Bloemfontein - The South African Press Ombudsman upheld a complaint by Volksblad about false, misleading, damaging and sourceless reporting by the Free State local government-funded The Weekly newspaper. It also dismissed a counter-complaint by The Weekly against Volksblad, an Afrikaans daily that is distributed in the Free State and Northern Cape.
Read the full rulings:
Volksblad's complaint related to a report "Volksblad covert agenda exposed", which The Weekly - owned by Letlaka Media- published on November 10, 2017.
It was alleged in the front-page story that Volksblad ran a racially-driven agenda against Free State Premier Ace Magashule and black business people and that "white sources" in the provincial government had exclusively confirmed that to The Weekly.
According to The Weekly’s article, reportage by Volksblad about the Vrede dairy farm, "where the former MEC for agriculture, Mosebenzi Zwane, was accused of unfounded corrupt activities with regard to the project," also confirmed that the information was indeed leaked from inside the Free State provincial government to "the white media".
The complaint in return by The Weekly, was about a later Volksblad report about a controversial allocation of millions of rands by the Free State government to Letlaka Media for websites.
The story "Ace gives R95m. for websites; Contract of R120m. now cancelled" published on November 8, 2017, was based on a meeting of the Standing Committee on Public Accounts (Scopa) of the Free State provincial legislature.
At this meeting, a report by the Auditor General (AG) was discussed. The AG pointed out (under "Basis for qualified opinion"; "Accruals and payables not recognised") that "R95m had been paid out (as part of a contract of R120m) for the development and maintenance of the Free State provincial government website". The opposition criticised this "fruitless expenditure" vehemently.
The Weekly, in its complaint, maintained Volksblad’s report confirmed the racially-driven agenda against the premier and black business people. It also denied that R95m had been awarded to Letlaka Media for websites in terms of a contract by the Free State government, under Magashule.
In its response, Volksblad maintained that documents it obtained, provided proof that Letlaka Media was linked to Cherry Online Design, which got the contract.
The ombudsman found that The Weekly had committed three Tier 2 breaches - known as serious breaches - in terms of the Press Code.
The ombudsman sanctioned The Weekly to apologise on its front page to Volksblad because it had presented allegations of a "secret agenda" and "smear campaign against Ace Magashule" on its posters, in the headline and in its story as factually correct.
It said that this was done by referring repeatedly to race, which created the impression that the alleged "campaign" was racially driven, noting that Volksblad was harmed in the process.
*Disclaimer: News24 is part of Media24, which owns Volksblad.