The deputy press ombudsman on Tuesday ruled against the Sowetan newspaper and ordered it to apologise to Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille for an editorial it published on January 28.
The editorial alleged Zille, as premier of the Western Cape, had wasted hundreds of millions on consultants in that province.
The newspaper was ordered to publish the apology on its front page.
“The editorial was, of course, not published on the front page. However, the posters were extremely unfair and may unnecessarily have caused huge damage to Zille. To make up for this, Sowetan is directed to publish an apology to her on its front page,” said the deputy ombud, Johan Retief.
He said the Sowetan had breached – “Article 4.3 [of the press code] for not taking fair account of all available material facts when referring to R684-million that was reportedly spent on consultants; article 2.1 for referring to consultants as “so-called” experts; and article 5.2, for the misleading and unfair posters”.
The editorial raised “questions” about the DA-led Western Cape government that reportedly “has spent R684-million on consultants in just one year”.
It stated that Zille had failed to fully account how she had spent the money on these “so-called experts”.
The editorial also said that Zille was accountable to the South African public, ending off by saying: “We agree with the ANC that Zille must come out and publicly declare who are the consultants she has hired and at what cost.”
The editorial was headlined: “Sowetan says: Zille must come clean”. Posters on the streets stated Zille wasted R660-million.
Zille complained about the editorial’s headline, saying it was unfair, and the use of the word “wasted”. She said there was no factual basis to support the word and it was misleading.
Retief found that the reference to R684-million that was allegedly spent on consultants was in breach of article 4.3 of the press code that states: “Comment by the press shall take fair account of all available facts which are material to the matter commented upon.”
However, he dismissed the complaint that the editorial implied she had “failed to properly account for expenditure”.
“The newspaper was justified in raising questions and making critical statements, even though Zille may have properly accounted for expenditure.”
Retief also found that the use of the word “so-called” (experts) in relation to consultants was “baseless and unnecessarily negative”.
“This is in breach of article 2.1 that states: ‘News shall be presented in context and in a balanced manner, without any intentional or negligent departure from the truth whether by distortion, exaggeration or misrepresentation’.”
Zille’s complaint about the headline was dismissed because “it reflected the content of the editorial”.
But the newspaper was found to have been misleading when it used the word “wasted” in its posters.
“The poster is both misleading and it failed to give a reasonable reflection of the editorial. This is in breach of article 5.2 of the press code, which states: ‘Posters shall not mislead the public and shall give a reasonable reflection of the contents of the reports in question’.”
The editorial was based on a document that Zille provided Parliament with in response to the question posed to her by Pierre Uys, the ANC’s local chief whip.
Under the section “Business & Advisory Services: Audit Committee (Non-Officials)” the reason why the task was not performed by a department is stated as follows: “The expertise required is confined to institutions who are better equipped and have the necessary skills to assist in a specific field.” That was the answer in the document.
“Zille may not have written this sentence herself, but it appears in an official document that contains her answers to questions posed by Uys,” Retief said.
Zille had also complained that the amount of R684-million was wrong.
“She explains that this amount is rather ‘an aggregate of the total amount spent for a variety of purposes’, making it misleading to suggest that the whole amount was spent on consultants. For example, she says that a total of R270-million of this amount was spent on laboratory tests.”
The Sowetan responded that the ANC in the Western Cape had slammed the DA government for spending R684-million on consultants in one year. The newspaper also said that it did not know why Zille had included the R270-million in the amount said to have been spent on consultants. — Sapa