Press Ombudsman orders DM to publish Right of Reply – PP

This relates to an article by media personality Stephen Grootes

Public Protector welcomes Press Ombudsman ruling against The Daily Maverick

8 January 2020

Public Protector Adv. BusisiweMkhwebane on Wednesday welcomed Press Ombudsman, Ms. Pippa Green’s ruling against the Daily Maverick for having denied her office a right of reply to one of the online publication’s articles on unconvincing grounds.

In March 2019, the Daily Maverick published commentary fraught with personal attacks on the Public Protector, including that she was incompetent, biased, part of a campaign to weaken the National Treasury, a criminal or a servant of criminals and that she had damaged her office beyond repair.

The article—written by media personality Stephen Grootes—also overlooked and misrepresented facts. For instance, it implied that the phenomenon of ignoring the findings of the Public Protector is something which began during the tenure of Adv. Mkhwebane when, in fact, it’s a historical problem, which eventually led to the Constitutional Court decision on March 2016, where the binding effect of the findings was declared.

The article also created an impression that the act of taking the Public Protector’s reports on judicial review is an indication of loss of confidence by organs of state in the office and that it is a trend that emerged when Adv. Mkhwebane took over as head of the institution whereas, as a matter of fact, challenging the reports in court is a direct result of the very Constitutional Court judgment and 16 such court challenges had already been mounted by the time Adv. Mkhwebane assumed duty in October 2016.

A week after the article was published, the Daily Maverick was approached for a right of reply. This request was declined on the grounds that the reply carried a reference to Mr. Grootes’ previous case of misrepresenting facts in his book, SA Politics Unspun, and that he had undertaken to fix the inaccuracies, which were revealed on the day of the launch of the book.

In a ruling handed down in December, which the Public Protector received on Tuesday this week, Ms. Green noted that, as an experienced talk show host and commentator with a background as a political journalist, who appears on several media platforms including radio and television, Mr. Grootes wields “considerable influence and his words have impact”.

She found that, in denying the Public Protector a right of reply, the Daily Maverick transgressed clause 1.8 of the Press Code, which enjoins the media to “seek, if practicable, the views of the subject of critical reportage”.

She ruled that the Public Protector ought to have been allowed an opportunity to put before readers facts that she felt have been overlooked or misrepresented and that Adv. Mkhwebane’s office should be allowed a right of reply.

This was not the first time the Daily Maverick denied the Public Protector a right of reply. In December 2018, the publication refused to publish a reply to former Western Cape Premier, Hellen Zille’s opinion piece in which she criticized a Public Protector report implicating her in wrong-doing. Adv. Mkhwebane had found that Ms. Zille violated the Executive Code of Ethics when she helped her son borrow state-owned tablet computers from the provincial Department of Education so that he could assist disadvantaged matric learners in their studies. The request was denied on the basis that the reply had been written by a spokesperson rather than Adv. Mkhwebane herself.

On learning of the ruling, Adv. Mkhwebane said the media was one of her office’s key stakeholders, which helps the office live up to the constitutional injunction of being accessible to all persons and communities. She pointed out that most of the complaints of wrongdoing in state affairs are lodged on the basis of news reports. In addition, most of her own-initiative investigations such as the VBS Mutual Bank and the Nandoni-Nsami Water Pipeline matters were occasioned by revelations in the media.

“We should be working together in a partnership that ensures good governance in state affairs. This does not mean that I or my office should be insulated from media scrutiny. However, any scrutiny of myself and the office should be independent, truthful, fair and steer clear of causing unnecessary harm,” she said.

Issued by Office of Public Protector, 8 January 2020