Thabani Khanyile vs. Umngeni Eyethu
Thu, Apr 20, 2017
Ruling by the Press Ombud
20 April 2017
This ruling is based on the written submissions of Mr Khulani Khanyile, on behalf of his brother Thabani Khanyile (22), and those of Peta Lee, editor of the Umngeni Eyethu newspaper, as well as on an informal meeting held in Howick on April 12.
Khanyile is complaining about a story in Umngeni Eyethu of 17 March 2017, headlined Whoonga addicts beg for help (translated from isiZulu).
Khanyile complains that the journalist attended a meeting of drug addicts without informing them that he was a reporter, and took pictures of them under false pretenses – which were then published on the front page of the newspaper.
He says that his dignity and reputation was compromised, and that he was put in grave danger (he explains that some of the group have been receiving death threats from messengers of drug dealers, as the perception had been created that they were informants for community policing forums and the SAPS).
The article, written by Zikhetele Sithole, was about drug (whoonga) addicts in Howick, who desperately sought help. Thirteen addicts reportedly approached Mr Chris Hlatshwayo, a local mechanic, telling him they were terrified of being attacked by members of their community, tired of being addicted to whoonga, and desperate to quit because the drugs were destroying their lives.
Hlatshwayo reportedly had a reputation for being approachable and easy to talk to.
The journalist quoted several of the drug addicts who cried out for help, asking for a rehabilitation centre which could facilitate their recovery.
The complaint in more detail
Khanyile says Hlatshwayo told them to come to a meeting. He did not ask why. He says that, at the meeting Hlatshwayo told them that using drugs was wrong, and promised that he would ask the municipality to help them get to a rehabilitation centre.
He asserts that someone at the meeting was taking pictures, but he was not sure who this person was. He says this person was not introduced as a journalist – instead, they were told that he was from a rehabilitation centre. He adds that one of the men said there was an under-cover policeman from Pietermaritzburg in attendance, but he did not know that person.
Khanyile claims the journalist attended the meeting to expose drug dealers, and says he did not consent to his picture being published in a newspaper.
Umngeni Eyethu responds
Lee replies that Hlatshwayo approached the newspaper and asked for a journalist to join him in a meeting with a group of whoonga addicts, which the reporter did.
She attests, “In front of the kids, and in full view and earshot of them, Mr Hlatshwayo told the reporter that the youngsters were all whoonga addicts who wanted to be helped, and asked the reporter if a story could be written that might elicit help for them. The youngsters heard this quite clearly, and our reporter was introduced to them by Mr. Hlatshwayo.”
The editor adds that the youngsters were all willing to have their pictures taken.
The newspaper then went out of its way to get help for those addicts, she adds.
In conclusion, Lee says, “I believe the hysterical over-reaction by just one relative – there were 13 addicts in the group – is probably related to him being socially embarrassed because his brother had publicly admitted to being a whoonga addict.” Crime in the area was rife, she adds, and many of the incidents had been attributed to whoonga addicts.
At the meeting
After I have listened to all parties, I was convinced that the newspaper’s intention was above reproach. In fact, it did more than could have been reasonably expected – it contacted all and sundry in an attempt to get help for the addicts.
I have accepted that the journalist did announce himself as such at the meeting and that he therefore did not operate under-cover, even though the complainant did not either hear or understand him.
The problem, though, was that the reportage carried some unintended consequences (about the addicts having been perceived as police informants, and therefore were victimized), which cried out for clarification.
Both parties accepted that there would be no apology, but that a clarification would be appropriate to counter any possible misunderstanding.
The clarification, which should be carried on page 1, reads as follows:
Regarding the story which was published on 17 March 2017, uMngeni Eyethu would like to clarify that the information which appeared on our front page under the heading (quote the headline) was not information given to the paper by the men whose picture appeared with the story.
The intention of the story was to reach out to the community to try and find a solution to help those men get over their addiction. The newspaper did not intend to publicly reveal the men’s identities or to expose them to any hostility that might come from disapproving members of the community.
Details are available for any individual who wants to seek help at the newspapers offices (or alternatively the details can be printed with the article to avoid in influx of people to the offices).
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.