Tiso Blackstar on Thursday confirmed that it had instituted disciplinary action against senior Sunday Times reporter Jan-Jan Joubert.
Sunday Times editor Bongani Siqoko said it was an internal matter at this stage.
“We can’t really talk about it at this stage, it is between us, the employer, and the employee. We will release a statement once everything has been concluded,” Siqoko said.
The SA National Editors Forum (Sanef) said in a statement that it noted that Tiso Blackstar has instituted of disciplinary proceedings against Joubert, “on the basis that the journalist had not declared an apparent conflict interest in the coverage of a story linked to the Democratic Alliance”.
“We respect the newspaper’s internal disciplinary processes and trust that they will uphold their internal Code of Conduct.”
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.”
In its statement Sanef reminded journalists of the preamble of the press code which states: “As journalists we commit ourselves to the highest standards, to maintain credibility and keep the trust of the public. This means always…acting independently.”
Sanef had also urged journalists to report on the upcoming ANC elective conference without fear or favour, and to uphold the highest standards of ethics as prescribed in the press code.
The organisation said it was disappointed at the recent attempt to reveal the sources in Jacques Pauw’s book, The President’s Keepers.
“The protection of sources is at the heart of our profession and no journalist, whether in a rival organisation or not, should ever jeopardise a source. Our members are reminded that this protection of sources by journalists is sacrosanct.”
Sunday Independent published a report over the weekend that claimed that former finance minister Pravin Gordhan, former intelligence head Moe Shaik and former South African Revenue Service officials Ivan Pillay and Johann van Loggerenberg were the sources of Pauw’s book.
*This story has been updated to provide more context around the complaint to the Press Ombudsman.