With political parties gearing up for the 2019 general elections, South African National Editors Forum (Sanef) is calling for ethical journalism after a prominent Sunday paper sacked its deputy editor for gross misconduct.
Sunday Times’ former deputy editor of politics and commentary Jan-Jan Joubert was found guilty of intentionally and negligently failing to disclose a potential conflict of interest with regards to his participation in the Democratic Alliance’s recruitment process.
He was also charged with the “intentional abuse of his professional position, privilege and powers” by sharing confidential information entrusted to him by the Economic Freedom Fighters with the DA.
In an internal disciplinary hearing, Joubert pleaded not guilty on both charges. His appeal on the finding was also dismissed.
DA MP Gavin Davis laid a complaint with the Press Ombudsman about an article headlined: “Veil of secrecy as DA policy chief quits amid tensions ahead of 2019”.
It was published in The Times on October 30.
Joubert and Thabo Mokone reported that the DA had thrown a veil of secrecy over the resignation of its policy chief and head of media, Davis, “who quit in the middle of the party’s policy formulation process ahead of the 2019 elections”.
Use of anonymous sources, no corroboration
The resignation was allegedly over differences of opinion with colleagues about the formulation of policies and communication strategies.
Joubert and Mokone also reported that a party insider claimed that Davis, a member of Helen Zille’s inner circle during her tenure as party leader, was disgruntled with the DA’s policy direction under its present leader, Mmusi Maimane.
The article claimed sources said that Davis did not see eye to eye with the DA’s new director of communication, Siviwe Gwarube, who denied this allegation.
Davis complained that the journalists did not avoid the use of anonymous sources and did not take care to corroborate information – with special reference to the alleged tension between Gwarube and himself.
According to Davis, he was also not given right of reply and the journalists did not avoid a conflict of interests.
Davis said the conflict of interest argument was relevant since Joubert applied for the position of executive director of communications at the DA in May 2017.
“It is therefore incumbent on newspapers to avoid conflicts of interest by, for example, preventing journalists from covering stories or beats in which they have a personal or political interest,” Davis argued.
He said the person who was appointed to the position of executive director of communications instead of Joubert was Gwarube – one of the subjects of the article in question.
“It would seem to be an elementary tenet of media ethics that journalists recuse themselves from reporting on a person they were recently in competition with for a position. There is, for instance, a possibility that the journalist may be harbouring a sense of personal disappointment at that person being selected instead of him, or he may have ambitions of replacing her should she vacate the position.”
Tiso Blackstar legal editor Susan Smuts argued that :”[Gwarube’s] comment to the allegation was reported and no further mention was made of her. For the record, Thabo Mokone (co-author of the article) was the reporter who sought a response from Ms Gwarube.”
She said that to the extent that there may or may not have been a conflict of interest with regards to Joubert applying for the job with the DA – this was a matter for Sunday Times or The Times to consider and deal with internally.
Journalists urged to act independently
Press Ombudsman Johan Retief dismissed Davis’ complaint.
He however said in his ruling that he believed “the newspaper should hold Joubert accountable for not declaring his interests in this specific case”.
“I cannot find that the newspaper was conflicted. I believe its journalist could have been – and therefore I leave it to the publication to address this potentially extremely serious situation in any way it sees fit.”
SANEF has called for editors and journalists alike to conduct themselves in such a manner that would “not lead audiences to doubt their political independence”.
Executive Director of the forum Kate Skinner has noted that in the lead up to the 2019 general elections and beyond, “it is critical that journalists maintain political independence and report with integrity and without fear or favour.” — with additional reporting from News 24