Masechaba Ndlovu vs Sowetan


Tue, Jul 14, 2020

Finding complaint 6644

Complaint number: 6644

Complainant: Ms Masechaba Ndlovu

Date of article: 7 November, 2019

Headline: “Masechaba Ndlovu in centre of feud at brother Tebogo's funeral”

Author:  Emmanuel Tjiya

Online: Yes

Particulars

This finding is based on a written submission by Ms Ndlovu, a response from the Sowetan and further written communication with Ms Ndlovu and the executive editor of the Sowetan, Ms Thembela Khumango.

Complaint

Ms Masechaba Ndlovu, a former TV and radio presenter, currently a government communications official, complains of an article in the Sowetan that reports on her alleged behaviour at the funeral of her brother.  She complains the story is “fabricated” and untrue, and amounts to defamation of her character.

She does not stipulate the clauses of the Press Code that she says have been transgressed but reading from her complaint they would be the following:

The media shall:

  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;

1.3 present only what may reasonably be true as fact; opinions, allegations, rumours or suppositions shall be presented clearly as such;

I also considered sections

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;

3.2 afford special weight to South African cultural customs concerning the protection of privacy and dignity of people who are bereaved and their respect for those who have passed away…

3.3 The media shall exercise care and consideration in matters involving reputation and dignity.

  1. Text

1.1 The intro of the article, under the headline, “Masechaba Ndlovu in centre of feud at brother Tebogo’s funeral”, reads: “Controversial television and radio personality Masechaba Ndlovu was apparently at the centre of a family feud over funeral arrangements for her brother.”

1.2 It says “tensions simmered” at her brother, Tebogo Lekalake’s funeral when his widow discovered his body had been taken from the mortuary without her knowledge. Tebogo was killed on October 25th in a “botched hijacking

1.3 The Lekalakes had wanted his body to leave for the service from his family home in Molapo rather than from his matrimonial home in Protea South, Soweto. When Tumelo, his widow discovered his body had been taken to Molapo “drama ensued”.

1.4 She went to fetch the body in Molapo to take it to a hall in Protea South where a service was held.

1.5 It quoted a family member saying: “Tumi started to panic when the body didn't arrive; until they were tipped off that the body was taken to Molapo by the Lekalake family. She has been left feeling helpless because they took her husband without her permission."

1.6 The article says that the funeral service was delayed as a result. The article quotes a “family friend”, saying: “There was so much drama from the family as if his wife was not married to their son. Even after he died, they only came three days later to his house to discuss a way forward with his wife.” It quotes Tebogo’s widow, Tumi, as confirming there was “family drama” over her husband’s death but declining to give details.

"I don't want to be involved in the middle of this drama more than I am already. Right now I'm mourning my husband and have had enough of that family,” she is quoted as saying.

1.7 It quotes another friend saying Tumi was not acknowledged as Tebogo’s widow and that mourners were “shocked” when Ms Ndlovu, an aunt and an older sister “allegedly caused a commotion” at the funeral.

Masechaba and the family were screaming and shouting. Masechaba was the first to speak on the programme," the close friend said. "She was busy telling everyone that she is a prophet and saw a prophecy that Tebogo will die. Everything was about her and her prophecy - nothing about her brother. Because the funeral was already running late, after they spoke it was after midday and the programme closed so everyone can go to the [Westpark] cemetery."

1.8 The article says that when Ndlovu was contacted for comment she asked the reporter where he had got his information from and said: "I have no comment because I know nothing about what you are saying."

  1. The arguments

Ms Ndlovu

2.1 Ms Ndlovu says various claims in the article were untrue.

2.2 These were that they had collected the body of Tebogo without his wife’s consent. “As a matter of fact, elders from both sides of the family were present when we collected both his body and his spirit prior to the funeral.”

2.3 It is also untrue that the Lekalake family went to the widow’s house only three days after his death. “As a matter of fact, I was part of a delegation of the Lekalake elders that went to my brother’s matrimonial home, on the day of his death (25 October), where a family meeting was held with both sides of the family represented. Some of the family members present included immediate elders from my sister-in-law’s family.”

2.4 It was untrue that she “caused a commotion at the funeral or that I was screaming and I told people that I am a prophet and I prophesied my brother’s funeral.”

“My entire speech was only about my last moments with my brother, Tebogo Lekalake. Never at any point did I cry, scream, or make such ludicrous utterances.”

2.5 She argues the article “amounts to defamation of character”.

“This level of incompetency puts a stain on our democratic fibre and I find it to be severely malicious.”

Ms Thembela Khamango, executive editor of the Sowetan

2.6 Ms Khamango denied that the article was  fabricated. She said the newspaper relied on three  independent sources “who were all present at the funeral when the events we reported on unfolded.”  They had asked not to be identified for “fear of victimisation” but corroborated each other’s versions of what had happened at the funeral.

2.7 On the claim that Tumelo and her husband’s family “were at loggerheads” over where Tebogo’s body should be taken when it was fetched  from the mortuary, she said the reporter’s sources said the widow had no knowledge that the body had been taken to Molapo instead of to his  matrimonial home in Protea. “Our article does not mention anything about collection of the spirit of the deceased.”

2.8 The claim that the Lekalake family arrived at Tebogo’s matrimonial home three days after his death, on 28 November 2019, is attributed to one of the sources and was also confirmed by a family member.

2.9 The report of “drama” at the funeral was confirmed by Tebogo’s widow, “who did not want to go into the details.” But, she argues, “several sources independently present confirmed the claims that Ms Ndlovu, her older sister and aunt allegedly caused a commotion at the funeral service. We put these allegations to Ms Ndlovu for her comment and balance but she refused to comment.”

2.10 The allegations that Ms Ndlovu had said she was a prophet “were attributed to a friend who was at the funeral but was also confirmed by another family member.”

2.11 She said the Sowetan stood by its story and was “still willing to provide Ms Ndlovu with an opportunity to tell her side of what transpired.”

Further arguments

2.12 In response to the Sowetan, Ms Ndlovu maintains the article is “factually incorrect and malicious. This, I can prove in a court of law.”

2.13 She said she had no prior knowledge of  the “misinformation that would be published in the article”, and she was “horrified” to read “an entirely fabricated article. The facts were not vetted, which amounts to gutter journalism.”

2.14 The article also damaged her reputation and amounted to “character assassination.” 

“Furthermore, this offer for me to ‘tell my side of the story’ is completely disingenuous to say the least; as well as a  blatant cop-out. It is an attempt to further exploit my brand for their newspaper sales. This is crisis management at its worst.”

2.15 She asks for an apology and retraction of the article.

  1. Analysis

3.1 Five aspects of the Press Code are relevant in this complaint. They are mentioned above  but briefly they are:

  • Whether the report was truthful, fair and accurate
  • Whether it was balanced
  • Whether it was reasonably true with regard to the sources and where facts are not ascertained it should be presented in a manner to indicate the difference between allegation and fact
  • Whether Ms Ndlovu was given adequate opportunity to respond to the allegations; and
  • To what extent the question of reputation, particularly as the story concerned a bereavement, is also relevant.

3.2 In my correspondence with Sowetan’s executive editor, Ms Khamango,  she informed me that the reporter, Mr Emmanuel Tjiya, was tipped off about the alleged events at the funeral by a family friend close to the Ndlovu side of the family.

He then checked some of the allegations with three other sources whose names he got from the family friend and who were at the funeral.

3.3 The newspaper has provided the Ombud with copies of WhatsApp conversations between the reporter and these sources. I did not see some of the details because some were in voice notes. However, it was sufficient to persuade me that he had spoken to the three sources he said that he had.

The three sources did not want to be named and under the circumstances this is understandable. However, I was made aware of the identity of one of the sources, whom I was satisfied was reliable.

3.4 He also approached Ms Ndlovu herself for comment, as well as the widow of her brother Mrs Tumelo Lekalake. Mrs Lekalake, confirmed there was a “family drama” over the death of her husband but “declined to give details”. However she is quoted as saying, “I don't want to be involved in the middle of this drama more than I am already. Right now I'm mourning my husband and have had enough of that family.”

3.5 In my later correspondence with Ms Ndlovu, she said she had a video of the speech she gave at the funeral, which if she were to release “it would put [the] newspaper to shame and that journalist would be embarrassed. I will do that when I've healed.”

Nonetheless, I asked if she could share a copy of the video with me, as I thought it would resolve some of the disputes caused by the article.

However, she replied that she would share it when she was “ready”.

Thus I have to adjudicate on the available evidence and what was reasonable for the reporter to report.

3.6 I have to ascertain, in terms of the Press Code, not whether the allegations reported are correct beyond reasonable doubt, but rather that the reporter took the necessary steps to ascertain probable truth and also reported them as claims rather than fact.

3.7 In his first paragraph, he uses the word “apparently” to describe the “family drama” that allegedly happened around the funeral.

3.8 The WhatsApp messages do not provide granular detail but they confirm that he contacted various people who were at the funeral, that there was, at the very least, tension between Tebogo’s widow and the Lekalake family His widow, herself, confirmed both the tensions and her unhappiness with the outcome of events.

3.9 The reporter also contacted Ms Ndlovu. A transcript of the telephone interview shows that he put to her the allegation “that the body was taken from mortuary by you guys and she (the widow) had to come with police to come get it.”

The transcript then indicates a “long pause” after which Ms Ndlovu asks: “Where did you get this story from?”

He replies from people who were at the funeral. He adds that he “reached out” to Tumi about it but that she did not want to comment.

Ms Ndlovu replies: “I’ve no comment Emmanuel, because I know nothing about what you are saying.”

3.10 Earlier in the conversation with Ms Ndlovu, he had referred to “commotion” at the funeral between her family and the widow. Again there was a “long pause” and when he asks her if she was there, she replies “I’m listening”, and at that point he put the specific allegation to her about taking the body from the mortuary.

3.11 Shortly after she told him she had no comment on this, the conversation ends.

3.12 In an email to me, Ms Ndlovu says she was asked a “sweeping question’ by the reporter. “The question he put to me was ‘would you like to comment on your family drama?’ Of course the answer was no.”

She says that the actual report of the funeral was “ludicrous”.

3.13 Mr Tjiya, judging from the transcript, did not ask Ms Ndlovu about her speech nor about the claim that she and others in her family were “screaming and shouting”. He asked about “commotion” at the funeral and about the claim that the body was taken by the Lekalake family from the mortuary.

3.14 I have also considered sections 3.2  and 3.3 of the Press Code. The first behoves the media to give “special weight” to the privacy and dignity of people who are bereaved. This is linked to clause 3.3 invoking the media to “exercise care and consideration in matters involving dignity and reputation”, which can be overridden only if it is in the public interest and of the facts reported “are true or substantially true.”

3.15 In this case, my view is that the clause cannot apply. Ms Ndlovu is a public figure and in the past has actively sought publicity, as a television and radio presenter. She herself, in her argument, refers to the newspaper exploiting “my brand for their newspaper sales.” Only public figures have “brands”.

3.16 Being a public figure and a celebrity is a double-edged sword in many respects: publicity is usually beneficial to the public figure, but, at times, when it is negative, it is part of the burden they must bear.

Moreover, the funeral was in a public venue .

3.17 Lastly, there is the question of whether Ms Ndlovu was afforded an adequate right of reply. The reporter, correctly, contacted her for comment. However,  judging from the transcript of the telephone conversation, he put only two allegations to her: one that there was a “commotion” at the funeral, between Mrs Tumi Lekalake and Ms Ndlovu’s family, and two, that the body of her brother had been taken to his family home from the mortuary “by you guys and she (Tumi) had to come with the police to get it.”

3.18 Although it is clear from the transcript that Ms Ndlovu was reluctant to comment, he nonetheless should have put the claim to her about her speech in which she had allegedly said that she was a “prophet”  and “saw a prophecy that Tebogo would die.”

3.19 The comment by the anonymous source that “everything was about her and her prophecy - nothing about her brother” is admittedly an opinion but should have been put to her for comment, too.

Finding

On whether the report was truthful, accurate and fair and that the news was presented in context and in a balanced manner, I have to weigh up whether the reporter took reasonable steps to ascertain the allegations.

He spoke to three sources after getting a tip-off on the events that unfolded, all of whom corroborated the story. The source that I was made aware of would have had direct knowledge of these events.

He also obtained on-the-record comment from the widow of Tebogo; her response certainly confirmed a family “drama” and a rift: “I don't want to be involved in the middle of this drama more than I am already. Right now I'm mourning my husband and have had enough of that family,"

He also tried to interview Ms Ndlovu herself but did not get very far in that quest.

Ms Ndlovu is a public figure who promotes herself as such, and the funeral was effectively a public event so it was a reasonable subject of reportage.

The reporter’s error was in not putting the claim to her about her speech, which apparently raised eyebrows among some at the funeral. It is true that, judging from the transcript of the telephone interview, it was difficult to do this as she rebuffed attempts to get comment, but she did not end the conversation abruptly and there was an opportunity to do this.

Thus in terms of clause 1.8 of the press Code: “The media shall seek the views of the subject of critical reportage in advance of publication”, the newspaper has erred in that it did not put all the allegations before her.

This is a Tier 2 offence.

The rest of the complaint is dismissed.

Sanction

The newspaper should apologise for not putting all the claims about Ms Ndlovu’s alleged behaviour at the funeral to her.

The apology should:

  • be published at the earliest opportunity on all the newspaper’s platforms, 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”;
  • be published with the logo of the Press Council (attached); 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.

Pippa Green

Press Ombudsman

July 10, 2020