BCCSA reprimands SABC over Gumede story

Dr L A Gilfillan upholds complaint from J Sterenborg over broadcaster's conduct

Broadcasting Complaints Commission of South Africa

CASE NUMBER: 06/2011






For the Complainant: The Complainant was invited but could not attend.

For the Respondent: Mr Fakir Hassen: Acting General Manager: Special Projects accompanied by Ms Veronica Barnard, Compliance Officer of the SABC assisted by Mr Thabang Mathiba: General Manager: Litigation

Alleged inaccurate and unfair broadcast that distorts an interviewee's reply, thus skewing the right to reply - Tribunal finding that said broadcast contravened the Code- broadcaster reprimanded. Sterenborg vs SABC, Case No: 06/2011.


Complaint about an inaccurate and unfair broadcast that distorts an interviewee's response, thus skewing the right to reply. The broadcaster paraphrased an interview in which the complainant rebutted allegations of bribery. In doing so, the broadcaster used language that did not entirely accurately reflect the meaning of the original, and it is likely that this created a false impression. A high level of accuracy is expected in a news bulletin, especially where a reply is broadcast. The complaint was, accordingly upheld and the broadcaster reprimanded.



121 The complaint reads as follows:

2.1 SABC completely failed to verify RG's [Robert Gumedes] allegations independently, prior to broadcasting the long interview.

2.2. SABC failed to contact John Sterenborg to obtain his input on the (false) allegations made by RG.

2.3. SABC also failed to make contact with Sam Sole.

2.4. SABC failed to make proper contact even with the M&G.

2.5. SABC failed to give John Sterenborg the right of reply he requested. We here refer to the attachments to this document. Not only did SABC fail to give right of reply to Sterenborg but it was duplicitous;


· The attachments confirm that SABC finally responded to John Sterenborg's request to grant him a proper right of reply.

· It will be noted that SABC phoned Sterenborg on 19 November 2010 and recorded an interview by Thami Dickson of Sterenborg. One of the attachments to this document recites the questions asked and the answers given.

· Thami Dickson confirmed that the interview would be aired on the SABC television news on 19 November 2010 at 19h00.

· We than received a mail from Mr. Dickson saying that, due to a "technical problem" the interview could not be aired but would be read out during the above mentioned slot.

· The interview was not read out.

• Subsequent correspondence received from Mr. Dickson seems to confirm that, rather than there having been a "technical problem", it was in fact a "management decision" not to air the interview with Sterenborg.



3.1. We regard the SABC unprofessional in respect of giving RG 58 seconds of airtime.

3.2. We regard SABC unprofessional and actually reckless in not checking RG's allegations prior to airing the interview.

3.3. We regard SABC duplicitous in their communications with Sterenborg, taking an interview with Sterenborg promising to air it and then not doing so, giving false reasons.

3.4. We believe that SABC tried to deceive Sterenborg in their communications with him and we here specifically refer to;


· SABC's confirming the interview would be aired on 19 November 2010.

· SABC then confirming that due to a technical problem the interview could not be aired.

· SABC confirming that the interview, therefore, be read out.

• That in any event there was no technical problem but that a management decision by SABC was behind not to air the interview or read out the interview."


[3] The SABC's response contained the following:

"There is only one principal issue in question in the original TV news report- and that relates to the allegation by Mr Robert Gumede that the Mail and Guardian journalist Sam Sole had been paid a bribe by the complainant, Mr John Sterenborg. This was the essence of the story and the rest of our response to the allegations in the complaint will hinge on this basic element of the story...

In attempting to secure a right of reply to the allegation that there had been a bribe solicited by the journalist concerned, our reporter approached the Editor of the Mail and Guardian, Mr Nic Dawes, who responded to the allegation. His denial of the bribery allegation ... was indeed featured in the story.

A very important element of Mr Dawes' response is that once the denial was acknowledged, there was deemed to be no further need to approach any other parties mentioned in the story regarding the allegation of bribery, as it had effectively been denied by Mr Dawes.

Notwithstanding the above, sometime later Mr Sterenborg contacted our reporter and asked for an opportunity to respond to the allegations made by Gumede that he had bribed the journalist. He was given that opportunity. We explained to him that we would accommodate a response to the essence of the allegation leveled against him by Gumede on our bulletin. In his response he repeated what was already said by Mr Dawes in dismissing the allegation of bribery.

Mr Sterenborg's rebuttal was read on our news bulletin as follows:

The London-based businessman John Sterenborg, accused of bribing a Mail and Guardian newspaper journalist has dismissed the allegations as preposterous. Sterenborg was accused by his business adversary Robert Gumede of bribing the reporter to write damaging stories about him. The two businessmen were partners but bitterly fell out following the liquidation of their business venture. Sterenborg admits to paying the journalist's flight ticket worth 900 rand. But he insists that the money was not a bribe because he paid it back".

We believe this adequately covered the entirety of the allegations contained in Robert Gumede's comment broadcast on the news bulletin in question.

It is important to point out that in the nature of SABC TV News evening bulletins - which can only accommodate an average of about 15 minutes of general news - our news items are necessarily of a short duration. It is in this context that we opted to focus on one aspect of Mr Gumede's long list of allegations - namely the bribery allegations. SABC News did not report any of the other claims contained in Mr Gumede's detailed statement - and therefore would have no obligation to reflect comments from Mr Sterenborg which respond to parts of the statement we did not broadcast.

We had a copy of the cheque used to make the payment. That in itself amounts to adequate confirmation that a payment was made. It needs to be pointed out that the complainant has not denied that the payment was made. Instead he has rejected the assertion that the payment amounted to a bribe, which rebuttal has been adequately reflected on our news bulletin.

In conclusion, the SABC has an obligation as a signatory to the BCCSA Code of Conduct to ensure a right of reply, which we submit was done in this instance. We therefore believe that there has been no contravention of the Code."

[4] The Complainant alleges that the SABC failed in the following: to verify allegations prior to broadcasting the interview under dispute; to obtain his input on allegations of bribery made against him: to make contact with other relevant parties (Sam Sole and the Mail and Guardian newspaper): to give him the right of reply as requested by him.

[5] The Broadcaster maintains that the main issue in the TV news report is the matter of an alleged bribe paid to journalist Sam Sole by the Complainant. However, the Broadcaster also mentions the matter of solicitation of the alleged bribe:  "allegedly solicited by the journalist concerned".

[6] The demands of the Code are that news should be reported truthfully, accurately and fairly, in the correct context and in a fair manner, without intentional or negligent departure from the facts. Parties should also be given the right to reply.

[7] The SABC has chosen to focus its argument on the matter of the alleged bribe paid to journalist Sam Sole by the Complainant. When Mr Sterenborg requested the right of reply, the SABC afforded him this right 10 days after the original broadcast concerning the bribe. The SABC chose not to broadcast an interview it conducted with Mr Sterenborg, and instead a newsreader read a brief summary of the situation. The news item thus consisted of background information concerning the original bribery allegation, followed by a paraphrased denial by Mr Sterenborg: "Sterenborg admits to paying the journalist's flight ticket worth 900 rand. But he insists that the money was not a bribe because he paid it back".

[8] Mr Sterenborg complains that the denial that was broadcast did not repeat his original words, resulting in a distortion of meaning; his right of reply was thus skewed. According to a transcript furnished by Mr Sterenborg, when the SABC interviewer enquired of him. "What about the R900 bribe?" Mr Sterenborg replied: I DID REIMBURSE THE FLIGHT TICKET AT A TIME WHEN NOSE WEEK WAS SHORT OF FUNDS. IT IS OBVIOUSLY PREPOSTEROUS TO LABEL THAT PAYMENT. BY CHEQUE AS A BRIBE AND EVERYONE WHO HAS READ THE FACTS WILL AGREE SO. The following is the paraphrase broadcast on the SABC: "Sterenborg admits to paying the journalist's flight ticket worth 900 rand. But he insists that the money was not a bribe because he paid it back".

[9] Mr Sterenborg uses the word "reimburse", which the SABC paraphrases in the first sentence of the broadcast as "paying". There is a difference in meaning between the two words, and misunderstandings could have arisen from this. To reimburse is not the same thing as to pay a sum of money. The meaning of reimburse is "1. to repay (money spent); refund. 2. To pay back or compensate (another party) for money spent" (Online dictionary). The wording in the SABC report is ambiguous and unclear: in the final sentence, the phrase "he paid it back" is used. While this may be interpreted as reimbursement, it is not clear who exactly the pronoun "he" refers to, or to whom the money was being paid back. This may seem a pedantic point, but in a reasonable listener's mind it is conceivable that some confusion is likely to have arisen.

[10] It is, of course, the right of any broadcaster to decide on the content of a news broadcast. In this way, it exercises editorial independence. However, the manner in which it does so should be circumspect at all times and accord with the Broadcasting Code.

[11] Since the reputations of persons are at stake in this case, the broadcaster should have taken every care to ensure that facts were presented clearly and accurately. Mr Sterenborg's objection to the way in which his rebuttal was broadcast is justified. People have the right to dignity, and once a reputation is sullied, it is extremely difficult to restore it. News broadcasters have a duty to ensure that facts are presented fairly and accurately, and that people's right to reply is fully respected.

In the result the Broadcasting Code has not been complied with and the complaint is upheld.

[12] The broadcaster is reprimanded for the ambiguity in its reporting of the reply.

The complaint is upheld.


The Chairperson and members Makeketa amid Olivier concurred in the above judgment of Dr Gilfillan.

Transcribed from PDF. Please check against the original

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