JOHANNESBURG — This week’s edition of the Sunday Times had another apology given the fake news published on at least a trifecta of articles. The most damaging the Sars Rogue Unit, with the Zimbabwean Renditions and Cato Manor Death Squad pieces also doing the newspaper and its readers no favours. The newspaper will now hand back all awards and prize money won on the back of these articles. Eyewitness News also reported that the Sunday Times parted ways with senior journalist Mzilikazi wa Afrika and Stephan Hofstatter, who were part of the investigative unit that wrote a number of the stories that turned out to be fake news. And while some may see this move as a step in the right direction in cleaning out the paddock, Accountability Now’s Paul Hoffman doesn’t. In his open letter to the Sunday Times (published below) Hoffman says if the newspaper wants to make up for the mess it caused, it must reveal the perpetrators of the fake news. – Stuart Lowman
By Paul Hoffman*
Last week, on 7th October 2018, you appealed to your readers to trust you in an editorial about the errors made in publishing false stories about the SARS “rogue unit”, which never existed, the involvement of Generals Dramat (then Head of the Hawks) and Sibiya in the illegal rendition of Zimbabweans to the not so tender mercy of the police in Zimbabwe, when they had no such involvement and the “Cato Manor Death Squad”, when no such squad ever perpetrated the evils of which your reporters wrote. They were, in the words of your colleague Pauli Van Wyk on the Tim Modise show, last Sunday too, “duped to write” these fictitious stories as if they were fact.
I responded to your editorial on the same day in the following terms:
“Your underwhelming “Trust Me, I am a Journalist” editorial of 7 October refers.
At best, the anonymous sources upon which your newspaper relied to break the SARS “Rogue Unit” stories have perpetrated a massive, hugely damaging and outrageous fraud on your reporters and, through your newspaper, on the public of South Africa. The gutting of SARS, largely based on the veracity of the false stories your newspaper published so prominently, has brought the country to the brink of bankruptcy.
Long ago, Lord Denning, Master of the Rolls in the House of Lords, famously said: “Fraud unravels everything.” It certainly does unravel the confidentiality of journalistic sources which lie to and mislead reporters in order to pursue some nefarious agenda.
I implore you to reconsider protecting those who misled your reporters: you owe it to your country, your readers, the credibility of your newspaper and to your reporters to “out” the miscreants. Not to do so is simply to encourage those bent on abusing your columns by feeding you deliberately false information in future. Thoughtful readers may be left with the impression that your reporters may have been knowingly part of the conspiracy to wreck SARS. That reasonable inference is something up with which you should not put, in the interests of the probity of your newspaper.”
During the ensuing week Paul O’Sullivan of Forensics for Justice threatened to put pressure on your advertisers to withdraw their support of your newspaper in an email which, no doubt to your chagrin, was published by biznews.com. O”Sullivan was reacting as he did because of the attitude evidenced in your editorial. When O’Sullivan was published, I drew the attention of Biznews to my different approach to your editorial (as set out above) and asked its editorial team not to publish my take on the matter in order to give you the opportunity to publish my letter, quoted in full above, yourself. I copied you in on the email to Biznews in the interests of openness, accountability and responsiveness.
You have elected, in the next edition of the Sunday Times, to give space to a reader critical of your crossword puzzles and to draw the attention of another reader to the section in which your editorial was published, something which would have best been done privately – so as not to embarrass the reader who, despite complaining, was fortunate enough not to find your editorial criticised by me and reacted to by O’Sullivan.
You have elected, as is your right, not to publish my letter: instead, this week there is an apology for the three strikes committed in the rogue unit, rendition and death squad stories.
This apology is an improvement on last week’s editorial, but still no cigar.
When accountability, openness and responsiveness are requested of you, it is necessary to consider where these concepts come from and how they feature in the constitutional dispensation now in place in SA through our supreme law, The Constitution of 1996. One would have hoped that the editor of a mighty Sunday newspaper, one which I have read unfailingly since I was a child, would not need to be lectured on such matters, but it seems that the supremacy of the rule of law has escaped you and your advisers in these matters.
Your attention is respectfully drawn to section 1 of the Constitution and in particular to subsection (d) which records that our state is founded on the values of democratic governance “to ensure accountability, responsiveness and openness.” A properly managed newspaper would do well to emulate these values in its reporting and in its explanations and apologies for its errors, whether deliberate or due to being “duped” as Van Wyk, who has spent years on the SARS story, puts it.
The dissemination of injurious falsehoods is actionable. The victims of the three story lines relentlessly pursued by your newspaper have suffered grievously at your hands. They have lost their jobs, their savings and their health. Their psychological integrity has been disturbed and their lives have been ruined. You owe them much more than a half-baked apology wrung out of you after O’Sullivan threatened to hit you in the pocket and I appealed to your conscience. You owe them general damages for the pain and suffering you put them through, for their loss of amenities of life and also special damages for loss of income, medical expenses and the like. They are all entitled to sue you, but, presumably feel so ground down that they have not yet summoned up the energy and courage to do so. You are probably insured against these claims, but that does not prevent you from revealing the identity of the sources upon which your team so misguidedly relied so that they too can be sued for their role in the spreading of injurious falsehoods and in violating the guaranteed human rights of the victims of the stories your newspaper has published about the so-called “rogue unit”, the “death squad” and the supposed role of Dramat and Sibiya in the alleged renditions.
Please have regard to what Justice Johann Kriegler wrote in trenchant terms in his introduction to the book written by Johan van Loggerenberg and Adrian Lackay about their experiences. They write of how they suffered as a direct consequence of the prominent and persistent publication of false stories in the Sunday Times about their working environment at SARS. Here is what the retired Justice, who now heads Freedom under Law and was in charge of the IEC during our first democratic elections, wrote:
“For, however opaque and perverted this Kafkaesque tale, there was a discernible pattern- discernible across a number of public institutions- where key individuals, experienced, reputable and independent-minded public servants, have been cynically shunted aside or out. Typically, the process starts with some or other alleged transgression, relatively trivial and/or outdated. That then triggers well-publicised suspension and disciplinary proceedings with concomitant humiliation, harassment and, ultimately, dismissal, constructive or actual. Then, with breath-taking speed, a hand-picked successor steps in and cleans out senior management; and when you look again there’s a brand-new crop of compliant and grateful faces. In the process honourable women and men have been ground down, ignominiously kicked out, their reputations ruined and their life savings exhausted. Often even the most feisty individual has been driven to exhaustion, physical, emotional and, of course, financial. Examples of broadly the same pattern of administrative abuse are found in a whole range of parastatals: think, for instance of South African Airways, Denel, Eskom and the SABC. And of numerous senior public servants – Vusi Pikoli, Mxolisi Nxasana, Glynnis Breytenbach, Anwa Dramat, Shadrack Sibiya, Johan Booysen and Robert McBride, to speak only of the criminal-justice sector – who’ve been hounded out of office.”
You have every reason to hang your head in shame when you contemplate the role which your newspaper played in destroying so many lives of good people in the wrong place at the wrong time during the attempted capture of the state, a process you so delicately refer to as a “parallel project” – parallel to what, pray tell, in your latest editorial offering. This beleaguered state is a state for which your many victims sought no more than to do an honest day’s work as public servants.
There is absolutely no ethical, legal or other basis for continuing to protect your sources from whom you were fed the lies set out in lurid detail in these horror stories. It also does not behove you to publish a piece by Johan Booysen in which he endeavours to reveal sources by airing his opinions as to who it was who invented the stories published. His guess may be an educated one, but it is no substitute for your newspaper coming clean and revealing what you know: whom it was who so misled your reports that they persistently over a period of years gave space to stories that had the effect of perfidiously advancing the state capture project which so nearly destroyed our nascent constitutional democracy.
It may well be that the Sunday Times has itself been the victim of abominable frauds, but until the perpetrators are revealed, as they should be, the suspicion remains that your staff were part of the plotting. It is in your hands, and the discretion of your team, to allay these suspicions by introducing the disinfectant sunlight of openness and transparency into the bluster and blindsiding which has hitherto characterised your handling of the terrible situation in which your newspaper finds itself. Don’t destroy a newspaper to protect evil miscreants. Sunday won’t be Sunday without the Sunday Times.
You owe it to yourself, your colleagues, your profession, your readers, the victims of your stories and your country to come clean publicly on behalf of those you lead who were tricked into writing false stories.
What is holding you back?
- Paul Hoffman SC is a director of Accountability Now and the author of “Confronting the Corrupt”.
Biznews 14 October 2018.