Editor’s note: Sunday World journalist fired for serious ethical breach

Johannesburg – Sunday World Assignments Editor Aubrey Mothombeni was yesterday dismissed with immediate effect after he was found guilty of bringing the paper into disrepute for attempting to solicit a bribe of R1-million from the officials of the Matjhabeng local municipality in the Free State.

Mothombeni’s dismissal follows a disciplinary hearing that was held at the company’s premises in Johanneburg on Thursday, which was chaired by advocate Funeka Thema, a member of the Tshwane Society of Advocates.

Mothombeni had on Tuesday been placed on precautionary suspension after he was confronted with shocking evidence that included an audio recording of a meeting he attended, and where he was captured demanding a R1-million to do away with a story.

Bizarrely, the newspaper knew nothing about the story he was using to solicit a ransom as such a purported story was never diarised nor presented to any of the editors as per normal practice.

In the wake of his suspension and ahead of the disciplinary hearing, Mothombeni on Wednesday tendered a letter of resignation.

He did not offer any reasons for his sudden decision.

I declined his resignation and the disciplinary hearing proceeded, which he elected not to attend.

After considering the evidence presented, advocate Thema found Mothombeni guilty of all the charges, including attempted extortion, bringing the company into disrepute and failing to act in the best interests of the company, justifying his immediate dismissal.

“Mr Mothombeni is a seasoned journalist of seven years. At this point in his career, it is expected of him to know how a journalist should conduct himself when pursuing a story.

The conduct of Mr Mothombeni is not demonstrative of an employee who is truthful and faithful to the company’s interests”, found advocate Thema.

Mothombeni’s shameful conduct is not only disturbing, but is unprecedented in many respects. He single-handedly took it upon himself to meddle in a dispute between the municipality and one of its service providers.

The evidence before the disciplinary committee was that Mothombeni “summoned” three senior municipality officials from Welkom in the Free State to a meeting on the evening of April 8, at the Sandton Sun Hotel, where he ended up meeting with the municipal manager and another intermediary from the province.

The purpose of this meeting, according to information at our disposal, was for the officials to deliver the money he had informed one of the intermediaries that they had to pay for him to stop publishing the story.

Unbeknown to him, according to the municipal officials, they never intended to deliver on the ransom.

At this meeting, he refused to disclose the amount he wanted, telling the municipal manager that he has already set his asking price through one of the intermediaries, one of whom is a former Johannesburg- based journalist.

The following day, on April 9, Mothombeni again surreptitiously met with a consultant appointed by one of the municipal officials to negotiate on his behalf.

The secret meeting took place at Dunkeld West Bowling Club restaurant, not far from this newspaper’s offices. It was at this meeting where Mothombeni was recorded as explicitly and boldly demanding that the municipal officials pay him R1-million if they expected him to not publish what he said was going to be a series of news articles about alleged corruption in the municipality.

Such articles, Mothombeni told the consultant during the meeting, were going to collapse the Matjhabeng local municipality, resulting in it being placed under administration by the Free State department of cooperative governance and traditional affairs.

I wish to emphasize that, as a newspaper, we still have no idea of what stories Mothombeni was referring to, as they were never presented to the senior editorial management team.

This is a total journalistic mischief of the highest order, one of the worst acts of information peddling that borders on trampling on the credibility and trustworthiness of this publication.

It is not going to be allowed to thrive in this newspaper.

The allegations against Mothombeni are extremely serious, particularly in the current environment where the credibility of the media is often questioned.

The media, therefore, has a duty to disclose and be transparent about allegations of impropriety by their journalists.

Any failure to do so may well be seen as an attempt to cover up brown-envelope journalism.

The South African Press Code (of ethics) clearly requires of us not to “allow commercial, political, personal or other non-professional considerations to influence reporting, and avoid conflicts of interest, as well as practices that could lead readers to doubt the media’s independence and professionalism” and “not accept any benefit which may influence coverage”.

We are not going to be part of devious plans to use dirty money to influence genuine storytelling and news coverage by this newspaper.

We have accordingly launched an internal investigation into our editorial processes to determine what shortcomings – if any – allowed this to happen, although we are currently of the firm view that this was Mothombeni’s own personal crusade A permanent internal ethics committee will also be set up to look into ethical conduct of how we gather and report news.

We will in due course be inviting readers who have previously been blackmailed into paying bribes in exchange for “killing stories” to make submissions.

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