year if there is no application for leave to appeal.

The text should be written in the same chronological order as indicated above.

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 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