Johan Retief, the Press Ombudsman of South Africa, has reprimanded News24 for reporting in May 2016 that Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan had "ordered" Justice and Correctional Services Minister Michael Masutha to cancel a R378m IT tender awarded to Integritron Integrated Solutions (ISS).
ISS is part of the SA Security Solutions & Technology (Sasstec) group of companies.
The complaint related to a news story published on 20 May 2016, under the headline "Gordhan orders Masutha to cancel R378m IT tender" and a column published on 26 May 2016, under the headline "Battleground 2: Gordhan's R500-billion tender war".
In his ruling, Retief stated: "News24 is reprimanded for omitting to state, both in the story and in the column, that National Treasury (through Treasury official Solly Tshitangano and its legal representative) had denied giving the department of correctional services (DCS) an order of any kind, and for stating the allegations as fact that SA Fence and Gate (another Sasstec company) had been awarded government tenders worth billions by Eskom, DCS, and the Passenger Rail Agency of SA, and that despite numerous deficiencies with its tender, ISS's bid was the only one considered by the department when it awarded the contract."
The news story was based on a letter written by Gordhan to Masutha on 11 April 2016, after a review by National Treasury of a tender awarded by the DCS to Integritron. In his letter, Gordhan stated: "You are accordingly advised to ensure that the contract is cancelled; Integritron Integrated Solutions and its associates are restricted from conducting business with government, and investigate disciplinary charges against members of the bid committees and the accounting officer."
At a subsequent court hearing, Treasury official Tshitangano stated that Gordhan had "advised Masutha to consider... cancelling the contract" and referred to Gordhan's letter as "an advice to Masutha to consider the options referred to therein".
Treasury's advocate told the court that it did not have the authority to cancel the contract or blacklist the company. The advocate further stated that National Treasury had never threatened to cancel any contract.
Retief held that these testimonies should carry more weight than News24's interpretation of Gordhan's letter.
He added: "However, I hasten to add that I do not blame News24 for this mistake, given the fact that Gordhan's letter could have been interpreted in more ways than one, in addition to [Sasstec CEO Geoff] Greyling's assertion to the effect that the letter was not merely 'advice'."
Retief dismissed several of Sasstec's other complaints.
Sasstec lodged a complaint with the office of the Press Ombudsman.