Thembi Tulwana vs. Sunday Times


Thu, Feb 2, 2017

Ruling by the Press Ombud

2 Februay 2017

This ruling is based on the written submissions of Ms Thembi Tulwana, senior leader: property portfolio of the Revelation Church of God in Yeoville, and those of Susan Smuts, legal editor of the Sunday Times newspaper.

Tulwana is complaining about an article in Sunday Times of 4 December 2016, headlined Turfed by the prophet – Church’s armed guards brutally evict derelict mansion’s tenants.

Complaint                                            

Tulwana complains the story falsely stated that:                                                              

·         dwellers were beaten with hammers and guns (she asks how this was possible, with the Police present;

·         members of the Church had frequented offices of the chairperson of the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities wearing T-shirts bearing the name of Pastor Samuel Radebe (“the Prophet”) and inscribed with #handsoffourpastor; and

·         the newspaper could not reach Radebe for comment.

The text

The article, written by Stephan Hofstatter and Khanyi Ndabeni, said that 46 people were forcefully, and brutally, evicted by dozens of armed security guards (sent by the Revelation Church of God, which was founded by Radebe). These people were dumped on the street, where they stayed for the following seventeen days.

The Gauteng High Court reportedly ordered the church to remove barbed wire around the property and to restore the occupants to “undisturbed possession of the property”.

Sunday Times responds

Smuts sketches the background to the story as follows:

On 13 November 2016 church representatives arrived at the property, 8 South Street, Yeoville, with a fraudulent eviction notice, ordering the occupants to vacate the premises by the next day.

The occupants ignored the notice. 

On 16 November they were woken in the middle of the night by church representatives breaking down their doors and walls, proceeding to throw 40 adults and six children onto the street. These people were forced to live on the pavement for 17 days.  During proceedings at Johannesburg High Court, Judge J Frances repeatedly pointed out to the church's representatives that they had never approached a court to apply for a valid eviction order.  

In respect of the specifics of the complaint, the legal editor submits:

·         On the Thursday before publication, Ndabeni e-mailed the church with questions for a story about whether people attend church on Christmas Day. She received no reply. Self-evidently the published article did not reflect the questions – those were intended for a different story;

·         The newspaper was alerted on Friday evening that the occupants of the property had been evicted, and had been granted a court order to return to the property. Given that the earlier e-mail had gone unanswered, and given that the weekend was now upon them, the reporters saw little point in seeking comment via e-mail. Instead, Hofstatter procured three telephone numbers which he tried repeatedly on Saturday after interviewing the occupants on Saturday morning. All his calls went unanswered. (Smuts provided me with names and numbers of prominent people at the Church, also an SMS message giving Radebe an opportunity to respond. This too went unanswered);

·         The court papers also show that the church and its representatives are difficult to reach;

·         The church was clearly not interested in engaging with either the media or the legal fraternity, which made the complaint of being denied a right to respond opportunistic and insincere;

·         The story was based on court papers and on interviews with occupants who had been illegally evicted, and who had been assaulted during the eviction by personnel acting on behalf of the church. The reporters witnessed that the occupants’ property had been destroyed, and that they were living on the pavement during a period of torrential rain. Furthermore, the version put before the court was not contested;

·         The occupants said in affidavits that some of them were injured during this event. When the journalists interviewed them (Ndabeni on Friday night and Hofstatter on Saturday morning) they provided the reporters with detailed accounts of these injuries, with one showing his bruises. Legal Resources Centre lawyer Sithu Mkhize took some of the occupants to Yeoville police station, where three assault cases were opened against the church representatives. Mkhize told Hofstatter there was no doubt in her mind that the occupants had been assaulted during the eviction. The journalists reached the same conclusion after conducting their interviews;

·         The complaint about the police presence during the eviction is designed to mislead this office. As the court papers show, occupant Buzani Mbongwa called the police at Yeoville police station because the occupants were being assaulted and illegally evicted. Two warrant officers arrived after the assaults and destruction of property had taken place. The church representatives or their agents would obviously have stopped assaulting the occupants after the police arrived. This is no doubt, says Smuts, when they started videotaping. The police officers were shown what must have been a fraudulent eviction notice by church representatives (no eviction notice was presented to or accepted by the court). The church representatives refused to show the document to the occupants, but the police nevertheless allowed the eviction to proceed, probably because they believed the eviction notice to be valid. A video taken after the police arrived clearly cannot prove or disprove anything;

·         The church cannot dispute that its representatives broke down doors and walls and trashed the occupants’ property – the reporters visited the house on the first day the occupants were allowed to return, and the evidence of destruction was plain for everyone to see. There is also photographic evidence of this; and

·         The complaint that members of the church visited the offices of the chairwoman of the commission is inaccurate and misleading – the story did not say that church members visited the chairwoman's office; it quoted her as saying that church members had frequented the suburb of Braamfontein, where her offices are, wearing T-shirts with Radebe's name and the words #handsoffourpastor.

Tulwana replies

Tulwana largely reiterates her complaint as outlined above. She refuses to comment on court papers, as the church is in the process of seeking legal advice in that regard.

Analysis

Beaten with hammers, guns

Smuts’s argument in this regard is convincing – the video taken after the arrival of the Police is of no value to me, as it indeed cannot prove or disprove the alleged violence that went with the eviction.

Please note that it is outside my mandate to prove, or disprove, whether the eviction became violent – I am mandated to decide whether the newspaper was justified to report the way it did with the information at its disposal at the time of publication.

The reportage was indeed justified, largely because the:

·         article was based on court papers;

·         the journalists interviewed the evictees and witnessed the destruction of their property; and

·         story was in the public interest.

Offices visited; T-shirts

The story did not claim that members of the Church had frequented offices of the chairperson of the Commission – it only stated that they were in the neighbourhood.

I am not in a position to respond to the allegation about the wearing of T-shirts.

Asked for comment?

Clearly, the list of questions sent to the church was intended for a story about attendance at Christmas services, and not for the story in dispute.

I do not blame Hofstatter for not sending another e-mail to the church. It made sense to rather try and get hold of the right people telephonically. The fact that he tried to do so means that he has adhered to the SA Code of Ethics and Conduct in this regard.

Finding

The complaint is dismissed.

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