Zakhele Khumalo vs. Queensburgh News


Wed, May 2, 2018

Ruling by the Press Ombud

26 April 2018

PARTICULARS

 

Complainant

 

 

Mr Zakhele Khumalo

 

Lodged by

 

 

Khumalo

 

Date of article

 

 

6 March 2018

 

Headline

 

 

Seaview’s Phambili High reclaims stolen school property – The school will use the premises as its GET section for Grade 8 and 9

 

 

Page

 

 

3

 

Online

 

 

Yes

 

Author of article

 

 

Khete Lembethe-Xulu

 

Respondent

 

Helene Eloff, on behalf of the newspaper; and Lembethe-Xulu

 

Complaint                                            

Khumalo complains the story untruthfully states that:

·         the property belonged to the school;

·         the occupants refused to be profiled to see if they qualify for government housing (he says the Department of Public Works, together with Human Settlement, took their details in 2014);

·         one of the tenants fired a rifle shot during a protest;

·         the tenants agreed to vacate the building by the 27 February 2018 (he says they were still occupying the building; the school SGB took three rooms and used them as classes).

He adds that the newspaper did not give the tenants a right of reply, and asks for an unconditional apology, published on page one.

The text

The article says that Phambili High School in Seaview won a 14-year-long battle with tenants who illegally occupied one of its premises adjacent to the main school building.

The school reportedly became aware of these tenants in 2005 when the water and electricity bill was so high that the Department of Education had to investigate the matter. “That is when they discovered there was another water and electricity meter across the road in the school’s name”, Lembethe-Xulu wrote.

The journalist also stated that the tenants refused to attend a meeting, which led to parents confronting them and forcefully removing them from three classrooms.

However, according to the principal, Mr Londa Luthuli, the tenants moved back in the next day, throwing out all the desks and chairs set up by the parents the previous day.

The story also quotes the principal as saying that one of the tenants fired a rifle shot, which caused the learners to retaliate by throwing stones – after which the police intervened. At the police station, the tenants reportedly agreed to vacate the building a few days later.

The newspaper replies

Eloff says Lembethe-Xulu:

·         interviewed the principal to ascertain where the problem started;

·         spoke to Mbulelo Baloyi, media liaison officer from the office of the MEC for Human Settlements and Public Works;

·         spoke to a teacher, Ms Mehrunnissa Mullah;

·         approached spokesperson Capt Chiliza from Bellair SAPS for comment on the firing of the rifle – however, he was on leave;

·         obtained a title deed document;

·         visited the premises; and

·         tried to get hold of the tenants to obtain their comments, but was not able to contact them despite her visit; she requested their contact details from her sources, but was not provided with the necessary information.

She submits that the journalist has attributed the rifle-statement to Luthuli, whom the journalist had come to know as a reliable source, adding that other community members corroborated this allegation.

Lembethe-Xulu says she saw first-hand that about three classrooms were ready for teaching, and witnessed some property in other rooms that reportedly belonged to some tenants. She says Mullah showed her around and told her that the remaining tenants were also to move out of the building.

Eloff concludes that Queensburgh News will gladly do a follow-up report, and requests an opportunity to publish the tenants’ comments in that text.

Khumalo responds

Khumalo replies that:

·         neither a copy of a deed attached to Eloff’s response, nor correspondence from Baloyi stated that the property was owned by the school or the Department of Education – he says the deed indicated that a building is owned by the Government of KwaZulu-Natal;

·         page 7 of the document titled “Vesting of state property” stated that any title deed of land controlled by the province should be kept in safe custody by the Department of Public Works;

·         two Public Work employees who were responsible for the building in question had the tenants’ contact details;

·         if it was true that Lembethe-Xulu could not get hold of the tenants’ contact details, she should have stated such in her article; and

·         the journalist was supposed to state in her article that she could not get hold of Capt Chiliza for comment about the firing of a rifle shot.

He disputes Eloff’s argument that Lembethe-Xulu has gathered news in a responsible manner. He repeats his demand for an apology for publishing an untruthful story, and for failing to contact all the affected people.

He concludes, “We will invite a journalist to take our side of the story when we are ready to do so.”

Analysis

Property belonging to the school

The story states that the school “… has won a 14-year battle with illegal tenants at one of its premises adjacent to the main school building”.

Khumalo is correct in that the title deed listed the KZN Provincial Government as the owner of the premises, and not the school or the Department of Education – a statement that Eloff does not either confirm or deny.

However, nothing much turns on this – whether the premises belonged to the school, or the Provincial Government, is neither here nor there as it did not change the thrust of the story.

Occupants refused to be profiled

The story read, “The Department of Education attempted to claim back the building in 2005 and the Durban High Court ruled that four different departments needed to relocate the tenants and it was only in 2014 when the four tasked departments met and the eThekwini Municipality asked them to profile the tenants to see if they qualify for government housing. ‘The tenants refused to give the relevant information and the matter was moved to City Hall to be discussed by the council and it was later adjourned until further notice,’ Luthuli said.”

Eloff does not address this particular part of the complaint.

The story attributed the statement in question to a source – the principal, in this case, and did not state it as fact.

I am not in a position to decide who was right, Luthuli or Khumalo, and neither am I mandated to make such a decision. However, I can say that Queensburgh News was within its rights to publish the principal’s view on this issue – but on condition that it was balanced with that of Khumalo, or another representative of the tenants.

Rifle shot

The journalist wrote, “According to the principal one of the tenants fired a riffle (sic) which caused the learners to retaliate by throwing stones…”

The story presented this statement as an opinion, not as fact, which it was entitled to do – especially as a reliable source (the principal) as well as “other community members” supplied the reporter with this information.

However, the journalist should have balanced this allegation with the view of Khumalo, or another representative of the tenants.

Agreed to vacate the premises

The story said, “At a meeting at the police station the tenants agreed to vacate the building by Tuesday, 27 February.”

Eloff does not respond to this part of the complaint.

This time, the reporter presented the statement in dispute as fact. However, I have no evidence that the journalist has verified this matter, and neither did she present the tenants’ views on this issue.

Right of reply

Lembethe-Xulu has gone out of her way to verify the story – she spoke with the principal, to the media liaison officer from the office of the MEC for Human Settlements and Public Works, and to a teacher; she also visited the premises and obtained a record of the relevant title deed.

In addition, she also approached the spokesperson of Bellair SAPS, and tried to get hold of the tenants.

Kudos to her.

Unfortunately, that was not sufficient – without the views of the tenants, her story would always be unbalanced and therefore unfair. I note that the journalist has tried to get hold of them, but I am not convinced that she did enough to ensure that she succeeded in doing so.

If that proved to be impossible in the end, the Press Code requires of her to at least have reported that fact.

I am not too concerned that Lembethe-Xulu did not report the fact that she could not get hold of the police spokesperson, as the latter was not the subject of critical reportage (as was the case with the tenants). While it would have been better if the journalist reported her failure to obtain the police’s views, that in itself cannot be in breach of the Press Code.

Finding

Property belonging to the school

This statement was not technically true, and was in breach of Section 1.1 of the Press Code that says, “The media shall take care to report news … accurately …”

Occupants refused to be profiled

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

Rifle shot

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

Agreed to vacate the premises

The newspaper presented this allegation as fact, without any evidence that it has been verified. This was in breach of the following sections of the Code:

·         1.3: “… Where a report is not based on facts or is founded on opinion, allegation, rumour or supposition, it shall be presented in such manner as to indicate this clearly”; and

·         1.7: “Where there is reason to doubt the accuracy of a report or a source and it is practicable to verify the accuracy thereof, it shall be verified. Where it has not been practicable to verify the accuracy of a report, this shall be stated in such report.”

Right of reply

Queensburgh News did not obtain the views of the tenants, and was therefore in breach of Section 1.8 of the Press Code which states, “The media shall seek the views of the subject of critical reportage in advance of publication…”

The story also did not state that the newspaper was not able to obtain their views. This was in breach of Section 1.8 of the Code which continues, “… If the media are unable to obtain such comment, this shall be reported.”

The complaint that the journalist should have reported that she could not get hold of the spokesman of the police is dismissed.

Seriousness of breaches                                              

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

The breaches of Sections 1.3, 1.7 and 1.8 of the Code, as indicated above, are all Tier 2 offences; the statement that the property belonged to the school is a Tier 1 offence.

Sanction

Queensburgh News is directed to apologise to Khumalo and the tenants for:

·         not obtaining their views, and for not stating in the story that the newspaper was not able to do so; and

·         presenting the allegation, as fact, that they have agreed to vacate the premises.

The publication is asked to report the tenants’ views, as part of the apology (that is, if the tenants still want to comment) on the statement that:

·         a rifle shot was fired during the excursion between the parties;

·         they refused to give relevant information to the municipality; and

·         they agreed to vacate the building.

The newspaper is also cautioned for technically incorrectly stating that the premises belonged to the school – which should form part of the text that is to be published.

The newspaper is requested to publish the apology:

·         at the top of page 3, with a headline containing the words “apology” or “apologises”, and “Khumalo” or “tenants”; and

·         online (at the top of that page), and to link the two articles.

The text should:

·         be published at the earliest opportunity after the time for an application for leave to appeal has lapsed or, in the event of such an application, after that ruling;

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

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

·     be prepared by the publication and be approved by me.

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