The Seakamela vs Sowetan

Complainant: The Seakamela

Lodged by: Dr Abe Seakamela and his wife

Article: Fired over nepotism – Seakamela found guilty on misconduct charges

Author of article: Boitumelo Tshehle

Date: 10 June 2013

Respondent: Sowetan

Complaint

Dr Abe Seakamela and Mrs Mphoentle Mogotsi-Seakamela complained about a page 14 story in Sowetan on 22 March 2013, headlined Fired over nepotism – Seakamela found guilty on misconduct charges.

Dr Seakamela, the former acting superintendent-general of the education department of North West province, complains that the story falsely stated that he was dismissed for nepotism.

His wife, Mrs Seakamela, the former PA to her husband, raises three issues in respect of the story:

·         The story involved her in the nepotism issue (as her husband had reportedly employed her);

·         The implication that she had been demoted after her husband’s dismissal; and

·         She asks for proof that her salary had dramatically been increased “as a result of the fact that I am Seakamela’s wife”.

Note that both Seakamelas also complain about other stories that Sowetan has published about them somewhere in the past. I cannot entertain these stories, as they were published too long ago.

Analysis

The story, written by Boitumelo Tshehle, was about the dismissal of Dr Seakamela. The basis for the story was a media statement by the communication directorate of the department of education, North West Province. He reportedly pleaded guilty on charges of irregular expenditure, transfer of employee(s) against the moratorium on transfers, and on prejudicing the department and provincial government administration by referring a forensic report to the public protector without exhausting internal remedies.

The allegations also reportedly included the promotion of Mrs Seakamela and the increase of her salary from R92 190 as a teacher to R454 356 – first as a deputy chief education specialist and later as her husband’s personal assistant.

Dr Seakamela’s complaint: Nepotism

The headline read: Fired over nepotism. The intro to the story said that Seakamela has “irregularly appointed and later promoted his wife”. Tshehle also wrote that Seakamela had been served with a precautionary suspension letter in August last year “after Sowetan exposed allegations of nepotism against Seakamela and his wife…”

Seakamela complains that the story falsely stated that he was dismissed for nepotism. He said that “of the three charges I pleaded guilty to, none of them amounts to nepotism, yet the journalist saw it fit to conclude that I was dismissed on nepotism”. He adds: “All credible reports…have cleared me of nepotism…” He also says the media statement released by the department did also not support Sowetan’s reportage.

Even though Seakamela does not mention the headline as such, it used the word “nepotism” and I therefore include it in his complaint.

Sowetan news editor Wendy Pretorius says that the story was based on a media statement by the department of education that was issued on 19 March 2013, as well as on other correspondence with the relevant spokesman. She adds that the newspaper was unable to obtain a copy of the dismissal decision as this was a confidential document.

The newspaper also says that the department’s spokesman, Mr Brian Setwambung, “confirmed that the charges of transfer of employees against the moratorium included the transfer of Mrs Mogotsi-Seakamela, Dr Seakamela’s wife”.

Pretorius argues that this meant that the transfer of Mrs Seakamela was one of the reasons for Dr Seakamela’s ultimate dismissal (when he was in a position of power), and concludes that that justified its headline.

So, firstly about the story: The intro did not say that Seakamela was fired because of nepotism. It merely said that he had “irregularly appointed and later promoted his wife”. This seems to be beyond dispute, because he pleaded guilty to having transferred employees against the moratorium. However, this does not by default imply nepotism – far from it.

Also: The story stated that the newspaper had previously exposed allegations of nepotism (not statements of fact) against Seakamela and his wife.

I first need to be clear on what the word “nepotism” means. The general consensus from all the definitions that I have looked at is that nepotism boils down to favouritism to relatives and close friends by people in power.

Therefore, the word “nepotism” regarding her appointment needed proof that either the due process of appointment had not been followed, or that his wife was unfairly favoured above other candidates. This is the crux of the matter.

Surely, Sowetan would have produced evidence to this effect if it had such proof.

My only conclusion can be that the story did not either say or imply that nepotism was involved.

Also: A careful scrutiny of the story convinced me that it did not imply nepotism to such an extent that it justified the use of that word in the headline.

Mrs Seakamela’s complaint

She raises three problems in respect of the story:

Involved in nepotism

Mrs Seakamela asks for proof that she was involved in nepotism. She argues that two reports by Specialised Governance Solutions, one by the premier’s office and a recent internal departmental hearing cleared all issues around her appointment.

I have already decided that the story itself did not imply nepotism, and also that the headline did not reflect the content of the story.

Demoted

Mrs Seakamela complains that the story incorrectly implied that she was demoted after her husband had been dismissed. She said the story stated she was assistant director of library services and no longer the PA after her husband was dismissed. She concludes that Sowetan’s reportage has negatively affected her career, her standing in the community, her integrity and her family life.

Quoting the department’s spokesperson, Sowetan says that she “will no longer be PA but an assistant director in the multi-media and library directorate”.

Indeed: The story attributed this information to Setwambung, which it was justified to do.

Increased salary

The story said that allegations reportedly included the promotion of Mrs Seakamela and the increase of her salary from R92 190 as a teacher to R454 356 – first as a deputy chief education specialist and later as her husband’s personal assistant.

Mrs Seakamela asks for proof that her salary was dramatically increased “as a result of the fact that I am Seakamela’s wife”.

Sowetan states that the allegations indeed included the dramatic increasing of her salary.

I note that the story:

·         presented the increase of her salary as an allegation;

·         reported Dr Seakamela’s denial of this allegation; and

·         nowhere either stated or implied that the increase of her salary was because of her begin Seakamela’s wife.

Finding

Dr Seakamela’s complaint: Nepotism

The inappropriate use of the word “nepotism” in the headline is in breach of Art. 10.1 of the Press Code that states: “Headlines…shall give a reasonable reflection of the contents of the…report in question.”

The complaint with regards to the story is dismissed.

Mrs Seakamela’s complaint

The inappropriate use of the word “nepotism” in the headline is in breach of Art. 10.1 of the Press Code.”

The rest of her complaint is dismissed.

General comment

Even if I have found that the story itself did not imply nepotism on the part of the Seakamelas, but only that the use of that word in the headline was inappropriate, I do not underestimate the unnecessary harm that the couple was caused by this. This will reflect in my sanction.

Sanction

Sowetan is directed to apologise to the Seakamela couple for the unnecessary harm that it has caused them by the inaccurate and inappropriate use of the word “nepotism” in the headline.

The newspaper is directed to publish the following text prominently – above the fold on an inside page:

Sowetan apologises to Dr Abe Seakamela and his wife, Mrs Mphoentle Mogotsi-Seakamela, for the unnecessary harm that it has caused them by the inaccurate and inappropriate use of the word “nepotism” in a headline.

On 22 March 2013, we published a story headlined Fired over nepotism – Seakamela found guilty on misconduct charges. Dr Seakamela was the former acting superintendent-general, the education department of North West province; his wife was the former PA to her husband.

The story, written by Boitumelo Tshehle, was about Seakamela’s dismissal after he had reportedly pleaded guilty on charges of irregular expenditure, transfer of employee(s) against the moratorium on transfers, and on prejudicing the department and provincial government administration by referring a forensic report to the public protector without exhausting internal remedies.

The allegations reportedly included the promotion of his wife and the increase of her salary from R92 190 as a teacher to R454 356 – first as a deputy chief education specialist and later as his personal assistant.

They complained that the story and the headline falsely stated that they were involved in nepotism.

Press Ombudsman Johan Retief said that the word “nepotism” regarding her appointment needed proof that either the due process of appointment had not been followed, or that his wife was unfairly favoured above other candidates. “This is the crux of the matter. Surely, Sowetan would have produced evidence to this effect if it had such proof.”

He said that while the story itself did not imply nepotism (thereby dismissing the complaints about the story) the use of that word in the headline was inappropriate and not founded on the story. “I do not underestimate the unnecessary harm that the couple was caused by this,” he said.

Visit www.presscouncil.org.za for the full finding.

End of text

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