The Sunday Independent must apologise for two reports last year on expelled ANC Youth League president Julius Malema, deputy press ombudsman Johan Retief ruled on Thursday.
Malema had complained that two front page stories published on October 30 and November 6 were inaccurate.
The stories were headlined “Malema faces arrest Ä Investigators Using SMSes to Nail Youth League Leader” and “Malema Ally Detained Ä Hawks Allegedly Find Him With R2m”.
Retief ordered the newspaper to print a front page apology for stating as fact that Malema faced arrest, for not asking him to comment on the allegation, for inaccurately stating the value of his house and not verifying the figure, and for inaccurately stating that a lot of companies were registered under his name.
The apology was also for repeating the allegations as fact in its second story. The newspaper was further instructed to publish a summary of the findings.
Either party can apply for leave to appeal the ruling within seven days.
Retief said history had shown that the statement in dispute was not correct.
“It is now a full six months after the story was published, and still Malema has not been charged or arrested.”
However, the crucial question was the reasonableness of the newspaper's belief that Malema was about to be arrested.
Retief found the newspaper had tried to corroborate the information by using more than one anonymous source.
“I believe that it was justified in believing that it had actually verified the information.”
It had taken reasonable steps to gather its information and had enough grounds to believe its sources were credible.
The use of Hawks boss Anwa Dramat's photograph to illustrate the story represented normal journalistic practice.
However, the paper had erred in saying Malema's property was “believed to be worth about R16m”.
Malema submitted a letter from architects confirming the total cost of the property was about R8.5m.
Retief voiced concern that newspapers sometimes took information from other publications, without independently verifying it.
“Journalists must realise that information is not true or accurate just because it was published,” he said.
The reporter, Moffet Mofokeng, should have known that Malema denied his house was worth R16 million. He should have tried to verify it, Retief said.
Malema also disputed a sentence in the story which asserts that “a lot of companies” were registered under Malema and his associates. He said companies were not registered to people and he was not even a director of any company.
Retief agreed that Malema was a trustee of the Ratanang Family Trust, which is a shareholder in On-Point Engineering (Pty) Ltd, and that there was no link between Malema and any company.
Malema complained that the second story stated the allegations in the first story as fact. Retief agreed, and said this was unacceptable reportage.
Malema also disputed a sentence which reads: “Last week's revelations about Malema's imminent arrest came as...”
Retief said the newspaper had indeed “revealed” information about his imminent arrest, regardless of whether there was substance to these “revelations”.
He said the newspaper was entitled to publish the allegation of Malema's imminent arrest in the first story, but that the headline did not accurately reflect the contents of the story, as it presented the allegations as fact. This was in breach of the Press Code.
History had proved the allegation to be false, but the newspaper had not promptly published a reaction, correction or explanation.
The Sunday Independent should have asked Malema for his comment on the allegation of his imminent arrest.
Retief said the newspaper's credibility had been dented because of the length of time that had elapsed since the “imminent” arrest report.
“It would have salvaged its reputation if it had gone back to its sources early on to clarify the information they had given for its initial reports,” he said. - Sapa