DoC outraged by Sunday Times ruling

The Department of Communications (DoC) said it is outraged by the Press Ombudsman’s decision to dismiss three complaints against the Sunday Times made by Communications Minister Dina Pule.

One of the complaints made by Pule concerned the editor of the Sunday Times, Phylicia Oppelt. Pule complained that Oppelt had acted unethically by handing over information to Democratic Alliance MP Dianne Kohler-Barnard.

Pule argued that the editor’s actions raised serious questions about the newspaper’s independence and its adherence to the Press Code.

The DoC said that this week it will apply for leave to appeal the decision of the Press Ombudsman to the Chairperson of the SA Press Adjudication Panel, Judge Bernard Ngoepe.

The full statement from the DoC below:

The Department of Communications is outraged by the Press Ombudsman’s exoneration of the Sunday Times for violating the South African Press Code.

The Department will apply for leave to appeal the decision of the Press Ombudsman to the Chairperson of the SA Press Adjudication Panel, Judge Bernard Ngoepe this week.

In a decision handed down on Saturday, the Press Ombudsman found that the Sunday Times had not violated the Press Code by handing over information to Democratic Alliance MP Dianne Kohler Barnard, who then submitted it to Parliament’s ethics and members’ interests committee, which is conducting an inquiry into Minister Dina Pule.

This decision does not take into account the fact that the information was anonymously sent to the DA and Kohler Barnard on the morning of the first sitting of the hearings. The Sunday Times has not explained why they sent information they believe to be in the public interest anonymously to a political party. The Sunday Times has not produced any evidence to show that they had, indeed, provided the information to other political parties as well. There are no political parties that have come out to say that they had approached the Sunday Times for information related to the probe on Minister Pule.

We call on the political parties that the Sunday Times claim approached them for information to comment on this serious allegation. The role of the members of this committee is supposed to be that of independent mediators, akin to a judge.

They also need to explain why they approached sources when that role is reserved for the Registrar of the Committee, who acts as a prosecutor. The Sunday Times has never explained why submitting information to the registrar was never a suitable option for them to exercise what they believed to be in the public interest.

The Press Ombudsman’s decision is unfortunate and cannot go unchallenged. The ruling by the Press Ombudsman amounts to nothing but a treacherous whitewash attempt to legitimise unethical journalism conduct of the Sunday Times editor. It sets a very dangerous precedent for the South African media.

No amount of spin will change the fact that the Sunday Times editor was wrong to have covertly submitted information to Kohler Barnard or the ethics committee as the Press Ombudsman seems to believe.

It remains our firm belief that the Sunday Times editor behaved unethically and compromised the independence the newspaper by assisting a member of the opposition or the ethics committee with information.

The Sunday Times’s independence and credibility has been jeopardised by an editor who was evidently willing to be an informant of a parliamentary inquiry. The fact of the matter is that the Sunday Times editor was used by Kohler Barnard or the ethics committee as information gatherer. This practice cannot be allowed to prevail in the South African media.

The South African media must join the department in condemning and disassociating itself from this shameful practice.

The Press Ombudsman’s ruling shows that the Sunday Times matter is providing to be an acid test on the effectiveness of the self-regulatory system of the South African media. Any attempt to legitimise such unethical conduct will undoubtedly collapse the self-regulatory system of the media. The ruling of the Press Council’s appeals committee is very important as it will serve as guidance to the media.

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DoC outraged by Sunday Times ruling