Ombud takes on complaint against Sunday Times

2013-06-03 15:12

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The Press Ombudsman will investigate a complaint by the communications department against the Sunday Times, ombudsman Johan Retief has said.

“I have decided to take the complaint,” he said.

The complaint would be investigated in terms of section 3.1 of the Press Code. This section reads: “The press shall not allow commercial, political, personal, or other nonprofessional considerations to influence or slant reporting.

“Conflicts of interest must be avoided, as well as arrangements or practices that could lead audiences to doubt the press’s independence and professionalism.”

On May 27, department spokesperson Wisani Ngobeni, a former journalist at the newspaper, said the department had lodged a complaint against the newspaper with the Press Council of SA (PCSA), which includes the ombudsman.

The PCSA replied it had no powers to investigate, as unethical conduct by the editor was not covered by the Press Code. Only the publication could deal with that matter.

Ngobeni had written to the council asking it to investigate the conduct of Sunday Times editor Phylicia Oppelt. This was in reaction to a report that she gave the opposition Democratic Alliance documents to hand to Parliament’s ethics committee, which was conducting an inquiry into Communications Minister Dina Pule.

Ngobeni said the PCSA’s response had raised serious questions about its efficacy in dealing with malpractice in the press.

On May 28, ombudsman Joe Thloloe said the PCSA’s public advocate had sent Ngobeni an email.

But Ngobeni had deliberately omitted to mention that there had been a subsequent conversation between himself and public advocate Latiefa Mobara, in which they agreed that he would send written argument supporting his contention.

Retief said Mobara had asked Ngobeni to submit a complaint in more detail.

“And it came to me this morning from the public advocate, and I have accepted the complaint,” said Retief.

This did not mean a ruling had been made. The newspaper still had to respond to the complaint, he said.

Pule believes the newspaper is conducting a smear campaign against her, to get her fired or force her to resign, because its “handlers” are after a tender for set-top-boxes. The boxes are required for the move from analogue to digital TV broadcasting.

She has said previously the allegations began last year after the department hosted the ICT Indaba in Cape Town. Millions in sponsorship fees were reportedly drawn from the account of an event organiser she was alleged to be romantically linked to. She has denied these claims.

Oppelt said they cooperated with the ethics committee, not a political party. She said she gave the DA documents to hand to the ethics committee, which was conducting the inquiry into Pule.

Oppelt told City Press she felt obliged to do so because the Sunday Times was concerned the committee “might reach a finding based on partial or incomplete evidence”.

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