SABC breached code in Gumede interview

The Broadcasting Complaints Commission of South Africa (BCCSA) has reprimanded the SABC over an interview it flighted last year, in which businessman John Sterenborg and Mail & Guardian investigative journalist Sam Sole were accused of corruption.

The finding, handed down this week, concerned an interview with Sterenborg’s former business partner, Robert Gumede, during a 7pm news bulletin on November 3 2010. In it, Gumede alleged that Sole was paid R900 by Sterenborg to publish damaging allegations against him.

Sterenborg complained to the commission that the SABC “completely failed to verify Robert Gumede’s allegations independently, prior to broadcasting”. And he said that he was not given a right to reply, as he had requested.

SABC journalist Thami Dickson, who interviewed Sterenborg, was said to have confirmed that the interview would be aired on the evening’s news bulletin. However, he later told the businessman that owing to a “technical problem” the recorded interview would not be aired. It was later revealed that this had followed a “management decision”.

In response, the SABC said that it had approached M&G editor Nic Dawes for comment on the Gumede interview, and that Dawes had denied the bribery allegation. “There was deemed to be no further need to approach any other parties mentioned in the story regarding the allegation of bribery, as it had effectively been denied,” it said.

The broadcaster added that it had read out Sterenborg’s response during a bulletin on November 19, quoting him as dismissing the allegations as “preposterous” and saying that the payment was not a bribe because the money had been repaid.

However, the BCCSA found that that was not an accurate reflection of the Sterenborg interview, of which it had received a transcript. In it, he had said: “I did reimburse the flight ticket at a time when Noseweek [a publication for which Sole worked] was short of funds. It is obviously preposterous to label that payment, by cheque, as a bribe and everyone who has read the facts will agree so.”

The commission said: “Mr Sterenborg used the word ‘reimburse’, which the SABC paraphrases… as ‘paying’… There is a difference in meaning between the two words and misunderstandings could have arisen from this.”

The BCCSA said it believed the SABC had tried to deceive Sterenborg in its communication with him, pointing out that “since the reputations of persons are at stake in this case, the broadcaster should have taken every care to ensure that facts were presented clearly and accurately. People have the right to dignity, and once a reputation is sullied, it is extremely difficult to restore it.” It found that the report in question breached the broadcasting code.

The M&G has lodged a separate complaint with the commission over the SABC report. At the commission last month, advocate Matthew Chaskalson, acting for the paper, argued that “the broadcaster did not report accurately on certain facts of the matter; did not give the M&G sufficient time to respond to the allegations before running its story; and did not approach Sole, the primary target of allegations, for comment”. Dawes said he was looking forward to the commission’s finalisation of the paper’s complaint, which traversed similar ground.

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