Hanna Pretorius vs. News24


Thu, Jan 21, 2021

Complaint number: 8388

Date: 19 September 2020

Headline of article: Exodus: Uncovering sexual crimes and missing millions at a KZN ‘cult’

Headline of video:  Exodus – uncovering a cult in KwaZulu-Natal

Authors: Tammy Petersen, Azarrah Karrim, Aljoscha Kohlstock and Nokuthula Manyathi

Respondent: Prof George Claassen, News24 internal ombud

  1. Complaint                                            

1.1 Ms Hanna Pretorius, the deputy principal of Domino Servite School, complains about the content of News24’s “Exodus video” and subsequent reportage that dealt with alleged wrongdoings at KwaSizabantu (KSB) Mission.

1.2 This complaint, and its adjudication, should be read in conjunction with a previous ruling of mine, dated 19 January 2021. Initially, the acting Public Advocate declined to accept the complaint, pending a hearing of the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities (CRL Rights Commission) into the same or similar matters. I partly overturned this decision, as I believed that some aspects of the complaint were not likely to come before the CRL Rights Commission’s hearing.

1.3 As neither party appealed this decision, I now need to proceed to adjudicating the remaining parts of her initial complaint as per my ruling of January 19.

1.4 In that ruling, I have narrowed Pretorius’s complaint down to that News24:

1.4.1   did not give Louise Pretorius a right of reply;

1.4.2  has redacted and edited the latter’s testimony in such a way that her opinion was distorted; and

1.4.3   should have asked her for permission to use her voice in the video.

2. Sections of the Press Code complained about

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;

1.7: verify the accuracy of doubtful information, if practicable; if not, this shall be stated; and

1.8 seek, if practicable, the views of the subject of critical reportage in advance of publication, except when they might be prevented from reporting, or evidence destroyed, or sources intimidated. Such a subject should be afforded reasonable time to respond; if unable to obtain comment, this shall be stated

  1. The subject matter

3.1 The article said a 50-year old Christian mission in KwaZulu-Natal “stands accused of gross violations of human rights, turning a blind eye to sexual abuse, and money laundering spanning four decades”.

3.2 Likewise, the video was about allegations that people were being held captive at the KwaSizabantu Mission hospital, that the mission had become a cult, and about inhumane behaviour at the institution.

3.3 The reportage mentioned Amanda (a pseudonym), who inter alia reportedly said she was a rape survivor, that she had been held against her will at the KSB hospital, and that she had been accused of being a Satanist.

  1. The arguments

4.1 Louise Pretorius: no right of reply

4.1.1 Ms Hanna Pretorius complains that News24 did not give her daughter, Louise, a right of reply prior to publication.

4.1.2 Claassen points out that Louise Pretorius was never mentioned by name in the podcast or documentary.

4.1.3 However, he says News24 has noted the latter’s denial of the allegations, and says the publication is willing to grant her a right to reply – “either through an interview with our journalist Tammy Petersen (preferable), or in a written piece for News24”.

  1. Hanna Pretorious:

4.1.4.1 replies that her daughter rejects this offer. “That does not mean that we do not want an opportunity to respond but that it does not fully redress the harm that we have suffered due to false reporting,” she adds; and

4.1.4.2 admits that Louise was not identified, but submits she was referred to as Erika Bornman’s niece; she was furthermore identified through the playing of a voice clip. “Voice patterns are used for identification purposes. By stating that she is Erika Bornman’s (a prominent figure in the reportage) niece and by using her voice, News24 left no doubt about her identity. It therefore has no bearing on the case that her name was not mentioned,” she argues.

Analysis

4.1.5 The first consideration is that News24 never mentioned Louise Pretorius by name.

4.1.6 I do not believe the media are obliged to ask a subject for comment if the reportage does not identify that person. The reason behind the audi alteram partem rule is that a person who is the subject of critical reportage may be harmed unnecessarily – a person whose identity remains protected, cannot be harmed by any report.

4.1.7 The next question is if the reasonable reader would or could have known the pseudonym used in fact referred to Louise Pretorius.

4.1.8 If the reportage, in any way, referred the reader/listener to the latter’s testimony on some website where she is identified, an argument could be made that News24 has in fact identified her – and therefore, should have given her a right of reply.

4.1.9 I am satisfied that News24 did not link the story to any testimony given by Louise Pretorius.

4.1.10 I also do not believe the arguments that Louise Pretorius was identified as Bornman’s niece, and that she could have been identified by her voice, are strong enough for me to uphold this part of the complaint. Yes, it is possible that a few people could have made this connection, but looking at the wood and not the trees I am not convinced that News24 has breached the Press Code on this issue. Not only was her name not disclosed, but in a link a picture of her was blurred.

4.1.11 Someone really must have gone out of her or his way in an attempt to establish who this person really was.

4.1.12 This leaves me with the conclusion that News24 was not obliged to ask Louise Pretorius for comment.

4.1.13 I have noted that she, in an affidavit, submitted that the allegations about her in the reportage were false. This may be the case, or it may not be the case – as far as I know, this affidavit has not been cross-questioned in any court.

4.1.14 Be that as it may, News24 has offered her a right of reply. It is up to her to make use of this offer.

4.2 Testimony distorted

4.2.1 The complaint is that News24 has redacted and edited her daughter’s testimony in such a way that her opinion was distorted.

4.2.2 Claassen replies that the testimony of Ms Louise Pretorius appeared on the public website of KwaSizabantu. “As is normal practice for documentary makers, we edited it to fit into the length of our documentary. The entire testimony was 17 minutes long and we could not reasonably have used all of it. We disagree that Louise was misrepresented,” he argues.

4.2.3 He provided me with a transcript of the full testimony from a recording on the KSB website, highlighting the portions used in the Exodus documentary; he also furnished me with a transcript of the Exodus video. Analysis

4.2.4 These transcripts were helpful as it enabled me to make an informed decision whether News24 has in fact distorted the content of her testimony, or not.

4.2.5 I have studied these documents carefully, and I am satisfied that the journalists did not distort the essence of the testimony. All the essential elements were included in the reportage, and nothing of vital importance, which could have changed the thrust of the story, had been omitted.

4.2.6 Therefore, I do believe that the reportage was not out of context or distorted in any way.

4.3 Permission not asked

4.3.1 Pretorius complains that News24 used her daughter’s voice in the video without having asked her for permission to do so.

4.3.2 Claassen submits that the testimony by Louise Pretorius was published on the KSB website, which was accessible to the whole world. “We [therefore] needn’t have asked her for permission to publish an extract thereof,” he argues.

Analysis

4.3.3 Claassen’s argument is so strong that it does not need any further argument. Not only was the information already in the public domain, but it was even published on the KSB website itself.

  1. Finding

The complaint is dismissed.

  1. 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

Acting Press Ombud