Sunday Times SARS reporting driven by malicious intent - Pillay & Van Loggenberg

Former officials say newspaper has locked itself into a narrative that it is now unwilling to question


Ruling by the Press Ombud on complaints against the Sunday Times newspaper

16 DECEMBER 2015 – We welcome today’s ruling by the Press Ombud, Mr Johan Retief, and his panel, on our respective complaints against the Sunday Times newspaper.

As we argued before the Press Ombud earlier this month, for more than a year since August 2014, the Sunday Times has been advancing a tenacious campaign that tarnished the reputation of the South African Revenue Service (SARS), our reputations as former SARS officials and even the reputations of former Ministers of Finance, who served our country and our democracy with distinction.

We argued that such reportage - including the serious allegations that we established and operated an illegal “rogue unit” that spied on taxpayers, broke into President Jacob Zuma’s home and planted listening devices, and operated a “brothel”- was manifestly untrue and was driven by malicious intent.

It has always been our contention that the Sunday Times articles were informed by supposed "sources" who were all "anonymous" and who clearly had deliberate agendas to malign and discredit us and SARS.

The Sunday Times has conceded in representations to the Press Ombud that they relied on "former SARS officials, current senior SARS officials, police officers and intelligence officials." In none of the articles in question were any of these sources prepared to go on record and do so openly. This alone speaks volumes of the veracity of the allegations the newspaper has reported on against us and SARS.

In certain cases, the Sunday Times relied on unsubstantiated and untested internal documents from within SARS. Instead of seeking substantiation of these allegations, the Sunday Times opted to report on them verbatim. It is clear when having regard to the entire series of articles since August 2014, that the Sunday Times locked themselves into a particular narrative that was advanced to them and that the newspaper was unwilling to consider anything contrary to this.

In our view, it appears that the Sunday Times was all too eager to accept "findings" of various processes and seek vindication, instead of questioning the legality and the procedural fairness of such processes. The fact that none of those affected by multiple investigations were ever heard or afforded a proper and fair right of reply, seemed not to have mattered to the Sunday Times. It became apparent that the newspaper showed little interest in the other side's version of events and did not strive to report the views of those affected in a fair and balanced manner.

We had formally asked SARS to investigate persistent leaks of confidential taxpayer information and internal employee information, and have not yet received any reply in this regard.

We wish to address three aspects that were part of our complaint and that were reported on by some media —

1. We are of the view that the matter of conflict of interest regarding Advocate Rudolf Mastenbroek remains one of contention. We have not suggested that he was a source of Sunday Times articles. Our contention is that there is a conflict of interest with him being a member of the Kroon Advisory Board that was appointed to have oversight over SARS.

2. We record that we have also lodged or are in the process of lodging further complaints with the Press Ombud against the newspaper concerning further articles published by Sunday Times on 2 and 6 December 2015.

3. We remain of the view that a media institution must take more care when it is the recipient of a stream of leaks from one party whilst being aware that other affected parties are constrained by law to respond and defend themselves publicly. Surely an ethical question that must be at the forefront for the media, is how to ensure fairness in an inherently uneven playing field.

On the Sunday Times’ news and editorial coverage of 4 October 2015, The Press Ombud found that “not only was the content of the stories inaccurate, misleading and unfair, but the conclusions in both the editorial and the sub-headline of the main story… cannot be correct – or were, at best, premature.”

The Press Ombud found that one member of the Sunday Times investigative unit, Mr Piet Rampedi, was either “misled by his source, or he deliberately misled the public, his newspaper, as well as this office.”

These are serious impeachments on the journalistic ethics at the Sunday Times and we can only hope that the newspaper’s new editorial management will address such concerns expeditiously.

The Sunday Times was found to be in breach of the Press Code [“serious breaches (Tier 2)”] and is directed by the Press Ombud to unconditionally:

retract all the texts which are in dispute (the stories as well as the editorial);

- apologise for:
- not having provided us with a copy of the summary of the alleged KPMG report;
- unnecessarily tarnishing our dignity and reputations.

We expect the Sunday Times to appeal the Ombud’s ruling and we intend to oppose such an appeal.

While we welcome the ruling of the Ombud, it must be emphasised that a number of steps still needs to be taken to restore the dignity and the reputations of ourselves and SARS as an institution. We reserve all our rights in this regard.

Statement issued by Ivan Pillay and Johann van Loggerenberg, 16 December 2015