Vernon Plaatjies vs. Oudtshoorn Courant


Mon, Oct 23, 2017

Ruling by the Press Ombud

22 October 2017

This ruling is based on the written submissions of Adv Vernon Plaatjies and those of Mr Charl Marais of JS Marais Attorneys, on behalf of the Oudtshoorn Courant.

Plaatjies is complaining about a story in the Oudtshoorn Courant of 5 July 2017, headlined De Ruster vrygespreek op moord.

Complaint                                            

Plaatjies complains the story:

·         falsely stated that his brother, Mr Michael Makier, had started a fight which had led to his death, while in fact it was the accused in a murder trial (Mr Darion Katzen) who had begun the altercation between the two; and

·         omitted material evidence, which has led to unbalanced, incorrect and unfair reportage.

The text

The story was about the acquittal of Katzen in the Oudtshoorn regional court (on the grounds of self-defence) where he stood accused on a charge of murder. He had killed Makier by stabbing him with a kitchen knife during an altercation between the two.

The story mainly covered the testimony of the only witness to the incident, Ms Claudia Koorts. She reportedly told the court that Makier started the fight and that he had tried to strangle Katzen after the latter unexpectedly turned up at his (Katzen’s) house. Koorts had expected the deceased’s child at the time, while she and Katzen were living together in the latter’s home.

The arguments

The complaint is about the following section of the story (freely translated from Afrikaans): “Katzen’s former partner and the mother of his 6-year-old child, Claudia Koorts, admitted that Makier started the fight and tried to strangle Katzen when he unexpectedly arrived at the house. Makier grabbed Katzen when he entered the house and in the ensuing fight they landed on the floor.”

Plaatjies complains that this reportage was factually incorrect as Katzen was the one who had started the fight – he says he forced his way into the house and, upon entering, asked Makier angrily, “What are you doing here?”

He submits that from evidence led in court it is clear that his brother tried to protect Koorts when Katzen tried to grab her. He argues that this constituted crucial information, and complains that the failure to report it has led to the false impression that Makier had started the fight (instead of Katzen).

Marais denies that the reportage was misleading or false. He says the court records show that Makier had started the fight – Koorts clearly testified that Makier grabbed Katzen (in an effort to protect the woman).

He also submits that Katzen’s own attorney, CJ van den Bergh, stated in an e-mail to the editor of the newspaper that Koorts had in fact admitted that Makier started the fight.

Plaatjies clarifies that his complaint is not about the outcome of the court case, but about the incorrect reporting of Koorts’s testimony in court.

Analysis

My task is simple – I merely need to compare the transcript of the relevant court evidence with the story in order to establish whether the article portrayed a skewed picture of what Koorts testified (whether by what was reported, and / or by what was omitted).

What was reported

Koorts testified as follows:

·         After Katzen had entered the house, he grabbed at her, and not at Makier;

·         The deceased then intervened to protect her, by shoving and hitting Katzen;

·         Makier tried to strangle Katzen (not vice versa); and

·         Katzen, and not Makier, then landed on the floor, while the latter “stood over” the former.

It is noticeable that, regarding the start of the fight, Koorts said nothing about Katzen – her evidence centered on Makier’s actions. According to Koorts’s testimony, the aggressor seemed to have been the latter.

I accept that Katzen used force to enter the house, as stated by Plaatjies – but then, this was reasonable as the dwelling belonged to him. Moreover, the fact that he had forced open the door does not by implication mean that he started the fight. He also most probably did not enter the house with a knife in his hand, which would have showed intent on his part to start a fight (the knife he used came from Katzen’s kitchen).

Based on the transcript, I believe that the journalist accurately reflected Koorts’s testimony regarding who had started the fight.

Granted, it could be argued that if Katzen had not tried to grab Koorts, things might have turned out differently. But that, in fact, is mere speculation. All I have to go on, is Koorts’s evidence.

What was omitted

After reporting Koorts’s testimony that it had been Makier who had started the fight, it was also important to record the apparent reason for this – it was not because he sought to pick a fight, but rather because he wanted to protect and defend his lover.

The importance of this evidence, I believe, is self-evident.

I have no reason to believe that the omission of this part of Koorts’s testimony was done with any malicious intent or agenda – or “intentionally”, as Plaatjies puts it. Still, it represents a material omission which needs to be rectified.

Postscript: Complainant’s standing

Marais questions Plaatjies’s standing as a complainant to this office. For the record: As the deceased was Plaatjies’s brother, he has a direct personal interest in the story. Such interest is provided for in Section 1.1 of the Complaints Procedures – which is why I have decided to entertain his complaint.

Finding

What was reported

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

What was omitted

The neglect to report Koorts’s testimony that Makier tried to stop Katzen from grabbing her (thereby omitting the apparent reason for him to have started the fight – his concern for his lover, and his subsequent attempt to protect her) was in breach of Section 1.2 of the Press Code which states, “News shall be presented in context and in a balanced manner, without any intentional or negligent departure from the facts whether by … material omissions …”

Seriousness of breaches                                              

Under the headline Hierarchy of sanctions, Section 8 of the Complaints Procedures distinguishes between minor breaches (Tier 1 – minor errors which do not change the thrust of the story), serious breaches (Tier 2), and serious misconduct (Tier 3).                                            

The breach of the Press Code as indicated above is a Tier 2 offence.

Sanction

Oudtshoorn Courant is directed to apologise to Plaatjies, as Makier’s brother, for omitting to report Koorts’s testimony that Katzen tried to grab her, and that he (Makier) ostensibly reacted in an attempt to protect and defend her.

The newspaper is requested to publish the apology:

·         on the same page as the offending story; and

·         online, if indeed the article was carried there as well (in that case, with a link to the original story).

The text should:

·         be published at the earliest opportunity after the time for an application for leave to appeal has lapsed;

·     refer to the complaint that was lodged with this office;

·     end with the sentence, “Visit www.presscouncil.org.za for the full finding”;

·     be prepared by the newspaper and be approved by me; and

·     be headlined, using the word “apology” or “apologises”.

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