Columnist Max Du Preez

The Press Ombudsman has dismissed the presidency's complaint about a column by Max du Preez in the Cape Times.

The presidency complained that the column made a number of shocking, sweeping statements which were grossly untrue and unfair to the president, said Deputy Press Ombudsman Johan Retief.

It complained that no verification of the statements was made before publication, and that gossip had been produced to the public as fact, he said.

Du Preez's column, titled “President's war room is on full alert”, was an opinion piece about the leadership battle within the ANC and the way the media was manipulated to achieve the ends of the differing factions. It was printed in the Cape Times on March 27.

Acting director general in the Office of the President Sifiso Moshoetsi took exception to a number of statements made in the column by Du Preez.

Moshoetsi complained about a paragraph in which Du Preex wrote that, being president and thus in charge of the intelligence communities and law enforcement agencies, “Jacob Zuma is best placed to dig out - and even manufacture - dirt on his opponents and spread it to the media”.

He also complained that Du Preez had written that “Zuma, I am told reliably, has created a 'war room' of senior politicians to safeguard his interests and destroy his enemies.”

Moshoetsi argued that these were serious allegations.

The Cape Times refused to apologise or retract the column, contending that Du Preez was entitled to express his opinion.

Du Preez said that a column was understood by “reasonable readers” as the writer's personal views rather than a balanced report.

Moshoetsi rejected their explanations and argued that he should have asked if the information he had been given was indeed incorrect.

In a written judgment, Retief said that in a news report, the newspaper would be required to ensure, where possible, that the facts on which it relied had been checked or that the reporter had made reasonable attempts to ensure that the facts were correct.

However, the position in respect of a column was entirely different. A column was an expression of an opinion. It was not a news report, he said.

Du Preez had not passed the information off as fact, but as opinion.

“Even if Du Preez's criticism may have been severe, unbalanced, exaggerated or prejudiced, this does not mean that his opinion, honestly held and without malice, is not protected - his right to express his opinion deserves protection,” Retief found. - Sapa