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The Star and the Press Ombudsman: My complaint and the outcome

On November 25 2009, The Star published an article by Anel Lewis with the heading: “DA to sue after Gauteng ignores R50 million overspend”. I then laid a complaint through the South African Press Code and Complaint Procedure on May 12 2011. The basis of the complaint was that The Star failed to verify the contents of the article with me (the appellant) and that information in the report was untruthful, unbalanced and inaccurate. Despite having deep reservations about the eventual ruling on the matter, I have come to accept it.

The article in question has several unfortunate facts attributed to it, and these were the basis of my complaint:

·         The article took certain information out of context and omitted relevant information

·         It failed to acknowledge the fact that I was no longer employed by the Department of Public Transport, Roads and Works (hereinafter referred to as DPTRW), and was therefore a neutral party

·         The Star at no point approached me for comment. This was confirmed by the newspaper during an informal hearing convened by the Deputy Press Ombudsman. The newspaper offered no explanation as to why this was the case

·         The first paragraph of the newspaper could be misleading to the reader, a fact that was admitted by the newspaper’s representatives

·         Everything else written in the report was based solely on questions and answers between the DA’s Jack Bloom and the MEC Mr Bheki Nkosi. This was also admitted by the newspaper’s representatives

There are also some important points to be made about GNS Risk Advisory Services (the security company at the heart of the controversy):

·         The article failed to acknowledge that the MEC at the time had noted the excellent service and performance GNS was providing to G-Fleet at the time, or its success in combating theft and related problem areas

·         The GNS contract that I authorised was signed on October 25 2007. The appointment was made in terms of a deviation, which is a legal procurement process permitted by the treasury’s legislation. This was not acknowledged in the article

·         The Star also failed to record that the fees paid to GNS were in accordance with rates published annually by the Department of Public Service and Administration in the government gazette

Example of a data center, similar to the one being built by GNS at the GFleeT site

Had the newspaper contacted me for comments, I would have drawn their attention to the fact that the Auditor General (as part of its standard regularity audit) had considered the appointment of GNS, its scope and fees, and did not make any adverse findings against entering into the contract.

Contrary to what Jack Bloom and Bheki Nkosi have alleged, GNS was not paid for mere “guarding services”.  The GNS scope of work included:

(a) Facilitating the classification of key strategic projects and information at the DPTRW in conjunction with the NIA (National Intelligence Agency)

b) Developing procedures to ensure compliance with the MISS Act (Minimum Information Security Standards Act)

c) Establishing a system of continuous MISS compliance

To state that GNS’ fees were “exorbitant” and a “giant rip-off” is inaccurate.

The Deputy Press Ombudman's findings

(See the original document here)

No need for The Star to verify the facts because the report was based on a legislative process

Despite admitting that the report did not make it clear that it was based on such a process, the Ombudsman dismissed this part of the complaint. My right to have my views heard on the matter were simply dismissed.

The report was about alleged overspending, not the illegitimate appointment of GNS

This is, with respect, not correct. The following excerpt from the article does suggest an illegitimate appointment: “The controversial contract was awarded to GNS Risk Advisory Services in October 2007 without an open tender process and terminated in March this year. Bloom estimated that the Department overpaid more than R50 million on the contract before it was stripped. It was a giant rip-off.

The claim that the DA’s Jack Bloom would lay a charge of financial misconduct against me suggests likewise.

Certain information could lead readers to be believe I was responsible for all payments to GNS  

The Ombudsman says that “ordinary readers would probably have understood that Buthelezi was held responsible in the story for all or most of this overspending".

He states that in view of the dates of my suspension, it is possible that at least part of the amount may have been spent by someone else. However, his finding is that during my tenure as Head of Department, I could reasonably have been responsible for all payments made to GNS for work done for DPTRW, G-Fleet and UTF. I submitted that this is not correct.

Misquotes not to be corrected or addressed

The Star justified its actions by saying that it was quoting the MEC. If one pays careful attention to these replies (one, two and three) then it seems that the newspaper misquoted the MEC, for in each of the replies he distinguishes between the department, G-Fleet and UTF, which the respondent failed to do. These misquotes should have been corrected in the findings, but the Ombudsman does not think them important.

There is no evidence to suggest that the article was inaccurate

I submitted that there is more than enough evidence to prove the report was inaccurate.

No ruling on “exorbitant” or “giant rip off” claims

Although reference is made to Bloom and Nkosi’s quotes, the remainder of the newspaper article sets out reasons why The Star also believes GNS to be exorbitant or an overspend. This is not dealt with by the Ombudsman.

“Guarding” can cover a multitude of services

Even if this is the case, GNS also did work that had nothing to do with guarding, and which required an accreditation with the NIA. More specifically, GNS provided high-tech solutions to both the GFleeT and the UTF (Derek Masoek Command Centre). MEC Bheki Nkosi misled Jack Bloom in this regard, and The Star failed to verify the claim.

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I decided in good faith (and at great expense) to pursue this complaint, motivated by various pronouncements by the print media that the so-called self-regulation of the media is the way to go. From my experience, it is not working.

Even The Star does not take this process seriously. At the hearings I attended, a representative did not appear; we had to wait for about an hour at both the informal hearing and the appeal hearing. The news editor had to be phoned by the office of the Ombudsman to remind her of the hearings. On both occasions, a last-minute replacement was found, who was grossly under-prepared.

I understand now that they see the office of the Press Ombudsman as fighting the case on their behalf; they don’t need to bother. It is complainants such as myself who are left to try to make sense of these injustices. I think the whole process was a sham.

I don’t regret following it through though. I can come to this conclusion based on my personal experience. Though I am still bitterly unhappy about this and all related articles published by The Star, I have decided to accept the findings of the Appeal Panel.

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