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Press Council has not dismissed Communications Department complaint against Sunday Times

The Press Ombudsman has denied allegations made by the National Department of Communications that the Press Council formally dismissed its complaint against Sunday Times editor Phylicia Oppelt.

In a South African Press Association’s (SAPA) report published on News24 this morning, communications spokesperson Wisani Ngobeni reportedly claimed that the Press Council had turned away the department’s complaint against Oppelt.

Ngobeni said he had written to the council asking it to investigate the conduct of Sunday Times editor Phylicia Oppelt.

Ngobeni reportedly said the response raised serious questions about the efficacy of the Press Council of SA, under which the Press Ombudsman falls, in dealing with malpractice in the press.

“This effectively means that all complaints about journalistic malpractice must be referred to the transgressors of the Press Code of ethics,” he said.

This was in reaction to a report that she gave the Democratic Alliance documents to hand to Parliament’s ethics committee, which is conducting an inquiry into Communications Minister Dina Pule.

However, Press ombudsman Dr Johan Retief said he had not yet seen the department’s complaint. “The Press Ombudsman has not yet made a decision whether or not to entertain the complaint regarding the alleged unethical behaviour by Sunday Times editor Phylicia Oppelt. The matter is still with the Public Advocate. The Ombudsman will only intervene once the matter has been escalated to his office either by the Public Advocate or by the complainant,” Retief said.

Complaints sent to the Press Council follow a strict procedure, which is detailed in full on its website. When a complainant sends a complaint to the Council, the Public Advocate will make contact with the complainant and advice him/her throughout the process. According to the Press Council’s procedure, the Public Advocate shan’t accept a complaint that “prima facie falls outside of the ambit of the Press Code”. It appears this is where confusion set in with regards to the communication department’s complaint.

The Council’s complaint procedure further explains that, once the Public Advocate has accepted a complaint, s/he will attempt to settle the complaint between the complainant and allegedly offending publication within 15 working days. If no resolution is agreed upon, the Public Advocate is to refer the complaint to the Press Ombudsman.

When the Public Advocate dismisses a complaint, the complainant may appeal to the Press Ombudsman about this decision – which has not happened yet in this case.

It therefore appears that not only did the department of communication jump the gun with regards to the Press Council’s complaint procedure, but SAPA also fouled up by failing to contact the Press Council for comment.

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