In a victory for the Mail & Guardian, the Broadcasting Complaints Commission of South Africa (BCCSA) on Wednesday upheld the newspaper’s complaint against the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) regarding its broadcast of Robert Gumede’s claims of corruption and racism against investigative journalist Sam Sole.
The public broadcaster aired the insert during the 7pm news on SABC3 in November 2010. In it Gumede claimed that Sole, who was working for investigative magazine noseweek at the time, received corrupt payments from a businessman named John Sterenborg and that this influenced the M&G‘s subsequent coverage of Gumede.
Read the ruling
Citing the SABC’s failure to adequately provide a right of reply to the newspaper about these serious allegations, the BCCSA held off fining the broadcaster the maximum amount of R60 000 in favour of what it described as a more serious penalty. The SABC was directed to broadcast a statement summarising the ruling on SABC3 during the 7pm news programme “on or before Wednesday March 30 2011” within the first 12 minutes of the broadcast.
“The order to include an item which is seriously negative of SABC3 is, accordingly, a substantial sanction which would, to our minds, overshadow even a maximum fine of R60 000,” read the ruling.
M&G editor-in-chief Nic Dawes said: “It’s an important ruling, not just because it vindicates the M&G, but because it requires our public broadcaster to place more value on journalistic ethics than it does on political expediency.”
“The allegations were completely unsubstantiated, and wrong, and the SABC gave neither the M&G nor Sam a chance to answer them”, Dawes added. “Mr Gumede made his claims because he believed the M&G was about to publish a story about his own business practises, and the public broadcaster failed to meet basic journalistic standards in repeating them without question.”
In the broadcast, Gumede is seen saying: “Here’s a payment, one of the first payments that Sterenborg made out to a journalist who is an award-winning journalist, so-called investigative journalist who goes out to attack black people, to say that they are corrupt, they bribe people and here it is.”
At the time, Dawes was contacted for comment on Gumede’s three-page press release about allegations that he had not seen an hour and a half before the news broadcast was due to begin.
While the M&G was told the SABC would wait for its formal statement, this was not done and Dawes’s interview was incorrectly paraphrased in the broadcast in two sentences by the reporter: “The Mail & Guardian rejected the bribery allegation, saying the R900 payment was for an air ticket. The newspaper says Sole repaid the amount to Sterenborg.”
Most of the two-and-a-half minute news report was dedicated to Gumede’s allegations.
In fact, Sterenborg had made an arrangement with Sole’s editor at the time, Martin Welz, that he would pay for Sole’s travel to Johannesburg for an interview. Sole had personally paid for the flight and Sterenborg reimbursed him. No story ever resulted from the interview.
The BCCSA slammed the SABC’s action, saying: “The newspaper’s reply, as summarised by the SABC itself was, accordingly, fundamentally flawed,” listing three claims made by Gumede that were not adequately addressed in the reply.
“Despite the use of the word ‘allegation’, the effect of the accusations by Mr Gumede was, judged as a whole, one of veracity,” read the ruling.
On a related complaint regarding the repeat of the broadcast in part on November 4 2010 during the 6am and 7am news bulletins on SABC radio channel SAfm, the BCCSA did not uphold the newspaper’s complaint.
The commission ruled that as Dawes was subsequently interviewed on the station he was “granted a right to reply and that the requirement of fairness was, in this respect, substantially complied with”, adding that Dawes covered the position of Sole in this subsequent interview. Dawes, however, called this a “minor disappointment”.
Meanwhile, Sole was relieved after the ruling, saying: “I would hope that that the SABC would now institute its own investigation into how this transparent piece of propaganda came to be created and broadcast.
“It would be easy to blame the journalist involved, but all the indications are that the initiative and responsibility went much higher.”
He said that the public broadcaster should not make itself available as a communication weapon for anyone. “And the fact that it seems to have done so in this case should elicit serious concern from SABC management and its oversight bodies.”