The press ombudsman has made no fewer than three rulings against three different publications in the past week. Three newspapers were ordered to apologise this week – the Sowetan, Cape Times and Lowvelder in Mpumalanga.
Perhaps the most damning of the three was a finding by deputy press ombudsman Johan Retief against the Sowetan newspaper, for causing “enormous unnecessary damage” to higher education minister Blade Nzimande’s “integrity, reputation and character”.
It revolved around the use of the word “dogs”.
Prince Mashele wrote a column criticising Nzimande, which Mashele based on an earlier report in the Sowetan.
The June 1 report quoted Nzimande as saying: “When you look at the analysts that there are in the media, they are like a pack of dogs criticizing the ruling party and government.”
But Mashele, in his column, wrote that Nzimande said political analysts “are” dogs.
Retief said in his ruling: “Mashele used a material fact [‘many analysts are like a pack of dogs’], changed it [‘analysts are dogs’], and then criticised the latter – which Nzimande never said.”
“It is indeed one thing to say that someone acts [verb] like a dog, and quite another to state that s/he is a dog [noun].
The Sowetan was ordered to print a front-page apology.
“Nzimande says that the column was an embarrassment to him, that it brought his integrity into question and caused damage to his public image,” said Retief, in the ruling published on July 24.
“Indeed it did, and unnecessarily so. Sowetan owes him an apology – and a big one at that.”
Also on July 24, the ombudsman dismissed parts of a complaint by the Ministry of Transport and Public Works in the Western Cape against the Cape Times, but still ordered it to publish an apology.
This was because the newspaper made “several omissions of important matters that would have more accurately reflected the Minister’s position” in a story about the building of a toll plaza at Chapman’s Peak drive.
The Cape Times was ordered to publish a kicker on the front page, and a full apology inside which should include the omissions from the orignial story.
“Even though the journalist did seek Carlisle’s views, these attempts were not adequate,” said Retief.
“After realising that her attempts to contact him were going to be unsuccessful, the journalist should have – but failed – to try another avenue. This lazy journalism is in breach of Art. 1.5 of the Code that reads: ‘A publication should seek the views of the subject of serious critical reportage in advance of publication…’ “
On July 22, the ombudsman ordered the Lowvelder to apologise to the office of the Mpumalanga premier after it complained about a story in November headlined, “Scary picture of an e meltdown in M’langa’s finances”.
Retief said that the reporter ‘grossly misunderstood’ the figures that he had reported on, and that he ‘uncritically’ took over data provided by the opposition Democratic Alliance.
This caused serious and uneccesary harm to the provincial government, said Retief.
The Lowvelder was ordered to ‘unreservedly’ apologise to the Mpumalanga government, with a kicker on its front page and a further correction inside.
All three newspapers have seven days to appeal the rulings.
The full text of the findings is available at www.presscouncil.org.za.