South Africa’s City Press accused a man of bribing a government official to forgive a tax debt. City Press, a Sunday newspaper published in Johannesburg, ran a story on April 9 headlined, “Spooks and the race haunt Sars,” with a sidebar “Sars forgotten bling raids.” That sidebar claimed that Edrees Hathurani owed R1.23 billion in taxes to SARS and paid a R12 million bribe to a Financial Services Board executive. SARS is the South African Revenue Service, which collects the country’s taxes.
Hathurani claimed that the accusation was not true and complained to South Africa’s Press Ombudsman.
The story read, according to the South Africa Press Ombudsman’s ruling: “Africa Cash and Carry: The eponymous case against a cash retail giant laid bare how double accounting works. The owner, Edrees Hathurani, faced a R1.23 billion claim from Sars, but claimed he had paid a Financial Services Board executive R12 million to make his tax troubles go away. This case is now on the back burner.”
While SARS did file a claim for owed taxes, it wasn’t against Hathurani personally, but rather the business Africa Cash and Carry, for which Hathurani is one of four family trusts in ownership, the press ombudsman explained. Africa Cash and Carry is a Johannesburg-based retail wholesaler.
City Press‘s executive editor Dumisane Lubisi argued that its sidebar was only a summary, so readers didn’t need all the details but rather the general idea, according to the ombudsman’s report. Further, Lubisi claimed the Africa Cash and Carry tax debt was well-known and previously well-reported. As such, Lubisi maintained that City Press thought its article was accurate and fair. iMediaEthics has written to Lubisi to ask what evidence the City Press had to make the accusation and if the newspaper stands by its story despite the press ombudsman ruling.
However, Hathurani challenged the City Press to provide any evidence he bribed anyone and argued it was unfair for the newspaper to assume readers would know the sidebar was a summary and not a detailed, accurate report.
The ombudsman agreed that it was misleading to say Hathurani was”the owner,” especially since “it would have been easy to report fairly and correctly on this matter.”
More damning, the ombudsman called the City Press‘s defense of the bribery claim “weak” and all based on allegations, not fact. “If the sidebar, then, stated that there had been speculation in the media that Hathurani had paid that amount to Seedat, it would have been in order, because that was true,” Retief wrote. “That, alas, was not reflected in the sidebar, which stated as fact that Hathurani had made such a claim.”
Further, Retief doubted the allegation because it seemed “highly unlikely” Hathurani would publicly admit to bribing an official. “The statement in question also seems highly unlikely and indeed not reasonably true – would Hathurani have made such a claim? One which could get him in prison,” Retief asked.
As such, Retief ruled that City Press must apologize to Hathurani and reprimanded the newspaper.
Because of the ombudsman’s ruling, City Press had to publish an apology for its story. That apology reads:
“City Press apologises to Edrees Hathurani for unfairly and without any substantiation stating as fact that he claimed to have paid a Financial Services Board executive R12m to make his tax troubles go away.
“This made the reportage unfair and carried with it the real possibility of causing unnecessary harm to Hathurani’s dignity and reputation.
“The Press Ombudsman also reprimanded City Press for referring to Hathurani as the owner of Africa Cash and Carry and not one of the business’ owners.
“The complaint relates to a sidebar titled “Sars’ forgotten bling raids” published by City Press as part of a package on the revenue collection service.”