DOCUMENTS

Ranjeni Munusamy vs. Sunday Times - Press Ombudsman's ruling

Johan Retief dismisses journalist's complaint, says newspaper passed the test of reasonableness in publishing extract from Mzilikazi wa Afrika's book (Sept 12)

Ranjeni Munusamy vs. Sunday Times

Fri, Sep 12, 2014

Ruling by the Press Ombudsman

12 September 2014

This ruling is primarily based on the written submissions of Ranjeni Munusamy, associate editor of the Daily Maverick, and those of Susan Smuts, legal editor at the Sunday Times newspaper. Other people involved have also made contributions.

PROVISIONAL FINDING

On August 20 I have made the following provisional finding (which is available on www.presscouncil.org.za):

"I provisionally submit that it was reasonable for Sunday Times to publish this particular extract from Wa Afrika's book - regardless of whether it was true or not...

"While a newspaper has the freedom to publish extracts from a book, even though there may be falsehoods in that text (not perpetuating hate speech, though), the publication should make it clear that the views contained in the extract are those of the author (which is what the Sunday Times has done).

"But: If a publication accepts the veracity of the contents of a book on which it reports, it then should take full responsibility for the contents.

"In this case, both the sub-headline and the side-bar make it clear that the newspaper has accepted the truth of the statements made by Wa Afrika (for example, the sub-heading said that his book "reveals the truth behind a story" - emphasis added). Smuts has also confirmed this in her correspondence to this office.

"If that is the case, then the onus is on Sunday Times to prove the truth of Wa Afrika's allegations...

"Sunday Times now has two options. It either has to:

  • state that Wa Afrika's views were his own. The publication does not have to distance itself from his statements (implying that they were incorrect) - it merely has to say that the views contained in the article donot necessarily present its own views. In that case, it should acknowledge that it has made a mistake in presenting his views as the truth (in both the sub-headline and the side-bar), and apologise for this; or
  • prove the veracity of the statements, if it does not see its way open to do the above.

The newspaper has chosen the latter alternative. I therefore now need to determine how justified the newspaper was in accepting the truth of Wa Afrika's text.

COMPLAINT

The complaint is about an article published in the Sunday Times of 3 August 2014, headlined Zuma revealed as hidden hand in spy scandal - In this edited extract from his new book, Mzilikazi wa Afrika reveals the truth behind a story that helped the president duck prosecution. The headline of the sidebar read Becoming puppets in a bigger political game.

THE TEXT

The article is an extract from a book, Nothing left to steal - jailed for telling the truth, by Mzilikazi wa Afrika. It is about a story that helped Pres Jacob Zuma "duck prosecution" (by accusing National Prosecuting Authority head Bulelani Ngcuka of being an apartheid spy).

With this text came a sidebar headlined Becoming puppets in a bigger political game. It read, inter alia: "This extract is a timely reminder of how easily journalists become actors in dramas orchestrated by outside directors."

THE ARGUMENTS

In general, Smuts says that the extract was true, and argues that many of the alleged factual inaccuracies were "in the personal knowledge of Wa Afrika and others with whom he worked with at the time". Also, the Sunday Times editor at the time, Mathatha Tsedu, gave Wa Afrika an interview prior to the publication of his book - and the latter's notes confirm what he says about Tsedu in his affidavit. "This is therefore not a case where it is one word against another. Accordingly the Sunday Times contends that the allegations in the book extract are true and accurate, or at least were reasonably published."

Munusamy denies that she discussed this matter with Zuma (see below), "which is why I pursued this complaint".  She also argues that the Sunday Times's arguments do not meet the requirements of this office, and questions the validity of an affidavit sworn under a pseudonym (she says "Mzilikazi wa Afrika" is a pseudonym).

I now turn to more detailed issues in Wa Afrika's affidavit.

Issues raised by Wa Afrika in his affidavit; Munusamy's replies

Collaborating with the investigative team

Wa Afrika: Munusamy's statements that she never collaborated with the newspaper's investigations unit, that members of this unit never approached her for help to get access to the questions posed by the Scorpions to Zuma, and that she did not know what stories the unit was working on at the time, were "patently not true". A front-page story concerning the events in question (Scorpions to grill deputy president, published on 27 July 2003) carried her byline, together with his and those of their colleagues Bezuidenhout and Jurgens. The same went for three related stories on the inside pages of that same edition, as well as for another story published on 24 August 2003. "All these stories are self-evidently the result of collaboration between Munusamy and the investigations unit staff."

He clearly remembers that he approached Munusamy, on behalf of the investigative unit, for assistance in relation to the Scorpions' questions (as the unit had not been able to obtain these questions from any of its sources). At that stage, the questions could only have been sourced either from Zuma and his camp, or from the Scorpions. "Given that we could not obtain the Scorpions' questions from the Scorpions, the only other option was to obtain the information from Zuma's camp - and only Munusamy had those contacts. This is how our collaboration with Munusamy on the story began and why the story ultimately carries a byline crediting Munusamy as well as members of the investigative team."

Munusamy: Wa Afrika's arguments do not prove "collaboration" or uphold his claim that she would call him, instead of the editor, with information about her work- even if there may have been discussions in which all of them could have been present. If anything, they would be pitching their respective stories to compete for the lead (she was not working with the investigative team, but for the politics desk).

As is the case in newsrooms around the world, editors on the news desk often merge stories on similar or related issues. In the main story in question, as well as in another one, she was not aware of all the information contained in the article. Wa Afrika's and her byline appear on the top story on the page as this was a pull-together by the news desk. "I had no knowledge of the first part of that story and would not have consulted Wa Afrika on my interview with Mandela."

 My considerations

The fact that Munusamy's byline appeared on stories relating to this issue is enough proof that she did indeed "collaborate" with the investigative team - at least to some (significant) extent. In the story published on 27 July 2003, her name even appeared first, followed by those of Bezuidenhout, Wa Afrika and Jurgens. I cannot foresee a situation where a newspaper would give a journalist a byline (and a prominent one, at that) without that reporter having made some sort of a contribution to a story.

It may well be true that Munusamy did not know all the details of all the published stories - but even if information was merged (which is likely), this does not mean that she had not collaborated in producing the stories.

As a result, it was reasonable for the newspaper to accept that the investigative unit approached Munusamy "to see what she could do through her contacts" (as stated in the extract).

Zuma and his camp as the source of the leak; condition imposed

Wa Afrika: Munusamy told him a few days after his request for assistance that Zuma had agreed to leak the Scorpions' questions. The collective understanding of both Jurgens and Bezuidenhout was that the source was from within the Zuma camp, acting in Zuma's interests.

He never claimed that Munusamy had met with Zuma in Durban - only that she had flown to Durban (on 26 July 2003) to receive the Scorpions' questions.

Tsedu confirmed that she flew to Durban for that purpose. Wa Afrika's notes on this issue read: "I (Tsedu) won't forget that Saturday. I approved Ranjeni's trip to Durban that Saturday so she can negotiate and get the questions."

Munusamy phoned him from Durban on the morning of 26 July to say that "the chief" (her term for Zuma) had given the go-ahead for the questions to be given to the Sunday Times - but on condition that it published a story stating that Ngcuka was an apartheid spy. The newspaper agreed to publish this story if the allegations were true.

Wa Afrika and Jurgens received the questions by fax a few minutes later (sent from the office of Zuma's attorneys). These were also read by Tsedu. Later that afternoon, when Munusamy had returned from Durban, there was a meeting about the questions (attended by Tsedu, Bezuidenhout, Jurgens, Munusamy and Wa Afrika), and an article was published the following day.

Both Bezuidenhout and Wa Afrika recall that Munusamy was "livid" about some of the questions posed to Zuma.

Tsedu confirmed the condition imposed on the leak; however, he eventually decided not to publish the spy allegations as he "didn't want to be used". Munusamy then leaked the story to rival newspaper City Press, which published it (as promised to Zuma).

He (Wa Afrika) did not break the sacred rule of journalism by revealing the identity of a confidential source. Zuma and his camp lied to him on two occasions: firstly, about Agent RS452 being Ngcuka (two prominent members of the ANC told Munusamy the agent was Ngcuka, while he had later established that it was somebody else), and also about the source of the leak to the Sunday Times. A source who manipulates or lies to a journalist no longer deserves protection and can be revealed.

Munusamy: She did not travel to Durban to meet with Zuma or anybody else in connection with the Scorpions' questions to the then Deputy President. "It would have been foolish on my part to lodge a complaint to the Press Ombudsman disputing the claims in the book and the extract published in the Sunday Times knowing that the newspaper's investigating unit has the resources to access flight records to prove that I travelled to Durban. The fact that they have not been able to produce such records is because they do not exist."

The only evidence the Sunday Times relies on is Wa Afrika's hand-written, redacted, notes of an interview he conducted with Tsedu. There is no statement from Tsedu himself to prove the claim that he approved travel for her to Durban in July 2003. Tsedu approved travel with regard to the later investigation on Bulelani Ngcuka, not for the Scorpions' questions to Zuma. This trip was in August 2003. Because of the 11-year time lapse, it is possible that there is confusion over the dates on which Tsedu recalls she travelled.

She never told Wa Afrika to say "the chief" had given the go-ahead for the Scorpions' questions to be given to the Sunday Times. "Not only was I not in Durban and had not discussed the matter with Zuma, but for me to call a competitor at the Sunday Times with such information is ludicrous." At the time, she reported directly to the editor and would have phoned him to discuss her work, not someone from another department. Because of the hostile relationship between the political and investigative teams, such a call would have put any story she was working on at risk of being sabotaged. "I would not have revealed the source to the investigations unit because there was also the risk that they would pass on that information to their own sources."

The claim that she called Wa Afrika from Durban is in direct contradiction to what he told Prof Anton Harber, cited in Harber's article in Bizcommunity.com on 18 August 2014. Harber states: "[Wa Afrika] knows Zuma was the source because Ranjeni had put Zuma on speakerphone during the discussion". "If I was in Durban with Zuma, how was it possible for me to also be in the office with Wa Afrika and put Zuma on speakerphone? This reveals Wa Afrika's propensity to make up scenarios in his desperate attempts to prove his version of events."

She notes that despite Wa Afrika giving Harber this version only a few weeks before, it does not appear in his affidavit - because of the contradiction it presents to his versions.

In any case, she did not respect Wa Afrika as a journalist and would for that reason not have discussed her work with him.

She did not attempt to sell a deal to the newspaper where the Sunday Times would receive the questions in exchange for another story to be published the next week. There was no such deal "because we received the questions without any undertaking that the Ngcuka story would be published the next week".

Therefore, all the information in the extract pertaining to the "source", as well as the basis for revealing the "source" is "patently false". All the submissions involving Bezuidenhout and Jurgens, which they confirm in their affidavits, are extraneous to Wa Afrika's claims that she travelled to Durban and that Zuma was the source. "It is clear from all the documentation that neither Wa Afrika nor Bezuidenhout and Jurgens knew with whom I met and where I met them. Considering the hostility at the Sunday Times between the politics and investigations teams, it is not surprising that they had no knowledge of what I was doing." 

It is clear from the Sunday Times's submission and attached documents that they do not know who the source is. Yet they made a reckless decision to publish Wa Afrika's extract revealing a "source" on the basis that Zuma had denied that he had leaked the questions. This could easily have been verified had Wa Afrika or any person at the Sunday Times checked with her "as that information is the rightful property of the newspaper".  

Wa Afrika and the Sunday Times argue that they were justified in revealing the source because he had "lied". What was this lie? Nothing in the story Scorpions to grill Deputy President published on 27 July 2003 was false or untruthful. The story has never been in dispute or questioned, and it is strange that Sunday Times is suddenly discrediting its own lead story based on false information.

Wa Afrika's claim that Zuma had denied he was the source was a lie. However, there is no evidence in the possession of either Wa Afrika or the Sunday Times to show the source was Zuma. How can they then justify the decision to reveal him as the source?

My considerations

I accept that Munusamy did not travel to Durban to meet Zuma.

However, Wa Afrika's notes on this issue ("I [Tsedu] won't forget that Saturday. I approved Ranjeni's trip to Durban that Saturday so she can negotiate and get the questions") seem to be genuine, and I therefore accept that he was sincerely under the impression that she did go to Durban in connection with this matter. I also take into account that both Bezuidenhout and Jurgens were of the same opinion.

It is noteworthy that Munusamy does not dispute Wa Afrika's argument that the information could only have come from one of two possible sources - the Scorpions, or Zuma (or people acting on his behalf). In this regard, Wa Afrika's statement that the fax with the Scorpions' questions came from the office of Zuma's attorneys weighs heavily. Given this situation, I believe it is much more possible and reasonable that the information was leaked by Zuma or "his camp", rather than by the Scorpions.

Munusamy's argument about the speakerphone is not convincing, as the conversation in question might have taken place at a different time.

Moreover, Munusamy also does not deny that she leaked the story to City Press. She says it is unthinkable that she would have given the investigative unit (which was part of her publication) any information - how then was it possible for her to give this information to a rival newspaper?

Lastly, Wa Afrika says that he has established that Agent RS452 was not Ngcuka, as was alleged. If he really believed that the Zuma camp had lied to him about this (and another) issue, I would not blame him if he revealed the source whom he believed leaked the information in the first place.

When taking all of these arguments into account, I submit that the Sunday Times was reasonable in accepting that this matter was essentially true.

Spy allegation document

Wa Afrika: Despite her denial to this effect, Munusamy did bring documents pertaining to Ngcuka (spy allegations) to the investigations unit. She would not allow any member of the team to read the documents. However, the five of them met in the editor's office to discuss these allegations.

His own investigation over the next few weeks into agent RS452 revealed that Ngcuka was not that agent (instead the agent was Vanessa Brereton) - which led to the editor's ultimate decision not to publish the allegations.

Munusamy: She does not respond to this part of Wa Afrika's affidavit.

My considerations

Because of the above, I need to accept Wa Afrika's version in this respect.

Vusi Mona and the Scorpions' investigation

Wa Afrika: Even though Munusamy denies that he informed her that Vusi Mona (the then editor of City Press) might face investigation by the Scorpions, he stated publicly (in front of the Hefer Commission) that she told him that the Scorpions were investigating him (Mona). He quotes an academic paper by Prof Guy Berger, who said materially the same.

Munusamy: Her affidavit before the Hefer Commission and the extract written by Berger are irrelevant to her complaint and she will therefore not respond to these documents. 

My considerations

Mona did not contest a single aspect of what the extract said about him.

Right of reply

Wa Afrika: He met Munusamy shortly after former President Nelson Mandela's death outside Madiba's house "and I personally informed her that I was writing my memoirs" (including Munusamy's leak of the Ngcuka spy allegations to City Press). He asked her to comment, which she declined to do.

Munusamy: Wa Afrika's claim that he had met her outside Nelson Mandela's house after his death in December is a blatant, deliberate and unforgivable lie.

"I was lucky to have had a relationship with Madiba that allowed me to visit him occasionally at his office in Houghton and his various homes in Houghton, Cape Town and in Limpopo. His death affected me deeply, and while I was involved in Daily Maverick's coverage of his death, memorial service and funeral, I could not bring myself to go, at any time during the period after his death, to the places I spent time with him...

"I went to Madiba's former office, which is now the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, for the reading of his will on 3 February 2014. Even though I was covering the story of the will reading, I was very emotional being there. I have still not been to the house and will probably never go there again."

It is clear that Wa Afrika was desperate to place her at a venue where he thought she was bound to be at some point to concoct his story that he had informed her that he was writing his memoires. However, he had no way of knowing her emotional state or the Daily Maverick staff deployment during that time.

Wa Afrika never informed her that he was writing about the Scorpions' questions and the Ngcuka spy allegations; he also never asked her for comment.

She takes exception to the fact that Wa Afrika used Madiba's death as the basis for his fabricated tale. He was clearly under pressure by the Sunday Times to show that he had approached her for comment and that she had waived her right to do so. "If I had waived my right to comment, it would be inconceivable why I would undertake this long and difficult process at the Press Council to affirm that the facts were never checked with me."

Also, accompanying this submission is a statement to the Ombudsman from her editor at the Daily Maverick, Branko Brkic, in response to this claim made by Wa Afrika in his affidavit. 

My considerations

Branko Brkic, the editor of Daily Maverick, wrote me the following letter:

Dear Johan,

I write to you in response to a claim by Mzilikazi wa Afrika in his affidavit, as part of the Sunday Times submission responding to the complaint lodged by Daily Maverick Associate Editor Ranjeni Munusamy. Wa Afrika claims he met Ranjeni outside Nelson Mandela's house after the former president passed away.

As Editor of Daily Maverick, I am responsible for the news diary and deployment of my staff. I also take a keen interest in the wellbeing of my team.

Mandela's death was the biggest news event in recent history and I was constantly in direct contact with my team, discussing deployment and our coverage. We had extensive coverage of Mandela's death, tribute events, memorial service and funeral.

At no stage was Ranjeni at Mandela's home in Houghton. Our coverage of events and tributes at the house came from Greg Nicolson and Thapelo Lekgowa, and this can be checked on the Daily Maverick website.

I spoke to Ranjeni several times daily during that period and would have known if she was at Mandela's house or office.

In light of the above and of Munusamy's testimony in this regard (which, on the face of it, seems genuine), I do not have enough grounds to believe Wa Afrika on this issue. This is worrisome, to say the least.

However, nowhere does the extract say that Wa Afrika met Munusamy outside Madiba's house, that he told her about his book, that he asked her for comment, and that she refused to do so.

As this did not form part of the newspaper's acceptance of the truth of what was contained in the extract, I have no grounds to find against it on this matter.

Alleged malice

Wa Afrika: Munusamy's attempt to cast aspersions on his character by referring to an alleged request for a loan is "entirely without merit" (his phone may have been bugged and hacked) and in any event irrelevant to her complaint.

Munusamy: Wa Afrika did ask her for a loan.

My considerations

The extract also did not address this matter, which is why I find it irrelevant.

GENERAL COMMENTS

The newspaper goes to some lengths to argue that its publication of the book extract was reasonable. This was unnecessary, as I have already decided in my preliminary ruling that it was within its rights to publish the extract. The point in case is only the newspaper's acceptance of Wa Afrika's statements as "the truth".

The fact that "Wa Afrika" may be a pseudonym does not carry any weight with me - my office is not a court of law, but rather a house of ethics.

FINDING

The complaint is dismissed, as the Sunday Times has provided reasonable proof that it was justified in accepting the essence of what it published as the truth. This is not to say that I have accepted that every word and sentence was true - only that the newspaper has passed the test of reasonableness.

APPEAL

Our Complaints Procedures lay down that within seven working days of receipt of this decision, either party may apply for leave to appeal to the Chairperson of the SA Press Adjudication Panel, Judge Bernard Ngoepe, fully setting out the grounds of appeal. He can be contacted at Khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.

Johan Retief

Press Ombudsman

Issued by the Press Council, September 12 2014

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