INDABA Newsletter | March 2016

#FeesMustFall – Newsmaker of the Year for 2015

The National Press Club has named #FeesMustFall as the Newsmaker of the Year for 2015.

This annual award, made by the press club since 1980, awards a newsmaker in a calendar year based on the amount of media coverage received as well as the impact thereof. Nominations and motivations are received from press club members and a final decision made by the executive committee of the club.

“The decision to name #FeesMustFall as the newsmaker for 2015 was unanimous,” says club chairman Jos Charle. “This was a major game-changer in our country. There is no doubt that tertiary education in South Africa will never be the same again.

“The last time the students of our country were united in a common cause like that was in 1976 when they protested against Afrikaans as a medium of instruction. However, this time around, #FeesMustFall received support across many sectors of our society, including students from across the globe,” he says.

“What the #FeesMustFall movement has brought to the fore is the plight of many poor South Africans whose ambitions of studying at our universities remain far-fetched due to the rising cost of higher education. Also notable with this movement, is how the power of technology can, in no time, bring people together in a common purpose.”

He says the role of the social media, complemented by widespread reports in traditional news media, has been instrumental in the success of the campaign. “The #FeesMustFall campaign spread across all university campuses like wildfire and dominated the news environment for at least three weeks. The fact that it led to President Jacob Zuma announcing that there would be no increase in tertiary education fees for 2016 illustrates the success and impact of the campaign.”

The National Press Club is synonymous with the Newsmaker of the Year award. Over the years the club has recognised and awarded many newsmakers. Previous recipients include President Jacob Zuma, former presidents Nelson Mandela, FW de Klerk and Thabo Mbeki, Hollywood star Charlize Theron and Thuli Madonsela. Last year the award went to the Oscar Pistorius trial.

The press club’s newsmaker event will be held in Pretoria soon.

The Brief

Herman Scholtz*

Many journalists have a box, crate or cabinet filled with old notebooks. For most, it is a habit created when your first editor warned you to store your notes for “three years”.

The three year rule was developed because of the Prescription Act. The latter stipulates that civil claims (e.g. defamation or infringement of privacy) prescribe after a period of three years from publication. A court will not entertain claims older than three years as the defendant can raise a defence of prescription.

This was easy enough in the golden age of the print media and analogue broadcasting, but is becoming increasing irrelevant.

One of the pitfalls of news websites, YouTube channels and digital archives is the perpetual exposure to civil claims. To explain: ‘Publication’ is very broadly defined as ‘making known to others’. Whereas newspapers and analogue broadcasters ‘published’ news once, publication is continuous in the digital world. Every time someone reads an article on the internet or watches an archived broadcast on YouTube, it is published again. For all practical purposes, claims relating to content that remain accessible on the internet will never prescribe.

For this reason, it is advisable to keep records and supporting documents relating to a contentious article for a much longer period than the tried and tested three year rule.

Luckily, digital technology makes it much easier. Convert your e-mail correspondence and documents to PDFs by using a free PDF converter such as PrimoPDF and store it in the cloud. Use free cloud solutions such as Dropbox to prevent data losses from technical problems and theft.

Herman Scholtz [BA(Media), BPhil (Journ), BCom LLB, LLM (Info and Communications Law)] is the legal advisor of the National Press Club and news editor of Rapport.

Pieter-Louis Myburgh wins 2016 Taco Kuiper Award for investigative journalism

Pieter-Louis Myburgh, Rapport’s investigative reporter, is the recipient of the 2016 Taco Kuiper Award for investigative journalism.

He doggedly pursued and proved allegations of impropriety surrounding Prasa’s acquisition of Afro4000 locomotives from a South African shelf company and a Spanish train giant. Rapport’s months long investigation showed that the engines, bought at a cost of R600m, were too high for local rail infrastructure and that Prasa’s own engineers warned that the new diesel locomotives could come so close to overhead power lines in certain parts of the country that they could pose a significant safety hazard.

Despite vicious attacks by Prasa’s then-CEO, Lucky Montana, who accused Rapport of a malicious and racist campaign, throwing a brick at Myburgh, Myburgh stuck to his guns and unearthed layer upon layer of dirt. Montana was fired on 16 July 2015.

“Our investigation shone light into a corner powerful people hoped would remain dark,” said Waldimar Pelser, editor of Rapport. “We are very proud of Pieter-Louis, who showed tenacity and courage. I believe it is crucial that we continue to invest in investigative journalism. Bottom-line pressures are making such investment more difficult. However, decaying public administration and rising corruption, also in the private sphere, make continued investigations ever more essential.”

Pieter-Louis, who received the award at the Wits Club, said, “It is a wonderful privilege to be the recipient of such a coveted award. Investigative journalism plays a vitally important role in South Africa and such recognition, albeit not the purpose of our pursuit of these stories, serves as great inspiration to continue our work.”

Anton Harber of Wits Journalism School said on behalf of the judges, “This was an exemplar of great investigative reporting. Myburgh developed a tip-off into a national story using good sources, solid documentation, guts and determination. When the story was denied, Myburgh had cleverly kept the evidence up his sleeve to force an admission that there had been a blunder of massive proportions. The story had immediate impact, in bringing change to Prasa, and long-term repercussions in ensuring that crooks and frauds are brought to book.”

An update from the regulators

Herman Scholtz

Some problems are self-created. This was the case in the Press Council complaint of Andre Bekker v Huisgenoot.

Bekker, a ‘changed homosexual’, complained to the Ombud about the way ‘his’ interview was finally portrayed in print. This was mainly because Bekker saw the journalist’s draft article, demanded to change certain contents and finally read a different edited interview in the magazine.

Huisgenoot maintained that it would not have been in the public interest to publish Bekker’s account of his conversion without the inclusion of other people’s comments and stating it is scientifically impossible to ‘change’ someone’s sexual orientation.

Ombud Johan Retief noted the crux of the complaint is that Bekker got a pre-publication version and read a different final version.

Retief noted the controversy of pre-publication screening by interviewees and interested parties.

“The problem is that the document is at that stage (the journalist’s draft) often not the final product as it is still subject to changes – It can therefore create wrong expectations.” (My translation.)

Retief concludes that there is nothing wrong with checking facts, information and the accuracy of quotations through pre-publication screening. This does, however, create an additional ethical question that the Press Ombud will consider in complaints.

In general, the Ombud held, it is not unethical to change the contents after sending it to the subject, but this is always subject to ethical scrutiny about the nature of the changes and the motives of the journalist.

In this case, the Ombud was satisfied that Huisgenoot acted ethically in making the changes to Bekker’s story and including other information.

This case serves as a reminder of the dangers associated with pre-publication screenings and why, in my opinion, it should be extremely limited:

  1. As the Ombud pointed out, a draft almost always creates wrong expectations. If it is necessary to send the article before publication, always send the final version.
  2. Remember that interviewees may always withdraw permission to publish their private facts before publication. (National Media v Jooste). It doesn’t matter that the person already told you everything. In those cases, editors have two options: pulling the plug on the entire article or publish and be liable for privacy infringement.
  3. From experience, many interviewees want to make petty changes such as language “errors” or change the style of the publication even where there is no dispute of facts.
  4. Your publication may suffer reputational damage when the interested party publishes your draft version on social media and compares it to the final version. We’ve seen numerous times how the parties then accuse the editors of interference with journalists’ copy and accusations of ‘self-censorship’.

My recommendations about pre-screening of articles are to restrict it to a minimum, to read quotations and relevant portions of articles to the interviewee rather than sending the article in print and to send only the relevant quotations and portions of an article to the interviewee.

Furthermore, make it clear that the article is provided to check for factual accuracy only, that the editor reserves the right to make changes or not and that the portion forwarded is not the entire article to be published.

Press club member is new NECSA chairperson

Congratulations to press club member Dr Kelvin Kemm on his appointment as chairperson of the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation (NECSA).

Well done, Kelvin!


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