In an unprecedented move, the Sunday Times has been directed to apologise to former intelligence minister Ronnie Kasrils, on its street posters as well as on its front page.
The apology must be carried in its next edition, and the apology should include the words “spy tapes”, “apology”, or “apologise”, and “to Kasrils”, according to a ruling by the Press Council appeals panel on Tuesday.
On September 7 2014, the Sunday Times published a story headlined “Spy Tapes ‘illegal’ and expose Kasrils”. The newspaper also carried street posters that stated, “Spy Tapes expose Kasrils”. The story alleged that the so-called “spy tapes” had revealed that Kasrils was the “master mind” behind the pre-Polokwane political maneuvering. Kasrils complained to the Press Ombudsman.
The ombud, Johan Retief, dismissed Kasrils complaint about the content of the report. But he ruled against the headline, and found that Kasrils’ reputation had been damaged.
Retief directed the Sunday Times to apologise to Kasrils for the headline; to retract the “mastermind” statement; and to apologise on its front page, above the fold. The Sunday Times appealed the ruling, and Kasrils cross-appealed.
Kasrils wanted the apology to be printed on the street posters too. The Sunday Times’ application was dismissed by the Press Council of South Africa’s appeals panel, chaired by Judge Bernard Ngoepe, in December last year.
Kasrils’ complaint was handled at a hearing held in Johannesburg on March 13. Kasrils told the appeals panel that readers might have seen the posters without reading the story. He also pointed out that the Press Code stated that posters should not mislead the public and should reflect the story, reasonably.
And Kasrils said the sanctions imposed by the Press Council should be relative to the seriousness of the breach of the code concerned. He said the poster was “highly loaded”, as the word “expose” implied guilt.
The Sunday Times told the appeals panel that apologising on the posters was not provided for in the Press Council’s complaints procedure. It also said that Kasrils’ reputation was not damaged by the poster, and that apologising on the posters would be tantamount to a space fine.
In a ruling issued on Tuesday, the panel said: “The respondent (the Sunday Times) conceded, correctly, that we have jurisdiction to adjudicate over posters but contends that we have no power to order the publication of an apology on street posters. We do not agree. The appeals panel does not accept the contention of the Sunday Times that it lacks the legal competency to order an apology to be published on a poster.”
While the Press Ombudsman’s initial ruling did not make a finding on the poster, the appeals panel found that the poster was in breach of section 10.2 of the Press Code, which says, “Posters shall not mislead the public and shall give a reasonable reflection of the contents of the reports in question.”
“There should be something wrong with an argument which says the redress given for a severed arm should be the same as that given for a lost finger,” the panel said. “Publication of an apology in a newspaper, even on a front page, would be grossly inadequate with the prominence given in the posters which were widely distributed.”
The appeals panel agreed with Kasrils, who said the poster created a “deliberate and extremely disturbing connotation”. And, the appeals panel said, the Sunday Times “presented the poster as fact, not allegation, ignoring conventions such as using quotation marks to indicate that the poster was an allegation made by a third party.”
The appeals panel said that while the decision to direct the Sunday Times to apologise on its posters was unprecedented, it would not necessarily create a precedent as each case was taken on its merits.
The panel said it disagreed with the Sunday Times, who submitted that ordering it to apologise on its posters would be a “punitive sanction, equivalent to a space fine”. The panel said the sanction was “restorative”.
“In the present case the issue of spy tapes had widely been in the media and the context well known. Importantly, while we have already acknowledged that Mr Kasrils was, and perhaps still is, a public figure, to state wrongly and as a fact that a former Minister of Intelligence was “exposed” by the “spy tapes” in the manner we have explained, makes the case unique.
“To construe this as giving favourable treatment to Mr Kasrils would amount to a serious misunderstanding of the facts of the case,” the panel said.
The Sunday Times and Kasrils were not available for comment when this article was first published. However, Kasrils has since spoken to the Mail & Guardian on Tuesday evening and said that he felt “vindicated”.
Kasrils impressed with ruling
“It reminds the media that freedom of expression carries with it a responsibility to maintain professional and ethical standards and to rigorously avoid any form of reporting that may mislead the public and falsely impugn the reputation of an individual: whether in subject matter, (and in my case) in headlines and in this ground breaking ruling with regard to street posters.”
He added that: “I am pleased to have been party to setting a precedent in this respect. This issue related to the contentious area of the so-called ‘Spy Tapes’ where the Sunday Times relied on anonymous sources in government and projected their allegations as fact in their headlines and on street posters. I made the point in the appeals hearing that given the sinister atmosphere prevalent in our country with regard to such issues extra care needs to be taken.
“I have been impressed with the professional manner in which the Ombudsman, Johan Retief, the Appeals Judge, Bernard Ngoepe, the Public Advocate, Latiefa Mobara, and all at the Press Council handled my complaint from start to finish and extend my appreciation to them. Long may they serve the media and public alike,” Kasrils said.