By Pinky Khoabane
Citizen instructed to apologise to Gengezi Mgidlana
SOME journalists are using all manner of underhanded tactics to deny the subjects of their stories the right-of-reply as stipulated in the Code of Ethics and Conduct of their trade. In their rush to discredit the person, they break journalistic rules, with very little care for the consequences and harm their actions will have on the individual. Take the findings by the Press Ombudsman in a complaint lodged by Parliament’s Spokesperson Moloto Mothapo, against a story written by one Gosebo Mathope, published in The Citizen of 30 May 2017, headlined: Nehawu calls for ‘corrupt’ parliament secretary’s head.
The Press Ombudsman found Mathope, despite knowing the email addresses of both Mothapo and Parliament’s Secretary Gengezi Mgidlana, had sent questions to a wrong email address and publishing the story on the Citizen’s online platform a mere 47 minutes later.
In his analysis of the complaint, the Press Ombud says: “The main issue is the question: Did the reporter give Parliament sufficient time to respond to his enquiry? It is undisputed that he knew both M0thapo and Mgidlana were caught up in meetings at the time, and that he published his text 47 minutes after he sent his e-mail.
Section 1.8 of the Code states, “…Reasonable time should be afforded the subject for a response…”
Of course, “reasonable time” is a relative concept – it would depend on many factors, such as the availability of a respondent, the number of questions, and the nature of the enquiry.
In this case, both respondents were not available, the text provided to them was quite lengthy, and the content quite serious. A mere 47 minutes was certainly not a ‘reasonable time’ in this instance.
Given this fact, as well as that the allegations against Mgidlana were of a serious nature, the publication of the article was unfair to the latter. Unfair, because it had the potential of unnecessarily harming his reputation (depending on the veracity of the accusations – the determination of which, of course, falls outside the scope of this office). The point is that, had the journalist exercised care and consideration regarding Mgidlana’s reputation, he would not have published his article when he did.
By not reporting Mgidlana’s comments, not only has he possibly caused unnecessary harm, but readers were also not enabled to judge for themselves.
Mothapo also correctly points out that the journalist should have reported that he had been unable to obtain comment. Section 1.8 of the Code says, ‘… If the media are unable to obtain such comment, this shall be reported.’
The reason is to avoid any suspicion that a subject is unable or unwilling to respond (for nefarious reasons, possibly). Neglecting to do so also amounted to unfair reportage.
I do not believe, though, that the journalist deliberately sent his e-mail to the wrong address, as he also sent it to Mothapo’s (correct) one. I am therefore not agreeing with the spokesperson on his allegation of malice and manipulation”.
- Mothapo complained that the newspaper had not asked for comment on “statements that were untrue / half true / untested and, as such, were unnecessarily harmful to the reputation” of Mgidlana. He said the journalist had “surprisingly sent his e-mail to the wrong address (firstname.lastname@example.org, instead of email@example.com), as he had used the correct address before;
- posted his article at 14:55 – a mere 47 minutes after sending his e-mail – which left Parliament not enough time to respond; and
- neglected to state that he was not able to get a response, as required by the Code of Ethics and Conduct.”
The text was in breach of the following sections of the Code of Ethics and Conduct:
· 1.8: “[Reasonable] time should be afforded the subject for a response”;
· 1.8: “[If] the media are unable to obtain such comment, this shall be reported”;
· 1.1: “The media shall take care to report news … fairly”; and
· 3.3: “The media shall exercise care and consideration in matters involving … reputation.”
Seriousness of breaches
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).
The breaches of the Code of Ethics and Conduct as indicated above are all Tier 2 offences.
The Citizen is directed to apologise to Mgidlana for failing to:
· give him reasonable time to respond to the allegations levelled against him;
· report that the journalist could not obtain comment;
· and in this process failed to:
– report fairly; and exercise proper care and consideration regarding his reputation.
The newspaper is also asked to obtain comments on the matters raised in the complaint above and to report those comments in the same text – should Mgidlana / Mothapo still want to comment.
The newspaper is requested to publish:
· the apology upfront; and
· a headline containing the words “apology” or “apologises”, and “Mgidlana”.
The text should:
· indicate that Parliament has lodged the complaint with this office;
· end with the sentence, “Visit www.presscouncil.org.za for the full finding”;
· be linked to the original story, stating that the apology came about as a result of the complaint;
· be published at the earliest opportunity after the time for an application for leave to appeal has lapsed; and
be approved by me (Press Ombudsman).