The story seemed dramatic. The African National Congress (ANC), the legendary political party once headed by Nelson Mandela, was in massive debt and was losing its headquarters in Johannesburg, the Luthuli House.
There was only one problem with the story. It was not true.
Now, South Africa’s Independent Media–the source of the false information, a media company that publishes the Independent and IOL.za, among other outlets–has suspended three journalists for “a serious breach of ethics” in a front-page story, the media company disclosed in a retraction. The journalists, who weren’t named, were responsible for a Sunday Independent and IOL.za story headlined “Luthuli House to be auctioned over R25m debt?” which claimed Johannesburg High Court demanded the sheriff auction the African National Congress headquarters Chief Albert Luthuli House because the ANC owed 25 million rands (around $1.9 million U.S.) to Resurgent Risk Managers, which supposedly helped the ANC with election strategy.
However, there has been no court judgement against the ANC, nor have there been sheriff’s orders, as the Independent reported, along with many other fact-checking errors. The freelance reporter for the story didn’t “corroborate the information and did not properly identify legal documentation,” according to the retraction. iMediaEthics has written to the ANC and Resurgent to ask the real story and if either or both were asked about all the allegations by the reporter before publication. More importantly, perhaps, we asked who might have planted such a wildly false story in the first place.
“We won’t tolerate our platforms carrying fake news, or news that has not been corroborated,” Independent Media’s executive chairman Dr. Iqbal Surve is quoted as saying in the retraction. “This is a serious breach of ethics, and is tantamount to Independent Media being used to further an agenda.”
“Independent Media safeguards its integrity and will not publish news that is not firmly corroborated by our journalists,” the retraction states. “Furthermore we expect our journalists, including freelance journalists, to have the highest ethical standards and to at all times ensure that the news reported is accurate and is able to withstand scrutiny, so that our readers have confidence in both our print and online publications.” iMediaEthics has written to Independent Media to ask what went wrong, if the investigation is ongoing, the length of the suspensions, and who was suspended.
A link to the article now re-directs to an error page, but a Google Cache shows it was based on “sources,” “court papers,” “an intelligence agent,” “a source,” and a legal document from Resurgent’s lawyers. The article did quote ANC’s secretary-general and said Resurgent declined to comment. iMediaEthics posted a screenshot of the original article below. The byline for the article is Solly Maphumulo.