Press Ombudsman slams Sunday Times for 'unfair' Sars reports

2015-12-16 12:58
Newspapers. (Duncan Alfreds, Fin24)

Newspapers. (Duncan Alfreds, Fin24)

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Cape Town - The Sunday Times newspaper on Wednesday was slammed by the Press Ombudsman for its "unfair" reportage on a so-called SA Revenue Service "rogue unit" that breached the press code.

"Not only was the content of the stories inaccurate, misleading and unfair, but the conclusions in both the editorial and the sub-headline of the main story… cannot be correct – or were, at best, premature," said Press Ombudsman Johan Retief in a statement on his findings.

He made this comment in relation to the newspaper’s referencing of a KPMG report in a front-page story published in October this year, headlined "Call to probe Pravin Gordhan over SARS spy saga – KPMG report confirms our story piles pressure on ex-finance minister", as well as an editorial headlined: "Keep shady doings in SARS out in the open".

Retief said it had been ascertained that the report in question was actually only a draft version - a fact not stated in the story. At the time that the story was published, the final report had not yet been released.  

Retief said that, according to the press code, the Sunday Times had committed a "tier 2 offence" and had carried out "serious breaches" in relation to its reporting on the matter.

Former Sars commissioner Pravin Gordhan, along with former senior officials Ivan Pillay and Johann van Loggerenberg – who were also implicated in the Sunday Times’ series of articles on the so-called "rogue unit" – had laid a complaint with the ombudsman over various aspects of the reportage earlier this month.

The Sunday Times’ series of reports detailed allegations of Sars having run an apparent illegal unit, which was accused of running a brothel and spying on President Jacob Zuma, among other things.

Pillay and Loggerenberg were suspended from Sars pending investigations into the allegations of a rogue unit, but later resigned. This week, Gordhan was reappointed to the position of the country’s finance minister.

Seven days to appeal

Retief also validated Gordhan’s complaint that he had not been given sufficient time to respond to questions - sent to his chief of staff, Dumisa Jele, on a Saturday - before the "Call to Probe…" article was published.

"The journalist gave Jele exactly 3 hours and 11 minutes to respond… The questions were of a serious nature, and Jele certainly would have had to consult with Gordhan before providing a responsible answer…

"Therefore, I believe that the journalist did not give Jele enough time to respond properly to his questions."

The Ombudsman’s ruling ordered the Sunday Times to retract all stories about its Sars "rogue unit saga" and to publically apologise, in writing, to the three men they had implicated.

"Sunday Times is directed to unconditionally retract all the texts which are in dispute… [and] to publish prominently, on page 1, above the fold, a kicker with the words "apology" or "apologises", together with Gordhan’s name," said Retief.

The same was to be done for Pillay and Loggerenberg.

The newspaper was directed to publish a full apology on page two of its print version, as well as on its website, for various allegations made in the texts.

Earlier this month, an explosive affidavit was presented before the Ombudsman by former Sunday Times journalist Pearlie Joubert.

In the affidavit, Joubert claimed that she had resigned from the newspaper in February because she was not "willing to be party to practices at the Sunday Times which I verily believed to have been unethical and immoral". 

Either party now has seven days to appeal the Ombudsman’s ruling.

Read more on:    sunday times  |  sars  |  pravin gordhan  |  media

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