Chris Hani District Municipality vs. Daily Dispatch


Mon, Feb 15, 2021

Particulars

Complaint number: 7893

Lodged by: Mr Gcobani Mashiyi, Municipal Manager

Headline (print): Municipal leaks suspension letter confusion in Chris Hani district

Date: 7 May 2021

Authors of article: Bongani Fuzile

Respondent: Adrienne Carlisle Plasket, Daily Dispatch’s internal ombud

  1. Complaint                                            

The Chris Hani District Municipality (CHDM) complains that:

  • both the headline and the article were misleading regarding the reason given for the issuing of suspension letters to employees;
  • the number of officials who received suspension letters was inaccurate; and
  • the newspaper did not give it adequate time to respond to its enquiry.
  1. Relevant sections of the Press Code

The media shall:

  • 1.1: take care to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly;
  • 1.2: present news in context and in a balanced manner, without any intentional or negligent departure from the facts whether by distortion, exaggeration or misrepresentation, material omissions, or summarization;
  • 1.3: present only what may reasonably be true as fact; opinions, allegations, rumours or suppositions shall be presented clearly as such;
  • 1.7: verify the accuracy of doubtful information, if practicable; if not, this shall be stated;
  • 1.8: seek, if practicable, the views of the subject of critical reportage in advance of publication, except when they might be prevented from reporting, or evidence destroyed, or sources intimidated. Such a subject should be afforded reasonable time to respond; if unable to obtain comment, this shall be stated; and

10.1 Headlines, captions to pictures and posters shall not mislead the public and shall give a reasonable reflection of the contents of the report or picture in question.

  1. The text

The article said that Chris Hani district municipal officials had received letters demanding reasons as to why they should not be suspended for allegedly leaking information to the media (read: Daily Dispatch).

  1. The arguments

4.1 Reasons for suspension letters misleading

4.1.1 CHDM complains that both the headline and the article were misleading regarding the reason given for the issuing of suspension letters to employees.

4.1.2 The introductory sentence to the article read, “Chris Hani district municipal officials have received letters demanding reasons as to why they should not be suspended for allegedly leaking information to the media – yet the municipality says it has ‘no intention’ of suspending them, nor have they been suspended.” (My underlining.)

4.1.3 Plasket says the story portrayed that there was some confusion as to whether or not officials had been given letters warning them to give reasons why they should not be suspended. “On the one hand we had a source saying letters HAD been issued to eight officials. On the other we had the municipality saying ‘none of the municipality official (sic) is suspended and no intentions to suspend municipality employees for alleged leaking of information to Daily Dispatch’. We believe the story we wrote, headline included, accurately reflected what appeared to be a bald denial.”

4.1.4 She submits that the headline accurately reflected the story. She admits that the punctuation could have been better, though. “Had we inserted a colon, it would have made more sense: Municipal Leaks: Suspension letter confusion in Chris Hani district. [However], as the headline stands, it can neither be regarded as advantageous or disadvantageous to the municipality.”

4.1.5 She argues it was unfortunate that the CHDM chose not to respond to the six questions sent to them, but instead gave a blanket response. She says: “At no point in that response did the municipality indicate that it HAD in fact issued suspension warning letters but that those letters had NOTHING to do with leaking information to the media. It does so now for the first time in its complaint. Had it indicated that this was the case and had it enclosed copies of the suspension letters, the Dispatch would have reported this.”

4.1.6 The internal ombud adds that Fuzile’s second question in his email to the municipality specifically dealt with the alleged transgression of the officials. Had the municipality informed the newspaper that certain officials were indeed facing possible suspension for other reasons, the story would have reflected that – but it did not do so, it merely provided a bald denial with zero detail, she concludes.

4.1.7 The CHDM replies it remains adamant that:

  • there were no suspension letters issued to anyone for leaking information to the Daily Dispatch. The municipality says, “It would be ideal if the newspaper can provide the municipality and Press Ombudsman with proof from the source confirming such claims (without disclosing the identity of the source)”; and
  • the headline distorted the facts, for as long as the publication cannot prove that the municipality suspended officials for leaking information (as against its submission).

4.1.8 It adds:

  •  No officials were suspended at the time of the inquiry;
  • No letters of suspension were served at the time of the inquiry;
  • No letters of suspension for leaking information to the Dispatch were served to anyone;
  • At the time, the institution issued notices to suspend, not suspension letters;
  • Its response was based on the state of affairs at the time; and
  • It was not feasible at the time to provide details on the matter whilst the institution was still yet to finalize serving the notices of intention to affected officials.

                                                                                                                                  Analysis

4.1.9 The evidence presented to me is as follows:

4.1.10 On May 6, at 12:20, Fuzile sent the following email (unedited by me) to Ms Thobs Mqamelo:

“We are working on information that the Chris Hani District Municipality has suspended about 8 officials and they are accused of leaking information to the media (more specifically to Daily Dispatch). Can you please assist us with the following media enquiry:

  1. Can you please confirm the suspension of these officials and how many are they?
  2. What allegations/transgressions they’ve committed?
  3. Which unit or department are these officials from?
  4. What positions are these individual officials held at the municipality?
  5. When are they likely to appear before the municipality (DC) committee?
  6. When is their suspension/dismissal effective?”

4.1.11 At 12:56, Mqamelo replied via WhatsApp: “Hi Bongani, please allow me to source information on the enquiry – relevant people are still in a virtual meeting since morning.

4.1.12 It was then agreed that the deadline for a response was at 16:00.

4.1.13 At 16:05, Mqamelo sent this email (again unedited) to the journalist:

“RESPONSE TO MEDIA ENQUIRY

“Good afternoon Bongani 

“Chris Hani District Municipality promotes clean governance as enshrined in the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa and also promotes freedom of expression in any form.

“To the same extent the Municipality has a functional fraud hotline as a measure to encourage all the Municipal stakeholders to expose suspected corrupt activities without any prejudice.

“To respond to your enquiry, no employee has been suspended for executing her constitutional right.   The Municipality is focusing on fighting the spread of corona virus pandemic that threatens lives of ordinary people of Chris Hani District. 

“We reiterate our statement that none of the Municipality official is suspended and no intentions to suspended municipality employees for alleged leaking of information to Daily Dispatch.”

4.1.14 So then, let first me take a close look at the first part of the introductory sentence. It said, “Chris Hani district municipal officials have received letters demanding reasons as to why they should not be suspended for allegedly leaking information to the media…” (My underlining.)

4.1.15 My observations are as follows:

  • This was presented as fact, not as an allegation or an opinion;
  • Plasket’s statement that the municipality did not deny the letters had anything to do with leaks to the media is rather odd – it did, and expressly so (see the second last paragraph in the response above, under Sub-section 4.1.13);
  • The story therefore completely ignored the express denial by the CDDM that it had not sent such letters “for allegedly leaking information to the media”;
  • Therefore, the newspaper took one side of the story, portrayed it as fact, and ignored the other side of the story; and
  • The story referred to sources. That is plural. I find this odd, as the newspaper, in its response to the complaint, mentions “a source”. Singular.

4.1.16 Secondly, I was looking for proof which would support the newspaper’s claim. The newspaper provided nothing of the sort.

4.1.17 Meanwhile, the CHDM sent me a copy of a letter, dated 7 May 2020 and authored by Mashiyi, headlined “NOTICE OF INTENTION TO SUSPEND: YOURSELF”.

4.1.18 I quote: “This letter serves to confirm that the Municipality is intending to suspend you from duty pending the completion of investigations into: Alleged failure to perform your duties with due diligence pertinent to changes of the banking details of [xxx]. You are required to respond [etc]…:

4.1.19 This is the only evidence that was placed before me. This specific letter made no reference to “leaking of information to the media”.

4.1.20 On the basis of that, I have no option but to conclude that the statement of fact, as captured in the first sentence, had no basis. It stated an allegation as fact, with not a single shred of evidence to back it up – while completely ignoring the CHDM’s denial to this effect.

4.1.21 Of course, the (single?) source could have been right. Maybe that person’s information will be borne out at a later stage. The point is, though, that the newspaper had no right at the time to state, as fact, that employees had received “letters” of suspension (not “notices” of suspension) – without any proof to back it up, or without any reasonable verification to this effect.

4.1.22 I do not know what the source’s intention or agenda was.

4.1.23 I also need to point out that the municipality could not have been expected to respond to the question about the “suspension” of employees. At the time, nobody was suspended. I accept that some had received notices of suspension, but a notice of suspension is not the same thing as a suspension.

4.1.24 Regarding the headline: The “confusion” mentioned was directly related to the taking of the source’s testimony as gospel, while ignoring the municipality’s repeated denials of this allegation.

4.2 Number of officials having received suspension letters

4.2.1 The story said it has “learnt” that eight employees had received letters asking for reasons not to suspend them within 48 hours.

4.2.2 CHDM complains the number of “eight” was inaccurate.

4.2.3 Plasket says the CHDM did not indicate the number of officials that in fact received suspension warning letters. We remain in the dark as to the actual number of officials that received warning letters and what these were for (except for the one now belatedly attached as an annexure to the complaint).

4.2.4 The CHDM replies that, at the time of the inquiry, the institution was yet to conclude its internal processes on the notices of intention to suspend – therefore, it could not confirm or deny the number of employees affected.

4.2.5 It adds, “Divulging detail on the matter prior [to] notifying the affected people would have had its own implications, hence the institution could not share this particular detail. It must be noted that the inquiry was about suspension of employees for leaking information to the Daily Dispatch contrary to our submission that this was not the case. The institution still maintains that it has never suspended employees for leaks as insinuated by the publication.”

Analysis

4.2.6 CHDM’s argument is reasonable – it could not have been expected to confirm that “eight officials were given letters asking for reasons not to suspend them”, while the process had not been finalised at the time. True, the municipality could have stated this more clearly. On the other hand, though, it should have been obvious to the newspaper that the municipality could not confirm a certain total if the process was still under way.

4.2.7 Because the story did not state the number of eight as fact, but clarified it had “learnt” that that was the case, the newspaper stayed within its ethical borders on this issue.

4.3 Unreasonable time to respond

4.3.1 CHDM complains that Daily Dispatch did not give it adequate time to respond to its enquiry.

4.3.2 Plasket says it was agreed that 16:00 was a reasonable deadline.

4.3.3 She says any confusion could easily have been avoided if she had actually responded to each individual question, rather than giving a blanket response that no official was being suspended as a result of leaking information to the media.


Analysis

4.3.4 I have already pointed out that it was not reasonable to expect from the municipality to respond to each and every question – the process was still under way and, at the time, there was no definitive answers to the specific questions.

4.3.5 Be that as it may, this part of the complaint is without ground. Fact of the matter is that the CHDM missed the deadline with a mere five minutes, and that the newspaper still received the response in time, before its deadline.

  1. Finding

5.1 Reasons for suspension letters misleading

The story portrayed, as fact, and without any credible verification, that employees received letter demanding reasons as to why they should not be suspended “for allegedly leaking information to the media”. This was in breach of the following sections of the Press Code: “The media shall:

  • 1.1: take care to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly;
  • 1.3: present only what may reasonably be true as fact; opinions, allegations, rumours or suppositions shall be presented clearly as such; and
  • 1.7: verify the accuracy of doubtful information, if practicable; if not, this shall be stated.

5.2 Number of officials having received suspension letters

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

5.3 Unreasonable time to respond

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

  1. Seriousness of breaches                                              

6.1 Under the headline Hierarchy of sanctions, Section 8 of the Complaints Procedures distinguishes between minor breaches (Tier 1 – minor errors which do not change the thrust of the story), serious breaches (Tier 2), and serious misconduct (Tier 3).                                           

6.2 The breaches of the Press Code as indicated above are all Tier 2 offences.          

  1. Sanction

7.1 Daily Dispatch is directed to apologise to CHDM for portraying, as fact, and without any credible verification, that employees received letter demanding reasons as to why they should not be suspended “for allegedly leaking information to the media”.

7.2 The newspaper is directed to publish the apology, as outlined directly above, on the same page where the article in dispute appeared.

7.3 The text should:

  • be published at the earliest opportunity after the time for an application for leave to appeal has lapsed or, in the event of such an application, after that ruling;
  • refer to the complaint that was lodged with this office;
  • end with the sentence, “Visit www.presscouncil.org.za for the full finding”;
  • be published with the logo of the Press Council (attached); and
  • be prepared by the publication and be approved by me.
  1. Appeal

The 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 Appeals Panel, Judge Bernard Ngoepe, fully setting out the grounds of appeal. He can be contacted at Khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.

Johan Retief

Acting Press Ombud