Did Sunday Times act ‘ethically’ in publishing “Against The Rules Too” report?

Sunday Times newspaper last week Sunday reported on the Public Protector’s “provisional” findings of an investigation into property lease deals that were allegedly signed by the Police Commissioner, Bheki Cele. The latter’s signature ultimately led to the Public Works department entering into a contract with businessman Roux Shabangu a year or so ago.

The newspaper claimed the “provision” report was leaked to it and that it involved property deals in Durban between public works and Shabangu and other related deals in Pretoria. In another deal reported by Sunday Times last year August, Cele apparently entered into another lease deal with Shabangu in Pretoria which was apparently intended to house the Police Head offices and was early this year found to have been invalid by the Public Protector.

The main aim here is not to repeat contents of the report – unless where necessary for understanding – but to ask why and how the newspaper came to deciding on report on the alleged findings. And it is worth reminding readers at the same time that the report was yet to be sent to subjects thereof to make their comments on the findings at the time and send them back to the Public Protector’s office for consideration, if any, and let her make a final report that would then be published and made available to the public.

Sunday Times report on the Durban investigation said that Siviwe Dongwana, who was among the department officials who signed the deal, told the Protector that “due to the pressures put on me by the new minister (Mahlangu-Nkabinde) I signed the lease agreement,” and that “If it was not for the pressures put on me, I would never have done so. By this point I was extremely stressed, tired and scared and was concerned for my personal safety and that of my family”. It further alleged that Public Works minister, Mahlangu-Nkabinde, was found guilty of “improper” conduct as she had failed “statesmanship” for going ahead with both leases despite two legal opinions finding them to be invalid. Titled “Against The Rules Too”, the “provisional” findings further indicated, allegedly, that Cele was guilty of “maladministration” and “unlawful” conduct for driving the R1.1-billion Durban deal and that The Treasury should consider blacklisting Shabangu’s company for its involvement in “unlawful and irregular procurement”, among other thing.

Public Protector Thuli Madonsela refused to comment on the report at the time, saying the report was “supposed to be confidential until the final report is released”. Although Shabangu has been accused of being a friend to President Jacob Zuma, he has since denied this, saying there is a perception created of successful black businessmen that “if he’s black he must be connected to government officials” which is not the case.

Mahlangu-Nkabinde reportedly (see also here) found it worrying that the report was “made available to the media” long before she could even respond to its findings. She requested Madonsela to “seriously consider this matter as it is neither advisable nor acceptable to interact on the provisional report through the media”.

Responding to Sunday Times report, Major General Nonkululeko Mbatha said in a statement that SAPS would not be “commenting on the contents of these reports until the Public Protector has finalised the investigation they purported to be based on, save to register the concerns outlined hereunder” yet she was quick, before responding to some of the Sunday Times questions, to say that SAPS was “legally barred from responding to any of your questions as they relate to an ongoing investigation by the Public Protector”.

Mbatha expressed SAPS “displeasure” that the “unfinished and confidential report was leaked” to newspaper and that it would ask Madonsela to “determine if the Sunday Times’ possession of, and decision to publish details of her incomplete investigation thus subjecting the SAPS to a parallel process of enquiry, does not amount to a violation of the legislation governing the work of her office”.

“Despite the great respect I have for Press and Media Freedom – I, however, felt and still do feel that Sunday Times’ publication of “Against the Rules Too” was unethical as the report was, you could say, ‘sub juce’ or that it was still to be considered and that subjects thereof were still to comment on what had been found”, I wrote in my Facebook Notes a few days before. The Note was then followed by a comment that said: “No way! It was a legit scoop, published on the basis of overwhelming public interest. The compelling argument for immediacy is in the clear pressure and threats exerted on officials and senior civil servants to sign off on these dodgy deals”. And it was after reading this comments that I asked: Does the right to press and media freedom override the ethical accountability the media has to its stakeholders [shareholders/consumers?]?

Mbatha said SAPS would contest the contents of the report with the “distinct likelihood” that the final report will be “fundamentally different from the one that the Sunday Times decided to publish from”. That to what extent had the Protector’s investigation been compromised by the partial publication of its preliminary report, and what recourse would be available to those who have already been prejudiced by the partial publication of the preliminary report should the findings of the final report turn out to be fundamentally different from it are some of the concerns he would raise with the Protector.

We also have to ask ourselves, too, whether it really was necessary that contents of such a report be made available, whether publication thereof was in the public interest and not against the law and whether that was ethical and in line Press Council standards. But most importantly, we need to ask whether publication of the report  – whatever it wanted to achieve when it was published at the time – strengthens supporters of Media Appeals Tribunal and Information Bill as Mail & Guardian Editor, Nic Dawes thought the SABC’s continued denial to publish its apology to the newspaper did which he said “could threaten the system of statutory self-regulation in the broadcast sector”.

First published at I Like What I Write web site.

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One thought on “Did Sunday Times act ‘ethically’ in publishing “Against The Rules Too” report?

  1. Pingback: Public Protector vindicates me on Sunday Times’ ‘unethical and unlawful’ publication of Against The Rules Too « Akanyang Africa

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