Professor Anton Harber of the Journalism and Media Studies Programme at Wits University says: “Clearly one has been disappointed by the Sunday Times coverage. There has been more then one story that could have been more substantiated.R
“The newspaper has stuck its neck out in recent weeks, one is left with a number of questions with regard to the newspaper’s coverage.”R
Dr Wallace Chuma from the Centre for Film & Media Studies at the University of Cape Town agrees: “One gets a sense that the Sunday Times has of late joined the tabloid fray. It is a decision the Sunday Times may want to review if it hopes to maintain its status as one of South Africa’s credible papers.R
“The Sunday Times is a key read for many Southern Africans. It helps shape opinion on many political issues in the region. As such, the paper must be seen to be above board in its reportage. Regrettably, the past few months have dented its credibility.” R
In the most recent issue of the Sunday newspaper a front-page apology, ordered by the Press Ombudsman, was published.
The ombudsman ruled that the Sunday Times was in breach of clause 1.3 of the South African Press Code for its reporting on Land Bank. The articles in question were published on November 11, 2007 and January 20, 2008, headlined “How fat cats looted bank billions” and “Land Bank boss Ã¢Â€Â˜must be charged”.
The newspaper violated the clause that states: “Where a report is not based on facts or is founded on opinions, allegations, rumour or supposition, it shall be presented in such a manner to indicate this clearly.”
In this article the newspaper referred to a government-issued statement about the Deloitte forensic audit into the financial management of the Land Bank, and announced that the final report was being referred to the South African Police Service and the National Directorate of Public Prosecutions for further investigation.
The Sunday Times apparently published the story without seeing a copy of the report, piecing the article together after several interviews with a number of sources. The panel ruled that the newspaper did not exercise sufficient care in dealing with the content of the report.
The Appeals Panel also found that the newspaper was incorrect in claiming on January 19 that the auditors recommended criminal charges of dishonesty and breach of duty be laid against bank officials. The recommendation was for disciplinary action on these counts.
Harber says the Sunday Times reports reflect some “worrying signs”.
Chuma adds: “I think these reports must present the Sunday Times with an opportunity for introspection. Few would doubt that the paper meant well in its investigative endeavours, but the lapses in the recent stories are too glaring to ignore.”
The front-page apology was accompanied by an article with yet another splashy headline: “Transnet sold our sea to foreigners”. The article claimed Transnet had secretly sold 22km of coastline and 90km of sea in Table Bay to investors in London and Dubai.R
Reacting to the article, Transnet chief executive Maria Ramos said the R7-billion V&A Waterfront deal claims were “false, misleading and irresponsible”.
“We do not own land under the sea. We do not own land from Blouberg to Robben Island, to Green Point. And if we don’t own it, we can’t possibly have sold it to anyone, foreign or local,” Ramos said at a press conference in the city on August 25.
Harber says that if the wave of controversial stories over the past two weeks don’t hold true, it will have a “damaging effect on the credibility of the newspaper.R
“One has to wait to see how they (Transnet) respond. If they (Sunday Times) are forced to apologise after a front-page apology it will have a very damaging effect. But there is still plenty time to substantiate the story”.R
Lastly, there is the controversial story “Mbeki took R30-million and gave some to Zuma” that claimed that President Thabo Mbeki was paid R30-million by a German shipbuilding company to guarantee it would receive a submarine contract in South Africa’s multibillion-rand arms deal.
According to the newspaper, a secret report compiled last year by a British specialist risk company revealed the deal. Mbeki allegedly gave R2-million of the money to Jacob Zuma and the rest to the African National Congress (ANC).
Chuma says such reporting is worrying “from a point of view of ethics, to make the kinds of allegations about President Mbeki pocketing millions from the arms deal and then providing paper thin evidence, or a screaming headline about Ã¢Â€Â˜foreigners’ grabbing our sea in some fraudulent transaction, but providing less than convincing evidence”.
German industrial giant MAN Ferrostaal said in a statement that the articles contained a large number of factual errors with regards to MAN Ferrostaal and therefore violated the basics of journalistic accuracy. “These allegations are wrong and entirely unfounded.”
Mbeki, through senior ministers, has threatened to sue the Sunday Times. However, no legal action has reportedly yet been taken.
The Sunday Times said it had more substantiating evidence to back up its case. The article was published on August 3 and any further information is yet to be published.
Harber says the coverage in the article was “very thin. The newspaper needs to substantiate its story soon. If they don’t the initial story will hold. But the fact that the President hasn’t done more to knock the story down makes it more credible.”R
He adds that claims that the newspaper’s reports are false seem to be becoming a trend. “This should be worrying to any newspaper and seeing that the Sunday Times is such a large and influential newspaper it will be damaging to all newspapers.”R
Chuma concludes: “There is no doubt that investigative journalism is of critical importance to South Africa’s democracy. It is important that the media are seen as credible and even handed. It is unhelpful to simply target the state as the prime target of investigative journalism all the time, to the exclusion of other centres of power. We need to read the whole story of South Africa.”R
TheMediaOnline phoned the office of Sunday Times editor Mondli Makhanya several times, he was always “in a meeting”. He did not answer his cell phone or respond to any voice messages.