Death threats‚ Ben 10s and Watergate – the ‘unprecedented’ Press Ombudsman ruling

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The complaint details alleged death threats against a journalist‚ something Retief says is unprecedented to his knowledge – after the reporter in question‚ Sipho Masondo of the City Press‚ refused to accept “incentives” to end his investigation.

The newspaper was forced to hire security for Masondo and his family.

The complaint centres around a story dated 19 February 2017‚ titled “Nomvula’s ‘Ben 10’ calls the shots”‚ which Masondo authored with Ntombizodwa Makhoba.

The complaint was submitted by Ricky Stone‚ a director of law firm Boqwana Burns Attorneys – a company of which the same “Ben 10” in the story‚ Luvo Makasi‚ is a director.

“The article said that the Minister of Water Affairs and Sanitation‚ Ms Nomvula Mokonyane‚ was allowing her young male companion (Makasi‚ 32) to call the shots in her department – so much so that he was giving orders to her director-general‚” Retief said.

The complaint vehemently denies the allegations in the article‚ and accuses Masondo of biased‚ slanted and “inaccurate‚ unfair and deliberately dishonest” reporting.

The article is one in a series of pieces published by City Press‚ following more than a year of investigations into the alleged “hijack and capture” of the bi-national Lesotho Highlands Water Project by a politically connected business entity and senior politicians from the landlocked country – the so called “Watergate” scandal.

In his analysis of the complaint and responses from City Press Editor Dumisani Lubisi‚ Retief’s 13-page‚ 7‚000-word ruling says the following:

“I have not had a complaint as serious as this one since I started my work in this office more than seven years ago‚” he said.

The complainants are adamant that:

– The journalist’s reporting was influenced by considerations other than professional ones‚ which would constitute a Tier 3 breach of the SA Code of Ethics and Conduct (if found guilty). This tier is headlined “Serious misconduct”‚ and it represents the worst kind of breach possible.

– There was prima facie evidence of foul play‚ corruption and inappropriate conduct on the part of Masondo‚ also of an attempt to tarnish or malign the Department of Water and Sanitation‚ Makasi and Boqwana Burns Attorneys‚ as well as an attempt to mislead the public.

“Those are extremely serious allegations‚” Retief asserts. “The complainants also ask that this office investigate both City Press and the journalist‚ and that Masondo be suspended pending this investigation. Such an investigation and suspension falls outside the jurisdiction of this office. At best‚ though‚ these requests do demonstrate the seriousness of the matter.”

“On the newspaper’s part‚ a source allegedly told City Press that he or she had been in a meeting where Moema‚ Mokonyane’s special advisor‚ a senior Presidential VIP protection agent and senior officer in the SAPS discussed “what to do with Masondo”.

According to this source‚ some pushed for “Masondo’s disappearance”.

“A threat of murdering (which is what “disappearance” clearly means) a journalist is also unprecedented in the history of this office‚ at least to my knowledge‚” Retief said in his ruling.

Retief said he treated every complaint that landed on his desk seriously and with respect‚ but in this case‚ he would “think twice” before coming to any findings as he was “mindful of the serious ramifications that decisions may have for the various parties”.

“Let me add that the parties have‚ sometimes even extensively‚ argued the merits or de-merits of contracts and behaviour. These matters also fall outside my mandate – my task is not to investigate the standing of contracts‚ and neither am I investigating either BBA or Makasi. My sole interest is in the text that was published‚ in order to determine whether City Press was in breach of the SA Code of Conduct or not‚” Retief said.

The complaint‚ which can be read on the Press Ombudsman’s website‚ was dismissed in its entirety.

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