Ombudsman rules against City Press

2010-08-04 13:16

Deputy Press Ombudsman Johan Retief has found City Press guilty of breaching the Press Code in an August 16 2009 article about ANC treasurer-general Mathews Phosa, and has ordered the newspaper to apologise.

Both Phosa and the ANC complained about a front-page story headlined “Phosa tries to muzzle City Press”.

Retief found that the newspaper did not give Phosa ample time to respond and was therefore in breach of Article 1.1 of the Press Code, which states: “The press shall be obliged to report news ... fairly.”

Phosa was only contacted at noon on the day before publication.

“Surely, given the seriousness of the allegations (in the story), Phosa should have been given more time to respond,” Retief said.

“It was not fair to intend to print a story that could be potentially damaging, defamatory and a violation of someone’s dignity, and then invite the subject of that story to have a right of reply at the last moment.

"Which is exactly what happened here.”

The reference in the story to Phosa’s “eleventh-hour” bid to stop City Press from publishing the story was found to be unfair because it was not balanced with the fact that Phosa himself was contacted at the eleventh hour.

City Press was therefore in breach of Article 1.1, as well as in breach of Article 1.2.2, which states: “News shall be presented in context and in a balanced manner, without any intentional or negligent departure from the facts (whether) by omissions...”

The random use by City Press of unnamed “sources”, without any attempt to state their number, credibility and especially their independence, amounted to a breach of Article 1.4 of the Press Code, which states: “When there is reason to doubt the accuracy of a report and it is practicable to verify the accuracy thereof, it shall be verified.

Where it has not been practicable to verify the accuracy of a report, this shall be mentioned in such a report.”

Retief found that the posters referring to the story elevated opinion as fact, which was misleading.
 
Thus, they breached Article 5.2 of the Press Code, which states: “Posters shall not mislead the public...”

Retief found the reference to Phosa trying to stop the newspaper from publishing a story as well as the headline to be a true reflection of what had happened.

This part of the complaint was therefore dismissed.

As the statements pointing to a low-key contest and a deteriorating relationship between Phosa and Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe could reasonably have been true, this part of the complaint was also dismissed.

The breaches of the code could have caused the ANC in general and Phosa in particular some personal and professional harm, Retief said.

Retief directed City Press to apologise to both Phosa and the ANC for various breaches of the code and for possible harm done to them.

This should be done on the front page and within the context of an appropriate summary of the finding.

The Ombudsman’s Office should be furnished with a copy of this text prior to publication, Retief said.

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