Lyn de Jong vs. Sunday Times: Ruling by the Deputy Press Ombudsman
June 21, 2010
This ruling is based on the written submissions of Ms Lyn de Jong and Sunday Times.
Ms Lyn de Jong, head of corporate services at the SA embassy in Harare, complains about an article in Sunday Times, published on May 22 2010 and headlined Tensions run high at SA Embassy in Harare - Deputy ambassador suspended after alleged attack (see here).
According to the complaint:
- Sunday Times failed to contact De Jong for comment;
- The newspaper failed to state that she refused to comment;
- The story mentions a number of unnamed embassy officials, creating the impression that their comments represent the official position of the embassy; and
- The story refers to De Jong, without substantiation, as a racist and as having used foul language.
The story is about an alleged assault by SA Deputy Ambassador to Zimbabwe Mlulami Singapi on de Jong. Singapi was reportedly suspended pending an internal investigation. The story also says that de Jong laid a criminal charge against Singapi. Amongst other matters, the story quotes sources who say that de Jong was rough and abusive, that she accused a colleague falsely of drug trafficking, that she had some racist tendencies and that she used foul language.
We shall now consider the merits of the complaint.
Not contacted for comment
According to de Jong, the newspaper failed to contact her for comment.
That is not true - transcripts of quite a few SMS-messages written by a Sunday Times reporter and directed to de Jong prove the opposite. Here are some examples:
- "Am hoping that u consider talking to me just about your experiences at the embassy."
- "...I really wanted to bring out the trauma u have suffered."
- "If you would like to set the record straight..."
Also: An e-mail written by de Jong three days before publication states: "As I indicated, I won't speak to the media now - until the internal process has been concluded and an outcome reached, and not without seeking permission from the dept first to speak to the media."
The newspaper is correct: It did make a considerable effort to obtain de Jong's side of the story.
No statement that De Jong refused to comment
The story does not say that de Jong refused to comment.
Sunday Times says it would have been preferable to mention this.
Preferable, indeed. Yet this omission is not material.
Unnamed embassy officials "representing the official position of the embassy"
The complaint is that the comments in the story by embassy officials seem like the official position of the embassy. "It is written in such a manner that it seems as a representation of Mr Saul Molobi, the departmental spokesperson," de Jong says.
Unnamed sources are quoted quite extensively in the story. They are called "insiders", "senior/embassy officials" and an "embassy staff member".
Some of the information must have come from sources very high up in the embassy. A senior embassy official is for example quoted as saying that the ambassador called in the deputy ambassador and "told him to go and sort out his personal differences with De Jong."
Yet, nowhere is the impression created that the people quoted represent the official position of the embassy. Besides, the official spokesperson is mentioned by name when he is quoted as saying that an internal investigation into the incident is underway.
Alleged racist and foul language (without substantiation)
According to the complaint there is no substance to the allegation that de Jong is a racist. She says she finds this allegation "discriminatory and denigratory".
The sentence in dispute says: "She has some racist tendencies and yells at us using words like ‘f**k', ‘kak' and ‘moemish'." This was reportedly said by members of the Workers Committee of Local Recruited Persons.
Although de Jong understandably feels aggrieved about this, she has no leg to stand on - the references in dispute are not presented as facts, but as the opinion of the people who are being quoted.
The complaint is dismissed in its entirety.
Please note that our Complaints Procedures lay down that within seven days of receipt of this decision, anyone of the parties may apply for leave to appeal to the Chairperson of the SA Press Appeals Panel, Judge Ralph Zulman, fully setting out the grounds of appeal.
Deputy Press Ombudsman
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