Randolph Westraadt vs Volksblad


Wed, Dec 11, 2019

Finding Complaint 4317

Date of article: 23 February 2019

Headline: “One gaan al ons renosters uitskiet..”

Pages: 12 and 13

Online: Yes

Particulars

This ruling is based on a complaint made by Mr Randolph Westraadt, as well as written responses from the editor of Volksblad Mr Gert Coetzee and further notes from the reporter, Mr Charles Smith. I also spoke to Mr Westraadt and to Mr Coen Erasmus, the director of Free State Conservation, who was at the meeting where Mr Westraadt says he was misquoted.

Complaint

Mr Randolph Westraadt complains that an article in Volksblad headlined, “Ons gaan al die renosters uitskiet”, misquoted him. He says he did not use the term “uitskiet”, nor would he have considered it, as it is “not a word in my vocabulary.” The headline on the article was derived from the quote. Thus, according to his complaint, three clauses of the Press Code were transgressed. These are that the media shall:

1.1 take care to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly;

1.2 present news in context and in a balanced manner, without any intentional or negligent departure from the facts whether by distortion, exaggeration or misrepresentation, material omissions, or summarization;

And, because if the quote was wrong, the headline was too:

10.1 Headlines, captions to pictures and posters shall not mislead the public and shall give a reasonable reflection of the contents of the report or picture in question.

  1. The text

1.1 The text was originally published in Afrikaans. Below is a summarized translation

1.2 The story was a double-paged feature. Under the headline, “Ons sal al ons renosters uitskiet …”, Charles Smith, the reporter, reports on the screening of a documentary movie, “Stroop”, (Poach) in Bloemfontein, and the discussions that followed.

1.3 The intro is the quote purportedly from Mr Westraadt and says: “Nobody wants the rhinos. If they are not of economic value for us, we will cull them …” (“Niemand wil die renosters hê nie. As hulle nie vir ons van ekonomiese waarde is nie, gaan ons hulle almal uitskiet.”)

1.4 The article then describes a “shocked silence” (geskokte stilte) after Mr Westraadt, a rhino farmer from Boshoff, suggested this. His comment came after the screening of the documentary, “Stroop” about the extinction (uitwissing) of rhinos.

Mr Randolph said this while Bonné de Bod, the director and narrator of the film, and Susan Scott, the producer, were answering questions from the audience.

1.5 The audience was emotional (Die kykers se emosies kook oor.) The article describes how the cries of baby rhinos who circled their mothers’ corpses stayed with the one long after the film was finished. But there was also anger at how “cruel and covetous” people could be (“geldgierig”) “It is not only about a war that is playing out in the bush between a handful of game rangers and the K-9 units and cunning, hungry poachers as well as crafty and corrupt Chinese and Vietnamese money-grabbers (“geldwolwe’) against a defenceless primal animal.” Here in the theatre, another war was playing out: should South Africa be able to sell rhino horn legally or should it respect the Cites ban on this?

1.6 Rhino farmers such as Westraadt and John Hume, described as the country’s biggest rhino breeder, argued they had to earn money out of the animals because it was too expensive to keep them alive for conservation (“bewaring”)

 

1.7 The article deals with issues raised in the film such as whether the trade in rhino horn should be legal or not, and what the implications of this would be for the species. The proposal to legalise trade in rhino horn was controversial, especially as China has threatened to lift its own ban. This may simply threaten the animals more.

In the meantime, three rhinos are killed every day for their horns. More than 7000 rhinos have been killed by poachers in the past 12 years.

1.8 It quotes the filmmaker Bonné de Bod saying how cruel human beings could be and how important it was for South Africans to protect their own heritage.

She described how, while filming in Asia, they had discovered it was “just a product” there: no-one realized the connection between South African wildlife and the horn they used for “medicinal” purposes.

1.9 The reporter also asks de Bod to comment on Mr Westraadt’s (contested) quote about culling all the rhino if they don’t get the help they need.

She responds: “It was very grave for me to hear that.  If you look at the northern white rhino sub-species, the last bull died last year in Kenya. There are only two cows of that sub-species on the whole planet. So when I hear that they will all be culled, it’s something I could not support. The number of rhinos in the Kruger Park has dropped by between 47% and 56%. I understand the point about financing them: the cost of looking after rhino is enormous. But it is a terrible thing to say they will be culled.”

(“Dit is vir my baie erg om te hoor. As jy gaan kyk na die noordelike witrenoster-subspesie, die laaste bul in Kenia is verlede jaar dood. Daar is net twee koeie oor van die subspesie op die planeet. So, as ek hoor hulle gaan almal uitskiet, is dit iets wat ek myself nie kan voorstel nie. Die getal lewende renosters oor in die Krugerwildtuin het met tussen 47% tot 56% gedaal. Ek verstaan hul punt oor finansiering. Die koste om renosters op te pas, is enorm. Maar dit is vir my verskriklik om te hoor hulle sal die renosters uitskiet.”)

1.10 She goes on to say that both her father and grandfather hunt. “I am Afrikaans. It is part of our culture”. But they hunt for the pot. They will not go for the big five or any threatened species. “Americans come and shoot rhino to hang their heads in their homes. It’s about ego – to impress people.” (“Amerikaners kom skiet ’n renoster om die kop in sy huis te hang. Dit gaan oor ego, om mense te beïndruk.”)

1.11 The article notes how she would like President Cyril Ramaphosa to view the film, and describes how other African leaders have already seen it.

The UN and the World Bank have also asked to see it. She also wants to show the film at the May CITES conference to indicate how decisions will be taken over the handling of rhino horn and of the fate of living rhinos. She hopes “people’s eyes will be opened and the groaning cries of the calves next to their bloodied mothers will touch the decision-makers” (Hulle hoop dat die rolprent in Mei by Cites se konferensie sal wys waar besluite oor die handel in renosterhoring en lewende renosters geneem sal word. En dat mense se oë oop sal gaan oor wat gebeur. Net dálk raak ’n renosterkalfie se kermgeluide langs sy bloeiende ma daardie besluitnemers.”)

1.12 She notes one of the biggest problems in combatting poaching is the justice system, which is slow; “everyone” is granted bail and the fines (of R500 000) are out of proportion to the value of the horn (about R12-million).

  1. The arguments

Randolph Westraadt

2.1 Mr Westraadt, who describes himself as a game farmer (since 1992) in Boshof in the Free State, says he was invited to attend the premier of the film “Stroop” in Bloemfontein on 16 February 2019. The audience was invited to ask questions after the screening.

2.2 He told the audience how seven rhinos had been poached on his farm. He asked the filmmakers if they knew what happened to the funds collected by organisations to protect rhino because the rhino owners did not get any of them

He also explained that the value of rhinos was declining “daily” (“by die dag daal”) as no-one wanted to own rhino because of the high risks and costs of protecting them from poachers.

2.3 He mentioned that they were forbidden from selling horns and asked how they were to finance their farming projects. The only legal manner in which to export rhino horn was on a dead animal’s head. So, the only way to make money out of rhinos was to allow them to be legally hunted. He said a wool farmer does not have to kill the sheep to get the wool, so why does the government force rhino farmers to shoot them before they can export the horn.

2.4 He said he was astonished (stom-verbaas) when he (who spent millions on rhino protection and risked his life) saw the newspaper headlines in Volksblad on the Saturday. He had been painted by reporter, Charles Smith as a “bloodthirsty money-grabber” (bloedorstige geldwolf). The piece was “dramatically” written with phrases such as a “shocked silence” (geskokte stilte). He points out that people were already quiet in the theatre, “so I don’t know where the silence fell as it was quiet the whole time.”

2.5 He was personally threatened after the report and his life was put in danger: he was portrayed as insensitive towards rhino, and as a money-grabber. There was nothing about he himself being a victim of poaching.

2.6 He said he must have spoken for longer than two minutes and only one sentence, which was incorrectly quoted, was used as the headline (and introduction to the piece).

2.7 His farm was exposed to danger again. That weekend there was another attack by poachers and he believes the attack may be linked to Mr Smith’s “irresponsible’ report. (“die info is verseker uit Mnr Smith se onveraantwoordlike skrywe aangehits”) He received hate mail and his family’s lives were threatened.  He is sure this is because Mr Smith made them aware that he had rhinos through his report.

2.8 After the screening, Mr Smith asked him for his phone number and promised to call him for more information, but he had not.

He then messaged Mr Smith on Facebook. The reporter replied that he would write a follow-up article to put matters right (“om saak reg te stel’). However, he did not do this.

2.9 “I have bred and relocated hundreds or rhino and live with them every day and all that Volksblad can say is that I want to shoot (cull) them.”

2.10 He described his farm as “iconic”; it has the only free-roaming lions in the Free State; it is registered as a private nature reserve;, he was a 2016 finalist in the national Wildlife Ranching awards (WRSA) as game-farmer of the year but now his reputation is ruined (“daarmee heen”).

Volksblad

2.11 Both the reporter, Mr Charles Smith and editor, Mr Gert Coetzee filed a response to the complaint.

2.12 Mr Smith explains how he took notes in the discussion after the screening and before his planned interview with Bonne de Bod, the filmmaker.

“A man who introduced himself as a rhinoceros farmer said the value of rhinos kept declining because they are being targeted.” Mr Smith said he directly noted down the words: “Niemand wil die renosters he nie. As hulle nie vir ons van ekonomiese waarde is nie, gaan ons hulle uitskiet.” (“Nobody wants rhinos. If they are not of economic value for us, we will shoot them out..” ( Mr Smith’s translation), “in other words kill them all”

The word “uitskiet” “immediately struck” him because the film was precisely about “the killing off of rhinos” - in this case the illegal hunting of the animals.

But here was a legal game farmer who was so desperate that he said the owners will “uitskiet” the animals (kill them off), in this case by legal hunters.

2.13 “After the public discussion, I went to him and obtained his name and number. I could not interview him, because the producer was waiting for me to interview her.”

He had also asked the filmmaker, Ms de Bod about the remark and she expressed her shock” (as noted in the summary of the text above)

 

2.14 He said he decided to begin the article with the quote as it was “local as against the broader…remarks made by the moviemakers.”

He said it was not his intention to offend or hurt Mr Westraadt “but simply to reflect what happened there. Rhinos are an emotional topic and I saw this as an emotional remark.”

2.15 He said after the article was published, Mr Westraadt called him and described his report as “reckless, but I know you are like that” (ek ken jou so). He says this was not justified as he has never had anything to do with him before.

2.16 Mr Smith says Mr Westraadt told him that what he’d actually said was that seven of his rhino had been poached and this was why he’d spoken up.  He also told Mr Smith he’d use the word “jag” (hunt)“I sincerely did not hear that he told the audience his rhino were also poached. And I maintain (hou voet by stuk) that he used the word (uitskiet) and that the quote is correct. There is no way I would have used that word if he had not said it.”

2.17 Mr Smith said he told Mr Westraadt that “the fact that rhinos were being poached at his place changed the picture”. He proposed a follow-up article but he could not do it immediately as he left for a freelance job as editor of the newspaper Krit at the KleinKaroo National Arts Festival.

2.18 During this period Mr Westraadt laid this complaint with the Ombudsman.

However, Mr Smith re-iterated his willingness to do the article, and added “the slant and context of the article was about the movie Stroop and the interview with de Bod. It was impossible to write everything being said there in the limited space…” of the article.

Mr Coetzee

2.19 The editor said in his submission that the newspaper stood by the correctness of the quote and headline.

“Mr Westraadt was talking at a public meeting and there offered his opinion.

Given the topic of the day and the relevance of his remark, it went to the top in newsworthiness.

“The packaging and combination of news is selective by nature – in this instance the event of the premiere of Stroop about rhino poaching and the interview with the producer was the “kapstok” (“peg”) for the article..”

2.20 He added Mr Westraadt’s story – about why farmers would want to kill rhino (given the worldwide fight against poaching and rhino killings and the fact that they are becoming a threatened species) – “is newsworthy.”

The offer of a separate interview with Mr Westraadt was “not an admission of any kind but a gesture in good faith.” Although it could not happen at the time, the newspaper is still willing to do it.

Further arguments

2.21 Mr Westraadt in his response insists he did not use the word “uitskiet”.

2.22 He says Mr Coetzee’s argument, quoted above, that the reasons “farmers want to kill rhinos” is newsworthy, is “totally wrong…No farmer WANTS to kill rhinos.”

He said farmers are the victims and the first line of defence against poaching, and the first to lose “millions of rands” when poachers strike.

“We as the farmers want to sustainably use our natural resources.”

2.23 He believes the headline was “sensational;” and puts farmers in the same category as poachers – wanting to kill rhinos for money.

“Movies are made to make money and newspapers are printed for profit but it seems like the farmers are villains if they hunt for profit.”

2.24 He reiterated that he had had “hundreds of calls and death threats” after the newspaper report and accused Mr Smith and Volksblad of “irresponsible reporting.”

  1. Analysis

3.1 This is a very difficult case in which to establish the truth around the quote. Mr Westraadt insists he never used the term (which means to cull, or “shoot out”).

However, Mr Smith insists this is the term he used.

3.2 Unfortunately, Mr Smith has not kept the notebook he used at the time, nor did he record the meeting.

3.3 I spoke to Mr Westraadt who said the phrase and context in which he used it was that if there was no money forthcoming from government and that if the selling of rhino horn remained illegal, “dan moet ons hulle jag en skiet” (then we must hunt and shoot them).

3.4 He says the word “uitskiet” is not a word that is in his vocabulary. He is on the board of Professional Hunters and this word is not one that he would use.

3.5 Mr Smith, when I put it to him that Mr Westraadt said he had used the word “jag en skiet” , replied it was the “first time” he had heard that phrase. 

He argued that the term is  “basically the same:’ as “uitskiet”, which is “the term hunters use to cull animals – to shoot them all…. He wants to hunt (skiet/uitskiet) his rhinos, but it’s not allowed. And lots of people find it unethical to hunt rhinos while they are poached to extinction.”

3.6 I also spoke to Mr Coen Erasmus, who is the director of Free State conservation, and who was sitting next to Mr Westraadt in the meeting.

He confirmed the word ”uitskiet” denoted to “cull”.Jag” (to hunt) means the rhino are hunted “in an ethical manner”.

“It may be a matter of semantics; I don’t think he meant it badly…they (the newspaper) made it sound more dramatic than he meant to be…”

Context

3.7 Mr Westraadt runs a game farm and hunting business – trophy and meat hunting. He also breeds buffalo.

3.8 Both he and Mr Erasmus were critical of environmentalists (the latter called them “the greenies”). Mr Erasmus described their “intentions as good” but by opposing hunting, the effect was to destroy the animals. Both gave the example of the elephant population in southern Africa.

3.9 Whatever the exact words were that Mr Westraadt used, the context is important here: he argues that it costs him “millions” to maintain the rhino and their habitat: each rhino costs about R250 000, and because of the threats involved in keeping rhino, “nobody will buy them”, according to Mr Erasmus.

3.10 Mr Westraadt says he is a breeder intent on maintaining the rhino population. But one major challenge is that the sale of rhino horn is illegal. If this were not the case, they could clip the horns and export it legally.

“Now the only legal way to export rhino horn out of the country is to export a dead animal.”

3.11 He says it is not a “sin”, as “city-dwellers” think, to make a profit out of animals. He is restoring natural habitat from land that was previously used for agriculture.

It costs R350 000 a month to feed the rhino and the drought has exacerbated the problem.

He says rhino hunts are a “controlled and legal activity; I have to apply for a permit.... every rhino hunt is a restricted activity under threatened species act.”

Mr Erasmus confirmed this and said that an official of his department is present at every hunt.

3.12 Mr Westraadt said that he was not interviewed afterwards for any context or clarity about what he purportedly said. The reporter had only asked him for his name and phone number and had promised to come and interview him afterwards.

 

Structure of the story

 

3.13 It was odd to me that a headline and the introductory quote was not followed up or given any context in the article, apart from a response from the filmmaker, who appeared to be prompted to respond.

The article does not dwell on or explain the quote at all but rather expands on the content in the film and on an interview with the filmmaker about her experiences.

It is an affecting piece, but the quote at the beginning, with no follow-up, provided a jarring, and yes, “sensational” introduction with no context.

3.14 The headline followed suit.

3.15 This is a problem of the structure and the writing, which is not an element of the Press Code. Still, because of a lack of context or clarity for the quote it casts doubt over the veracity of the quote once it was challenged. This doubt is exacerbated by the lack of a notebook or recording.

3.16 In any event, if Mr Westraadt is making money from trophy hunting, and the sale of rhino horn is illegal, it makes little sense that he would say he would need to “cull” (“uitskiet”) the rhino.

It would make more sense that he said he would, in the absence of financial support, “hunt them and shoot them.”

3.17 The end result is of course the same for the rhino. But why would he cull them if they are firstly an endangered species, and secondly if there was a chance to make money by offering hunting permits?

3.18 However, Mr Coetzee, the editor of Volksblad, is also correct: Mr Westraadt was speaking at a public meeting and “offered his opinion voluntarily”. The blame for the unwelcome attention on his farm cannot lie with Die Volksblad alone.

Finding

It is a pity Mr Smith did not have his notes, and also a pity that he did not seek to clarify the quote afterwards.

Given Mr Westraadt’s argument, as well as the explanation provided by Mr Erasmus, I must conclude that the reporter misunderstood his phrase.

However, I do not believe the misquote was done in bad faith.

It may be useful for Mr Smith to do a follow-up interview or feature on rhino farmers and hunting in the Free State and explore the extent to which this activity is reinforcing or threatening conservation of this endangered species.

However, as Ombud, I cannot prescribe this but only suggest it.

 

I find that Volksblad has transgressed Clause 1.1 of the Press Code, as well as clause 10.1 because if the quote was incorrect, so was the headline.

This a Tier 2 offence and Volksblad should apologise to Mr Westraadt for quoting him incorrectly and not clarifying what he had said.

The newspaper’s correction  and apology should be published on the same page as the original print story and be approved by the Ombudsman. The Press Council logo and a link to this finding should also be published.

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.

Pippa Green

Press Ombudsman

December 11, 2019