Eugene Mthethwa vs. Sunday World


Thu, Feb 2, 2017

Ruling by the Press Ombud

2 February 2017

This ruling is based on the written submissions of Mr Eugene Mthethwa and those Abdul Milazi, editor of the Sunday World newspaper.

Mthethwa is complaining about an article in Sunday World of 15 January 2017, headlined Kwaito star Eugene Mthethwa sings jailhouse blues over child care.

Complaint                                            

Mthethwa complains the reportage falsely stated that:

·         he had spent the night in a police cell (as stated in the headline);

·         the warrant issued against him was for child maintenance;

·         it was a criminal case;

·         he was to appear in court the following day; and

·         the child was 19 years old.

He adds that the calls and messages from the journalist came on Saturday, but he only received them that afternoon as he was in church and then visited the family of a deceased man.

He concludes that the newspaper intended to project him in a bad light, and that the reportage was doing harm to him and his business.

The text

The article, written by Mduduzi Nonyane, said that Mthethwa had spent a night in a police cell for allegedly failing to pay child maintenance.

The complaint in more detail

Explaining his complaint, Mthethwa inter alia says the:

·         headline was false, as he did not spend the night in a police cell, but handed himself over in order to appear in court (he says there was a warrant of arrest issued after he had missed his court date due to medical reasons);

·         warrant issued against him was not for maintenance, but for missing the court date;

·         date of his next court appearance was not the following day, but rather in April;

·         child was 20 years old, and not 19.

I have omitted one of Mthethwa’s arguments (on the matter not being a criminal case), as the issue he raises is not a matter for the newspaper, but rather for the court.

Sunday World responds

Milazi says the police gave the newspaper the information about Mthethwa’s arrest (and his release the following day) after checking their records. He says he will verify this information with the police – and if the latter made a mistake in this regard, he will run a correction.

He notes that the story did not say a warrant of arrest was issued against Mthethwa for failing to appear in court on December 22 last year – the story quoted the mother, who said that the warrant was for missing the court date (and not for failing to pay maintenance). “So I don’t understand what the dispute is here,” the editor remarks.

Milazi explains it was police spokesman Mr Kay Makhubela who said, “Yes, he was arrested for maintenance…” However, he argues, it is clear Makhubela meant that Mthethwa had been taken to court for maintenance – and after he had failed to attend court, a warrant for his arrest was issued.

The editor adds the police provided the information that Mthethwa was due to appear in court the following day.

Milazi kept his word, and reports the police insisted that Mthethwa was “arrested and booked” and taken to court the next day; they said they could not find any record of “police bail”. The editor concludes, “So according to the police Mr Mthethwa did spend the night in the cells. At least, that’s what they say their records show.”

Analysis

Police cell

I appreciate Milazi’s willingness to verify the information about Mthethwa having spent a night in a police cell, and to correct this information if it was wrong.

He replies that the police have confirmed the relevant information, which justified the reportage on this matter.

Maintenance

There is no dispute as to why a warrant of arrest was issued against Mthethwa – both he and the editor agree it was because of his failure to appear in court, and not because of a failure to pay child maintenance.

So, is this what the story said? How would the reasonable reader have interpreted the article?

The first sentence read Mthethwa had spent a night in police cells “for allegedly failing to pay child maintenance”.

However convincing Milazi’s response to this part of the complaint may appear to be, I would not expect the reasonable reader to have understood that Mthethwa spent a night in a police cell because of failure to appear in court.

The same goes for the headline – the ordinary reader would have understood it to mean that he was in jail on issues of maintenance. It would be too much to expect the public to know that the words “child care” (in the headline) and “child maintenance” (in the text) actually meant something else (read: failing to appear in court).

Moreover, the police spokesman was quoted as saying that Mthethwa was “arrested for maintenance”.

As if that was not enough, a source was quoted saying that Mthethwa was in arrears with the payment of his maintenance.

Words have meanings! The entire story delivered the message that Mthethwa had spent a night in a police cell on maintenance issues – while, in fact, it was because he had failed to appear in court.

Given the editor’s own argument, namely that Mthethwa was arrested for failing to appear in court, I am left with only one conclusion – that the story was misleading on this issue (even though I suspect it was not done maliciously or intentionally, as alleged by the complainant – I have no solid ground to prove such a serious allegation).

I need to add, though, that this (misleading) impression was unfair to Mthethwa, and it probably did some unnecessary damage to his reputation. If I were in his shoes, I would have felt the same.

The following day

The journalist garnered the information – about Mthethwa having to appear in court the following day – from the police. I accept that the reporter had no reason to disbelieve such information, and therefore was justified to report it as fact.

19 years old

The story referred to the maintenance of a 19-year-old daughter. I have evidence that the woman was in fact 20 at the time of publication.

However, nothing much turns on this as I do not believe that anybody suffered any harm as a result of this issue.

Finding

Police cell

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

Maintenance

The reportage both falsely and unfairly stated and implied that a warrant of arrest was issued against Mthethwa for child maintenance while, in fact, it was for failure to appear in court in December 2016 – unnecessarily tarnishing his reputation.

This is in breach of the following sections of the SA Code of Ethics and Conduct:

·         1.1: “The media shall take care to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly”; and

·         3.3: “The media shall exercise care and consideration in matters involving dignity and reputation.

The following day

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

19 years old

The story inaccurately stated that the “child” was 19 years old. This is in breach of Section 1.1 of the Code of Ethics and Conduct which reads, “The media shall take care to report news…accurately…”

Seriousness of breaches

Under the headline Hierarchy of sanctions, Section 8 of the Complaints Procedures distinguishes between minor breaches (Tier 1), serious breaches (Tier 2) and serious misconduct (Tier 3).                                                                                      

The breach of the Code with regards to the maintenance issue is a Tier 2 offence; the inaccurate depiction of the age of the “child” is a Tier 1 offence.

Sanction

Sunday World is directed to:

·         apologise to Mthethwa for falsely and unfairly stating and implying that a warrant of arrest was issued against him for child maintenance while, in fact, it was for failure to appear in court in December 2016 – and for having, in this process, unnecessarily tarnished his reputation; and

·         correct the age of the “child”.

The text should:

·         be published:

o   on the same page as that used for the offending article;

o   online as well, if the offending article was carried on its website;

  • start with the apology;
  • refer to the complaint that was lodged with this office;
  • end with the sentence, “Visit www.presscouncil.org.za for the full finding”; and
  • be approved by me.

The headlines should contain the words “apology” or “apologises”, and “Mthethwa”.

Appeal

Our Complaints Procedures lay down that within seven working days of receipt of this decision, either party may apply for leave to appeal to the Chairperson of the SA Press Appeals Panel, Judge Bernard Ngoepe, fully setting out the grounds of appeal. He can be contacted at Khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.

Johan Retief

Press Ombud