Mzwakhe Hlatshwayo vs. Roodepoort Record


Wed, Aug 23, 2017

Ruling by the Press Ombud

22 August 2017

This ruling is based on the written submissions of Mr Mzwakhe Hlatshwayo, principal of Jozua Naudé Primary School, and those of Roelien Vorster, editor of the Roodepoort Record newspaper.

Hlatshwayo is complaining about a front-page lead story in the Roodepoort Record of 16 June 2017, headlined Sex, drugs and chalk?

Complaint                                            

yo’s main complaint is that the story falsely stated that he had admitted to screening a dubious movie to learners; he denies that he ever spoke to the journalist, adding that the reportage has abused his name and defamed his character.

The text

The article, written by Riaan van Zyl, reported on an e-mail from a “concerned parent” at Jozua Naudé Primary School in Roodepoort, about the school having screened a movie for its Grade 6 and 7 learners which had an age restriction of 16 for language, violence and scenes of substance abuse.

The parent reportedly referred to a website (where parents may rate the appropriateness of movies for their children) which warned that the movie Keanu was frequently over the top and not fit for younger audiences.

According to this parent, scenes in the movie apparently contained violence, sexual references, blood sports, dead bodies, car chases, fighting, people using drugs and alcohol, and topless women. The language was “very strong”, with multiple uses of “f—k”, “s—t”, “c-ck”, “t-ts”, the “N-word”, “bitch”, “ass” and more, the parent wrote. 

The story also said that Hlatshwayo declined to comment, but admitted to screening the movie. “According to him more than 300 learners watched the movie and he had no complaints from parents,” the journalist reported.

The arguments

Denying that he ever spoke to the journalist, Hlatshwayo argues that Van Zyl reported that he had refused to comment – yet also stated that he had admitted to screening the movie.

He says he believes that the reporter had a source at his school who had been supplying him with information and then pretended that this information came from him.

The principal adds that the reportage portrayed him as an irresponsible husband and father.

Vorster replies that she told Van Zyl to get comment from Hlatshwayo himself, even though she knew that he was not supposed to speak to the media. She adds that the reporter was surprised that the principal indeed obliged. She says she believes that Hlatshwayo is trying to cover for himself since he spoke to the media, which he was not supposed to do.

The editor also provided me with an e-mail by Van Zyl, directed to Hlatshwayo and dated June 7 (well in advance of publication), in which he informed the principal that he had tried to phone him three times the day before, as well as “numerous times” on the following day – all without success. He also told him that he had left him a voice message.

The reporter then cited the concerned parent’s message in full (which he later published in the story), after which he inter alia asked Hlatshwayo the following questions:

·         In what context was this movie shown to learners – was it during school hours, or “as a treat” after hours?

·         Was he aware that the movie had been shown and that it was rated 17+? If not, why did teachers not immediately terminate the screening when they became aware of the nature and content of the movie?

Van Zyl also asked the principal to supply him with a name and number of a person at the Gauteng Department of Education, should he prefer the journalist rather to use that channel.

Expressing her full confidence in Van Zyl, the editor supplied me with notes taken by Van Zyl to substantiate his attempts to contact Hlatshwayo, as well as his notes when he eventually did speak to the principal.

Vorster also provided me with an affidavit by another journalist, Adéle Bloem, who said she had overheard the conversation between Van Zyl and the principal.

Hlatshwayo replies protocol demanded that the journalist spoke directly to the GDE, and labels Van Zyl’s leaving of messages as “unprofessional”, suggesting a high level of incompetence and lack of understanding of procedures “which can result into falsifying information”. 

The principal argues that:

·         Van Zyl’s notes might have been crafted / falsified, adding that the journalist had cousins and cronies at the school who could have provided him with information; and

·         the so-called affidavit does not prove anything, but merely suggested “desperate people trying to save their skin from the malicious damage caused” to him. 

He also submits that the newspaper could not come up within three weeks with telephone records to prove that Van Zyl indeed had phoned him.

In conclusion, he says he believes the newspaper’s intention was to discredit him as a black manager, to cause malicious damage to his reputation, to destroy the image of the school, to defame his character, and to brutally destroy all of this – adding that he believed that the newspaper was racist.

Analysis

The sentence at the heart of the complaint said that the principal had “declined to comment but admitted to screening the movie. According to him more than 300 learners watched the movie and he had no complaints from parents”.

The following issues have complicated matters:

·         At the time of writing this finding, the outcome of the GDE’s investigation into this matter was still outstanding; and

·         I could also not obtain any relevant phone records, as Van Zyl said his (eventual) conversation with the principal came about after the latter had returned his calls – and Vorster explained that the service provider did not keep a detailed account of call logs because the journalist had a top-up contract.

In essence, I am faced with a yes-no-situation, with very little evidence to work with, and have to rely on what is reasonable to believe on the balance of probabilities.

I use the words “little evidence” – not “no evidence”. In this regard I need to consider Bloem’s affidavit, which I have no reason to discard, as well as Van Zyl’s notes.

It is true, as Hlatshwayo says, that the journalist could have falsified his notes – but I do not believe that to be the case – I have seen over the years notes which were falsified and those which were not, and Van Zyl’s seem to be credible.

Given these two factors, the benefit of the doubt has to go to the newspaper. To put it differently: I have some evidence which points to the reasonableness of the newspaper’s argument, while there is no such evidence coming from the principal’s side.

Finding

The complaint is dismissed.

Note: The complainant spells his surname “Hlatshwayo”, while the newspaper has it as “Hlatswayo”. I trust that Roodepoort Record will get his surname correct in any future reportage.

Appeal

The 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