Date of publication: 4 March 2023
Headline: Yolandi Botes-moord: Gesprekke van ‘afpersing’ onthul
Author: Jana van der Merwe
This finding is based on a written complaint by Mr Dylan Jagga of Jagga & Associates on behalf of Mr Antoni Rangousis and Ms Debbie Rangousis, a written response by journalist Ms Jana van der Merwe of Netwerk24 (together with 15 annexures) and a further written response by Mr Jagga on behalf of Mr and Ms Rangousis (along with eight annexures). In addition, I requested Ms Van der Merwe to provide a general indication of the identity and nature of the anonymous sources she consulted, and to provide information on the measures she employed to check the veracity of certain aspects of the article.
The complainants submit that the article transgresses Clauses 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, 1.7, 1.8, 3.1, 3.3 and 4.4 of the Press Code:
“1. 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;
“1.3 present only what may reasonably be true as fact; opinions, allegations, rumours or suppositions shall be presented clearly as such; …
“1.7 verify the accuracy of doubtful information, if practicable; if not, this shall be stated;
“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. The media shall:
“3.1 exercise care and consideration in matters involving the private lives of individuals. The right to privacy may be overridden by public interest;…
“3.3 exercise care and consideration in matters involving dignity and reputation, which may be overridden only if it is in the public interest …”
“4. The media shall:
“4.4 only disclose sufficient personal information to identify the person being reported on as some information, such as addresses, may enable others to intrude on their privacy and safety; …”
1. Summary of article
1.1. The subject of the article is the murder of Yolandi Botes, a mother of three, in 2021.
1.1.1. According to the article, “pieces of the puzzle” (“stukkies van die legkaart”) about her past are beginning to fit together as more information about her personal life is uncovered. However, the motive behind her murder still remains unclear.
1.1.2. The person who probably picked her up in Boksburg on the day of her murder has never come forward, and is believed to be a former bodyguard and driver.
1.2. The article goes on to state that East Rand businessman Antoni Rangousis, who allegedly paid for a plane ticket for Botes, denies any “involvement” (“betrokkenheid”) with her and says he was simply a Good Samaritan who assisted her with a voucher from time to time.
1.2.1. The article notes that his wife, Debbie, was one of the first people to call Botes’ husband, Wietzue, in search of her after she went missing.
1.3. According to the article, Netwerk24 previously established that Botes allegedly extorted money from Rangousis as far back as 2019.
1.3.1. She disappeared on 26 April 2021, just hours after flying into OR Tambo International Airport in Ekurhuleni from George. Her partial remains were found nine days later in the Vaal River, near Villiers.
1.3.2. The article states that cell phone messages between Botes and Rangousis in September 2019 suggest that she relied heavily on him for financial support.
1.3.3. In one message, he reportedly asks her for photographs and does so again on 29 September 2019.
1.3.4. Botes allegedly asks him in a message on the same day for R20 000 in order to disappear permanently from his life and that of his family. She adds that Rangousis would not want her to send recordings of their conversations to his wife.
1.3.5. According to the article, Rangousis sent Botes an amount of R20 899 the following day.
1.3.6. She allegedly contacted him again on 7 October 2019 and asked him for money. The article states that further payments apparently continued, and points out that Netwerk24 previously reported that a total of R130 000 was sent to Botes during the six months up to March 2021 (a month before she disappeared.)
1.3.7. Botes reportedly expected to receive money from a road accident claim, and apparently borrowed money from Rangousis with a promise to repay him.
1.3.8. He confirmed that he was aware of a claim, but denied that she borrowed money from him and that she was supposed to meet him on the day she disappeared in order to draw up a contract to repay him.
1.4. Rangousis did not respond to enquiries regarding the alleged extortion and recently asked Netwerk24 not to contact him again.
Antoni and Debbie Rangousis
2.1. The complainants describe the article as “sensationalist, speculative and defamatory”, and submit that it fails to meet the requirements of the Press Code. They contend that the article should therefore be retracted.
2.2. The complainants state that Antoni Rangousis was contacted by Netwerk24 at 9.53am on 3 March 2023 – “24 hours before … publication” – with the following text message: “We have received information and messages of 2019 where Yolandi extorted you for money. Can you please confirm or deny if she was extorting you and why and for how long? She allegedly threatened you with passing on the messages and the recorded calls to your wife.”
2.2.1. They further state that the journalist did not disclose the nature of the publication and also did not provide an email address where they could send a response or correspondence.
2.2.2. They add that they were not provided either with a time period within which to provide a comment, nor were they given details of the prospective date of publication of the article.
2.2.3. Despite this, the complainants say, they contacted their legal representative, Jagga & Associates, “[w]ithin hours” in order to provide a response to Netwerk24’s text message.
2.2.4. The office of their legal representative attempted to contact the journalist on her cell phone – “the only contact line she sent the text message from” – but was unable to reach her. The complainants add that there was no response either to text messages sent to her.
2.2.5. As a result, the complainants’ legal representative sent correspondence to the journalist via WhatsApp at 7.17pm.
2.2.6. Netwerk24 published the article in question at 9am on 4 March 2023.
2.2.7. The complainants contend that the respondent sought a comment from them at such a late stage of the process that any comment would not have served any purpose. They argue that this was designed to frustrate their right to respond or comment.
2.3. Furthermore, the complainants submit that the allegations on which they were asked to comment “were not part of the sting of the publication”. Instead, they state, “the sting” was that the article informed the reasonable reader that Rangousis could allegedly have had a motive to harm Botes (“which is in any event denied”).
2.3.1. They point out that the respondent only contacted the office of their legal representative on 6 March 2023 – after the report was published – and that the article contains the following statement: “Rangousis did not respond to inquiries about the alleged extortion. He recently asked that Netwerk24 not contact him again.”
2.4. The complainants then proceed to identify each of the clauses of the Press Code which they believe the article violates.
2.4.1. Firstly, they submit that the article is in breach of Clause 1.1 in that the respondent treated the requirement to obtain comment as a mere technicality and used a time period for publication that would frustrate the entire process.
2.4.2. The complainants further submit that, in the absence of any considered comment or response from them, the article could not have been balanced and is therefore in breach of Clause 1.2.
22.214.171.124. In addition, they argue that the respondent does not disclose that the alleged evidence and the veracity of the “Purported Correspondence” were not confirmed, yet presents these aspects as true and correct in the article. They regard this as a clear distortion and omission, and describe it as both reckless and negligent.
126.96.36.199. They also state that the respondent does not disclose that a finding of extortion has not been made by a judicial process, and argue that the article distorts and exaggerates the alleged “truth” by presenting it as fact.
188.8.131.52. They further state that the respondent does not disclose that it did not verify whether the alleged payments amounting to R130 000 came from Rangousis’ bank account, and maintain that this constitutes a material misrepresentation of the facts.
184.108.40.206. They also submit that the article does not disclose that a letter of demand was sent to the respondent on behalf of Rangousis on 3 March 2023 (it is attached as an annexure), and believe that the respondent was aware that Rangousis had provided a response to its text message but simply ignored calls from the complainants’ legal representative.
220.127.116.11. They claim that the respondent was intent on publishing the article whether or not any commentary was provided. They add that the article created the misleading impression that Rangousis responded to the text message by noting that he had no further comment.
18.104.22.168. Instead, they argue, the respondent stated that the complainants did not respond to the allegations and quoted what was allegedly provided to the journalist “as comment to a previous publication”.
2.4.3. The complainants also take issue with the statement in the article that Rangousis was extorted for money by Botes, which they deny, but then claims that a loan agreement was allegedly in place. They argue that is “counter intuitive” for a person to be extorted yet still attend to payments in terms of a loan agreement.
22.214.171.124. They contend that the article is in breach of Clause 1.3 because the respondent did not verify the facts, yet nevertheless states “as fact” that Rangousis was extorted.
126.96.36.199. They also argue that the article did not disclose that the payments which had allegedly been made by Rangousis to Botes and the purported correspondence between them were not verified by Rangousis or the relevant banking institutions and cellular networks. As such, they submit, the claims in the article on these matters are “nothing more than spurious allegations”.
188.8.131.52. They further take exception to what they regard as the inference that the allegations regarding extortion and the payments allegedly made to Botes by Rangousis constitute “puzzle pieces” in her murder. They state that this inference is not presented as speculative and defamatory, but is instead presented as fact, “which is false”.
2.4.4. The complainants also argue that the article is in breach of Clause 1.7 because it does not state that the information it relies upon was not verified or, if it was verified, it does not state how this was done. Nor, they assert, does the article alert the reasonable reader to the possibility that the information and sources it relies upon were not verified.
2.4.5. They believe that the article is in breach of Clause 1.8 and repeat their argument that the respondent failed to advise them of the proposed date of publication of the article, and that this therefore did not give them a reasonable opportunity to respond to the allegations.
184.108.40.206. They also state that the journalist did not disclose how she should be contacted outside of the text message to Rangousis, and reiterate their claim that she refused to take any calls from their legal representative and thereby made it impossible for Rangousis to provide a response.
2.4.6. The complainants further believe the article is in breach of Clause 3.1 in that the respondent failed to seek comment from Debbie Rangousis, and did not advise her of the intended date of publication or give her a reasonable opportunity to respond to the aspects of the article which relate directly to her.
220.127.116.11. They go on to argue that the article shows a disregard for their privacy by disclosing their location and occupation.
18.104.22.168. Moreover, they believe that the article distorts the facts in an effort to create the inference that Rangousis is complicit in the disappearance or murder of Botes, “which is patently false”.
22.214.171.124. They therefore assert that the respondent did not take sufficient care to comply with the requirement of the Press Code to exercise due care and consideration in matters involving the private lives of individuals.
2.4.7. The complainants also believe that the respondent is in breach of Clause 3.3 by failing to be available for text messages and phone calls before publication of the article “in the context of the date and time that comment was sought” – depriving them of a reasonable opportunity to respond.
126.96.36.199. The complainants state that the article has had an impact on their rights to dignity and reputation “given the false and outrageous inferences that are drawn therein”.
188.8.131.52. They believe that the respondent failed to exercise reasonable care to establish whether “the alleged facts” upon which the article premised its accusations can be confirmed as reasonably true.
2.4.8. The complainants submit that the article is also in breach of Clause 4.4, and state that their safety and that of their minor children have been severely prejudiced by the disclosure of their location and occupation.
2.4.9. In conclusion, they assert that the inferences with regard to Rangousis are not only premised on false and untested information, but are the result of questionable media practices and tactics which vitiate the respondent’s reliance on the defence that a defamatory article is in the public interest.
2.5. The respondent denies that the article contravenes the Press Code in any way, and proceeds to provide background information on its coverage of Botes’ murder. It describes her as a victim of femicide and gender-based violence and, as such, regards the story as “of manifest public interest”.
2.5.1. The journalist who wrote the article first started working on the story of Botes’ murder in May 2021 while working for Huisgenoot, one of Netwerk24’s sister publications, after news broke that Botes’ dismembered body was found in the Vaal River.
2.5.2. The journalist first contacted Rangousis in 2021, and subsequently gathered information which suggested that he was a close acquaintance of Botes. As a result, she came to regard him as an important part of the story.
2.5.3. She continued working on the story after joining Netwerk24 in August 2022 and subsequently wrote a number of articles on Botes’ disappearance and death.
2.5.4. She contacted Rangousis on 28 September 2022 for the first time in her capacity as an investigative journalist for Netwerk24 and put a list of questions to him via WhatsApp. She said he read these messages but ignored them.
2.5.5. The journalist also contacted Debbie Rangousis in September 2022 after she (the journalist) received messages between Antoni Rangousis and Botes. She notes that a message sent to Debbie Rangousis on 28 September 2022 about these messages did not go through, and suspects that it had been blocked.
2.5.6. The journalist suggests that it is against this backdrop that the complaint about her article must be understood, and believes that her reporting and requests for comment on this matter could not have come as a surprise to the complainants, “as the complaint attempts to suggest”.
2.6. The respondent goes on to deny the defamatory meanings that the complaint ascribes to the article, and submits that publication of the article is entirely justifiable as it is based on text messages, bank statements and interviews with those who have knowledge of the investigation into Botes’ murder.
2.6.1. The respondent points out that these text messages as well as bank statements “evidencing payments” from a bank account allegedly used by Rangousis were confirmed by more than one source, including a private investigator.
2.6.2. The respondent adds that Rangousis does not directly deny the existence of these text messages in his complaint, but merely denies that he was extorted.
2.7. The respondent then proceeds to address what it understands to be the main complaint against the article – that the complainants were not contacted for comment, in breach of Clause 1.8 of the Press Code.
2.7.1. The respondent starts off by declaring that the article presents only what it believes to be true or reasonably true according to its sources, in line with Clause 1.3 of the Press Code.
2.7.2. The respondent then goes on to deny that the article does not meet the requirements of Clause 1.8 of the Press Code.
2.7.3. It argues that the complaint was drafted in a highly selective manner, with the possible intention of creating the misleading impression that its request for comment was “somehow sprung” on the complainants.
2.7.4. The respondent rejects this suggestion, and submits that it went well beyond what is expected of a journalist, “especially one that is faced with subjects who actively seek to avoid being contacted”.
2.7.5. The journalist provides a timeline of events that immediately preceded the publication of the article in question which, in her view, demonstrates that the article complies with the Press Code.
184.108.40.206. She notes that she sent Rangousis a request for comment on 22 February 2023 regarding a story that Netwerk24 intended to publish the next day. According to her, Rangousis read the text but ignored it.
220.127.116.11. The journalist then asked a Netwerk24 colleague, Mia Spies, to phone Rangousis on her behalf. His response was recorded in an article subsequently published on 23 February 2023.
18.104.22.168. The journalist was also informed by a source on 22 February 2023 about the alleged extortion of Rangousis, and told about text messages which purportedly provide evidence to that effect between Rangousis and Botes.
22.214.171.124. She sent Rangousis a follow-up message on 23 February 2023 and asked for comment on these allegations of extortion. However, this message did not go through to the WhatsApp number to which a request for comment had successfully been sent the previous day.
126.96.36.199. The journalist maintains that she obtained further confirmation from multiple sources during the following week regarding the messages between Rangousis and Botes.
188.8.131.52. When she still did not receive a notification by 3 March 2023 that her messages had been read, she concluded that Rangousis had deliberately blocked her on WhatsApp.
184.108.40.206. She then sent Rangousis an SMS at 9.51am on 3 March 2023 in an attempt to ensure that he was aware of her request for comment, and followed it up with a phone call at about 10.30am, but there was no answer.
220.127.116.11. When no response was received to the message or phone call by around 5pm that day, the journalist decided – in the interests of balance and fairness – to include relevant responses previously obtained from Rangousis. The article was then filed and submitted for editing and publication.
18.104.22.168. After work, at around 5.30pm, the journalist put her phone on silent as she was spending time with her family and only attended to missed calls and messages, including the letter sent by the complainants’ legal representative on Friday at 7.17pm, on the following Monday morning.
22.214.171.124. The respondent contends that, in the circumstances, it duly complied with all its ethical obligations in terms of Clause 1.8. It further notes that Rangousis did not make use of
multiple opportunities to engage with its journalist and instead told Netwerk24 that he did not have any further comment on the matter.
126.96.36.199. The respondent adds that Rangousis could have phoned the journalist during the roughly seven hours that lapsed between receiving her text message and the submission of the article to inform her that they were working on a response.
188.8.131.52. Instead, the respondent notes, Rangousis forwarded the SMS to his lawyer, “who made no attempt to contact [the journalist] or anyone at Netwerk24 for some 7 hours”. It dismisses as absurd the suggestion that Netwerk24, an online digital news platform, could not be contacted because no email address was provided.
184.108.40.206. And when a response was eventually received, the respondent contends, it was not an attempt to respond meaningfully to its request for comment, but included a threat of litigation which sought an undertaking from the respondent not to publish anything at all.
220.127.116.11. It therefore submits that there was no real intention by Rangousis to respond to its requests for comment and, in fact, he had earlier made it clear that he no longer wished to comment. Despite this, the respondent says, it still went to considerable lengths to obtain comment from him.
2.7.6. With regard to the complaint that it did not contact Debbie Rangousis for comment, the respondent denies that she is any way the subject of critical reportage in the article or that it was duty-bound to contact her. It states that she is only directly mentioned – “by way of background” – on one occasion.
18.104.22.168. Moreover, the respondent adds, the reference to Debbie Rangousis being one of the first people to phone Botes’ husband after her disappearance was previously reported by Netwerk24 on 23 February 2023.
22.214.171.124. It also repeats the point it made earlier that it appears that Debbie Rangousis had blocked the author of the article from calling or texting her by 28 September 2022 (see 2.5.5 above).
2.8. The respondent then goes on to address other complaints raised by the complainants.
2.8.1. The respondent denies that the reference to “pieces of the puzzle” contains the sting that the complainants attach to it, and says that this reference is clearly to Botes’ past and her personal life. It further argues that reporting on the final months of her life is entirely justifiable.
126.96.36.199. It also denies the “sting” that the complainants seek to attach to the article – to the effect that Rangousis would have had a motive to harm Botes – and points out that the article does not contain such a statement and, in fact, states that the motive behind her murder remains unknown.
2.8.2. The respondent further denies that it “connived” to ask Rangousis for comment on 3 March 2023 only, and again states out that this was not its first point of contact with him.
188.8.131.52. It says that the same message was sent to him on 23 February 2023. This was followed up with a message and request on 3 March 2023 (the day before publication).
2.8.3. The respondent disputes that the reporting “could never have been balanced”. It reiterates that there were multiple opportunities for Rangousis to contact it or provide more detailed comments, but he chose not to do so (see 184.108.40.206).
220.127.116.11. The respondent notes that, in an attempt to report on the matter in a fair and balanced manner, the article includes previous denials and comments by Rangousis (in line with Clause 1.2).
18.104.22.168. It reiterates that both complainants were contacted numerous times previously and as recently as a week before publication. However, they say, both complainants opted to remain silent.
2.8.4. The respondent further denies that it did not exercise care in matters involving the private lives of individuals (in breach of Clause 3.1), and argues that this claim is contradicted by the information set out above.
2.8.5. The respondent states that it believes every fact in the article to be true or substantially true (in line with Clauses 1.1 and 1.3). Nevertheless, it says, it approached the article with caution and used the word “allegedly” (“na bewering”) throughout to indicate that the information had not been confirmed by a criminal court and that there were ongoing criminal investigations.
2.8.6. Furthermore, it contends that it did everything possible to verify its information (as required by Clause 1.7). It states that it does not represent the South African Police Service (SAPS) or the state, and denies that it has a duty to report information to them.
22.214.171.124. It further states that Rangousis has not “directly” denied the existence of text messages between him and Botes.
126.96.36.199. With regard to the reference to transfers to Botes of an amount totalling R130 000, the respondent points out that this was presented as an allegation.
188.8.131.52. In addition, it conducted “extensive cross-references” with later bank statements of Botes and information she had shared “with people close to her or the investigation”, and submits that these confirmed the veracity of the content of these messages.
2.8.7. The respondent also points out that the article clearly states that Rangousis did not comment on the allegations of extortion, and adds that his previous comments were included for the sake of balance and fairness in order to comply with Clause 1.2 of the Press Code.
184.108.40.206. The respondent submits that Botes’ text messages, a private investigator’s report and later bank statements support its claim that the “alleged funding” of Rangousis to Botes was going on from at least 2019 until a month before her death. It adds that Rangousis denies these allegations and instead refuses to provide an explanation.
2.8.8. The respondent further denies that the article does not exercise care and consideration in matters involving dignity and reputation (as required by Clause 3.3), and contends that the article only refers vaguely to Rangousis as a “businessman” from the East Rand. The article does not include any other personal information.
2.9. Lastly, the respondent states that its article is undeniably in the public interest (also see 2.5) .
Antoni and Debbie Rangousis
2.10. In the opening remarks of their response, the complainants refer to the booklet Decoding the Code – Sentence by Sentence (second edition), written by former Press Ombudsman Johan Retief.
2.10.1. They quote, among other comments, the following: “Consider the following unfair practices: • Asking a subject for comment, but then reporting on matters that the subject was not asked about; • Asking difficult questions with short notice; • Making an enquiry without confirming that the subject has indeed received it ...” (complainants’ emphases)
2.11. The complainants go on to submit that the article is defamatory in relation to Rangousis in that it seeks to draw the inference that he is implicated and/or alternatively responsible for Botes’ murder or may be the reason for her murder (which is denied).
2.11.1. They suggest that this inference is so strong that general members of the public believe that Rangousis either murdered Botes or was implicated in her murder, and provide screenshots of eight comments as annexures in support of this claim.
2.11.2. They further submit that there is no evidence that connects Rangousis to Botes’ murder, either directly or indirectly, and say that the SAPS never arrested him or deemed it appropriate to prosecute him.
2.11.3. They contend that the article relies on “purported” bank statements and Whatsapp messages which have not been verified, but merely corroborated. They state that banks and telecommunications networks are precluded from confirming statements and data “obviously obtained illegally”. They add that, unless Rangousis verified this information (which they deny), it is impossible that the contents of these documents were verified legally.
2.11.4. Accordingly, they submit that it is reckless to infer that Rangousis is in any way linked to Botes’ murder, and regard such an inference in the article as “beyond the realm of what is reasonable, honest, fair and true”.
2.11.5. On the basis of the above, they repeat their request for the article to be retracted.
2.12. The complainants then proceed to address the contents of the respondent’s reply.
2.12.1. They claim that the author of the article has become emotionally attached to the story about Botes’ murder and that, as a result, she has lost sight of the journalistic obligation to be impartial. They note that her response places the article within the context of femicide and gender-based violence even though there is no evidence that Botes was targeted because of her gender.
2.12.2. While they concede that the story is in the public interest on the grounds that her murder is a tragedy, they deny that it is in the public interest to publish articles which suggest that “innocent persons” are implicated and/or responsible for murder.
2.12.3. They submit that the journalist confirms that she singled out Rangousis based on evidence which, they argue, has at best been corroborated but not verified – as required in terms of Clause 1.7 of the Press Code.
2.12.4. In this regard, they quote the following comment from Decoding the Code: “This clause [1.7] does not state it explicitly, but its spirit is that journalists should verify doubtful information that is likely to harm somebody unnecessarily. The greater the likelihood of harm, the greater the need for verification; and vice versa.” (complainants’ emphasis)
2.13. The complainants then return to the subject of the respondent’s attempt to contact Rangousis on 3 March 2023 (see point 2.2).
2.13.1. They go on to quote the following comment from Decoding the Code: “Making use of one type of communication (for example, a cell phone) when there are other mechanisms available to obtain the comment you need – never be lackadaisical, just to satisfy the minimum effort that is required from you. It simply is not sufficient to make a phone call or two, and then wash your hands in innocence if you were unsuccessful …” (complainants’ emphases)
2.13.2. They again state that the respondent did not indicate when the article was intended for publication and did not provide an email address (see points 2.2.1 and 2.2.2 above).
2.13.3. They say the respondent then proceeded – “without fair warning” – to publish the article the following morning. They add that the respondent ignored the letter of demand from the office of their legal representative.
2.14. The complainants further state that the respondent was aware that the journalist’s WhatsApp messages were not being read, but took no further steps to contact them given the gravity of the allegations and did not attempt to reach them through an alternative platform.
2.14.1. They describe the journalist’s messages via WhatsApp (“generally a private communication tool”) as unsolicited, and argue that unscheduled calls did not take into account their busy schedules or their right to privacy. (They later suggest email or text messages as alternative platforms of communication.)
2.14.2. They further deny that they ever requested their “right to fair comment” [sic] to be disregarded, but only asked not to be harassed. Moreover, they submit, the office of their legal representative attempted to call the journalist several times.
2.15. The complainants submit that, since the publication of the article, they have been subjected to attacks on their integrity “in the public sphere” and have experienced a negative impact on their business and on their family life.
2.16. With regard to the reference in the article to the “pieces of the puzzle”, the complainants state that this creates the impression that the information regarding the alleged extortion is the puzzle piece that links Rangousis to Botes’ murder.
2.17. After again rejecting or denying several other aspects of the respondent’s reply, the complainants proceed to deny that the respondent could have verified the information on which the article is based.
2.17.1. They argue that it seems as if the information was gathered from unlawful sources. They go on to state that if there were messages of the nature purported in the article, only Rangousis, Botes or telecommunications networks could have confirmed their veracity. They say that Rangousis has never seen or verified these messages (see 2.11.3).
2.17.2. They add that, in these circumstances, the use of the word alleged is an indictment of the respondent’s views regarding the veracity of the information contained in the article.
2.17.3. They further submit that Rangousis never denied that he communicated with Botes. However, they say, he does deny that he communicated with her to the extent set out in the article, and specifically that he was ever extorted by Botes.
2.17.4. In addition, they argue that the respondent concedes that the bank statements were not obtained from or verified by the bank, and contend that the corroboration of a lie does not make it true.
2.17.5. In conclusion, they state that it is “not unfathomable” that a third party fabricated these messages of extortion in order to create a motive that links Rangousis to the murder of Botes.
3.1. The complainants argue that the article is in breach of Clause 1.1 of the Press Code. However, this complaint is raised specifically in relation to the obligation to obtain comment timeously.
3.1.1. It would therefore be more appropriate to consider this aspect as part of the complaint that the article violates Clause 1.8 of the Press Code (see point 3.5 below).
3.2. Part of the complaint that the article is in breach of Clause 1.2 of the Press Code also overlaps with the complaint about the obligation to obtain comment in terms of Clause 1.8. The complainants claim that, without their comment, the article lacks balance. This aspect will also be dealt with under point 3.5 below, which deals with Clause 1.8.
3.2.1. The complaint that the respondent does not disclose that the alleged evidence and “Purported Correspondence” were not confirmed, and that this is a departure from the facts by distortion and omission, overlaps with their complaint about Clause 1.7 and will be dealt with under point 3.4 below.
3.2.2. The complainants further argue that the article does not disclose that a finding of extortion has not been made by a judicial process, but that – through distortion and exaggeration – it nevertheless presents this as fact.
3.2.3. However, the article routinely uses the word “allegedly” to explicitly indicate that certain aspects of the article have not been the subject of a finding by a court of law. It also occasionally uses the word “apparently” to serve the same purpose.
3.2.4. The complainants go on to claim that the failure of the article to verify that alleged payments amounting to R130 000 emanated from Rangousis’ bank account constitutes a material misrepresentation of the facts.
220.127.116.11. This aspect of the article is based on text messages allegedly sent by Botes, a private investigator’s report and bank statements. In other words, this allegation is presented in context and in a balanced manner, as required by Clause 1.2 of the Press Code.
18.104.22.168. This part of the complaint will be addressed further under point 3.7 below.
3.3. The complainants also argue that the article is in breach of Clause 1.3 of the Press Code, based on the contention that the respondent did not verify certain facts in the article, and in particular that Rangousis was extorted.
3.3.1. However, unlike Clause 1.7 of the Press Code, this clause does not state that information should be verified, but only requires that information that is presented as fact “may reasonably be true”.
3.3.2. Furthermore, the article sufficiently complies with the requirement of Clause 1.3 that allegations should be clearly presented as such. This aspect has already been addressed under 3.2.3 above.
3.3.3. The objection of the complainants to what they regard as an inference that the allegations regarding extortion and payments allegedly made to Botes by Rangousis are pieces of the puzzle in her murder are unfounded.
22.214.171.124. The complainants state that this inference is not presented as speculative but as fact. However, the reference to “pieces of the puzzle” in the introduction of the article is specifically made with regard to information about Botes’ personal life.
126.96.36.199. And, in fact, the very next sentence of the article declares unambiguously: “Die motief agter [haar] wrede moord twee jaar gelede, is egter tot vandag onbekend” (“However, the motive behind [her] brutal murder two years ago, remains unknown to this day”).
188.8.131.52. The reference to “pieces of the puzzle” therefore does not draw any inference between allegations of extortion and payments allegedly made to Botes by Rangousis. As such, this aspect of the complaint is without merit.
3.4. An important aspect of the complaint is that the article is in breach of Clause 1.7 of the Press Code because it relies on information that is not verified.
3.4.1. However, the respondent did indeed make concerted attempts to verify its information before the article was published. The article is based on text messages and bank statements, and the respondent cross-checked its information with multiple sources, including a private investigator and people close to Botes.
184.108.40.206. Even so, the article presents the transfer of amounts to Botes totalling R130 000 from a bank account allegedly used by Rangousis as just that – an allegation (though this qualification is mistakenly omitted in relation to the second reference in the article to these payments).
220.127.116.11. And while Rangousis points out that he did not confirm the veracity of the text messages or bank statements on which the article is based, he did not respond timeously to attempts to contact him and offer an explanation.
18.104.22.168. In the absence of any explanation or information from him, the respondent attempted to independently establish the veracity of these text messages and bank statements. On the basis of the information it provides in its response to the complaint, there is sufficient evidence to suggest that it made rigorous efforts to do so.
22.214.171.124. In contrast, the complainants do not provide any evidence whatsoever for their claim that a third party could have fabricated the text messages to Botes in order to create a motive of extortion.
3.4.2. The article does not identify the sources it consulted to verify the information on which it relies. In its response to the complaint, the respondent submits that it is duty-bound to protect the confidentiality of its sources, in line with Section 11 of the Press Code.
126.96.36.199. While mindful of this obligation to protect confidential sources, I nevertheless requested the respondent to provide a general indication of the identity of these sources, and to provide some information on the measures it employed to check the veracity of the text messages and the bank statements on which the article is based.
188.8.131.52. The respondent duly complied and, on the basis of the information provided, I am satisfied that it made extensive and considered efforts to establish the veracity of the contents of its article.
3.5. Another key part of the complaint is that the respondent did not give the complainants adequate time to respond to its request for comment, in breach of Clause 1.8 of the Press Code.
3.5.1. However, it is important to note that before publication of the article, the respondent contacted Rangousis on 23 February 2023 via WhatsApp, and specifically asked him about the allegation that Botes was extorting him for money (annexure 7 of the respondent).
3.5.2. This message was not delivered, even though a message had successfully gone through to the same number the previous day.
3.5.3. The respondent again contacted Rangousis at 9.51am on 3 March 2023 – this time by SMS – and once more asked him about the allegation that he was being extorted by Botes (annexure 8 of the respondent).
3.5.4. When there was yet again no response from Rangousis, the respondent attempted to reach him by phone around 10.30am, but the call was not answered (annexure 9 of the respondent).
3.5.5. When there was still no response by 5pm that day, the respondent decided – in the interests of fairness and balance – to include all relevant responses previously received from Rangousis in the article before filing it for publication.
3.5.6. The time between the first approach by the respondent to Rangousis (9.51am) and the submission of the article for publication (5pm) – just over seven hours – appears to be quite limited and, at first glance, even unreasonable.
184.108.40.206. However, this time frame must be seen against the background of the fact that the respondent first approached Rangousis for comment on 23 February 2023, without any success, and that two further attempts to reach him on 3 March 2023 failed as well.
220.127.116.11. Viewed within this context, he was given sufficient time and opportunity to respond: he was approached via WhatsApp, SMS and phone over a period of more than a week.
18.104.22.168. Neverthless, in an attempt to report on the matter in a fair and balanced manner, the article includes previous denials and comments by Rangousis.
3.5.7. The complainants submit that the office of its legal representative tried to contact the respondent several times by cell phone on 3 March 2023, but without success (annexures 2 and 3 of the complainants). A WhatsApp message was eventually sent to the journalist, again without receiving any response (annexure 5), followed by a letter of demand (annexure 6).
22.214.171.124. However, these attempts to communicate with the respondent were all made after 6pm – more than eight hours after Netwerk24’s first attempt to make contact with Rangousis that day.
126.96.36.199. Furthermore, the main purpose of the letter sent by the complainants’ legal representative to the respondent was not to provide a response to the respondent’s enquiries, but instead to prevent publication of the intended article.
188.8.131.52. It is therefore odd that Rangousis complains that he was not afforded the right to reply when it appears that there was no intention at all to provide a response. On the contrary, he sought to stop publication of the article.
184.108.40.206. For the reasons outlined above, the lack of comment in the article by Rangousis therefore cannot be blamed on the respondent. Nor, for the same reasons, can the respondent be accused of being unfair or unbalanced for not recording any comment from him in the article.
3.5.8. In relation to the complaint that Debbie Rangousis was not approached for comment, it must be noted that Clause 1.8 only applies in instances where someone is the subject of “critical reportage” (my emphasis). The article contains no such material on Debbie Rangousis.
220.127.116.11. The reference to her being one of the first people to phone Wietzue Botes after his wife’s disappearance is presented as no more than background information; it does not express any criticism of her.
3.6. There is no basis for the complaint that the article is in breach of Clause 3.1 of the Press Code by not exercising due care and consideration in matters involving the private lives of individuals.
3.6.1. Contrary to the claim by the complainants, the article does not provide any details of the location and occupation of either of them. It refers, in very general terms, to Rangousis as “die gesiene en getroude Oos-Randse sakeman” (“the well-known and married East Rand businessman”).
18.104.22.168. This description does not offer any specific information to identify the location or occupation of either of the complainants. Such a general description can apply to a number of people who operate a business in that particular region of Gauteng.
22.214.171.124. Furthermore, the article does not provide the address of either the family home or the business premises of the complainants, nor does it provide any details about the nature of their business.
3.6.2. There is no substance either in the complaint that the article is in breach of Clause 3.1 because it did not contact Debbie Rangousis for comment.
126.96.36.199. The only reference to her in the article is that she was one of the first people to phone Botes’ husband after she disappeared (see 3.5.8 and 188.8.131.52 above). It is not clear how this reference constitutes a violation of Debbie Rangousis’ privacy.
184.108.40.206. Moreover, the respondent took care to cross-check its information with multiple sources (see 3.4 above, in particular points 3.4.1, 220.127.116.11 and 18.104.22.168).
3.7. The complaint that the article does not exercise due care and consideration in matters involving dignity and reputation, as required by Clause 3.3 of the Press Code, is also without substance.
3.7.1. As outlined under point 3.4 above, the respondent attempted to check the veracity of its information as far as possible. There is no indication that it acted recklessly and without regard for the dignity and reputation of the complainants.
3.7.2. Furthermore, the article does not present the alleged payments to Botes by Rangouis as a motive for her murder. In fact, it emphatically states in the second sentence of the article that “the motive behind [Botes’] brutal murder two years ago, remains unknown to this day”.
3.7.3. The reasonable reader therefore cannot read the article as inferring that Rangousis was involved in either the disappearance or death of Botes.
22.214.171.124. The respondent cannot be censured for the fact that some readers do draw such an inference (as illustrated by annexures provided by the complainants). A reasonable reader will not make such an assumption on the basis of the information in the article.
3.7.4. It is unfortunate that the complainants have experienced certain difficulties in their business and in their private lives since publication of the article.
126.96.36.199. However, there is no doubt that the article is reporting on a newsworthy event: Botes, a mother of three children, was murdered in mysterious circumstances and her dismembered body found in a river.
188.8.131.52. There is a legitimate public interest in this newsworthy event.
184.108.40.206. According to Africa Check, South Africa ranks among the five countries with the highest female homicide rates in the world. During the 2021/2022 year, 3 198 women were murdered in this country – an average of about nine women every day.
220.127.116.11. The complainants themselves concede that the story is in the public interest on the grounds that Botes’ murder is a tragedy. They add, though, that it is not in the public interest to suggest that “innocent persons” are implicated in or responsible for murder.
18.104.22.168. However, the article in question does no more than allege that there was contact between Botes and Rangousis by way of text messages and bank deposits. It does not accuse Rangousis – or anyone else, for that matter – of being involved in the disappearance or death of Botes.
22.214.171.124. There are, therefore, no grounds to suggest that the article impaired the dignity and reputation of Rangousis.
3.8. There is also no merit in the claim that the article disclosed details of the location and occupation of either of the complainants and that, in so doing, it is in breach of Clause 4.4 of the Press Code.
3.8.1. The article refers, in very general terms, to Rangousis as “the well-known and married East Rand businessman”.
3. 8.1.1. As stated above, this description is devoid of any details which specifically identify the location or occupation of either of the complainants, and could apply to any number of people who operate a business in that particular part of Gauteng (see point 126.96.36.199).
188.8.131.52. The article also does not provide the physical address of either the family residence or the business premises of the complainants, nor does it provide any details about the nature of their business (see point 184.108.40.206 above).
The complaint that the article is in breach of Clause 1.1 was considered in relation to Clause 1.8 for the reasons provided in points 3.1 and 3.1.1 of my Analysis. More generally, there are insufficient grounds to suggest that the article does not comply with Clause 1.1, and is therefore dismissed.
The complaint that the article is in breach of Clause 1.2 is dismissed (see the reasons set out in points 3.2.3 and 220.127.116.11 of my Analysis).
The complaint that the article is in breach of Clause 1.3 is dismissed (for the reasons set out in points 3.3.1 and 3.3.2 and under point 3.3.3 of my Analysis).
The complaint that the article is in breach of Clause 1.7 is dismissed (see the reasons under point 3.4 of my Analysis).
The complaint that the article is in breach of Clause 1.8 is dismissed (for the reasons set out in points 3.5.1 to 18.104.22.168 of my Analysis).
The complaint that the article is in breach of Clause 3.1 is dismissed (see the reasons under point 3.6 of my Analysis).
The complaint that the article is in breach of Clause 3.3 is dismissed (for the reasons set out under point 3.7 of my Analysis).
The complaint that the article is in breach of Clause 4.4 is dismissed (see the reasons set out in points 3.8.1 to 22.214.171.124).
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
Deputy Press Ombudsman
29 June 2023
 This clause is erroneously referred to initially as Clause 3.3.
 It is also worth noting at this point that the journalist previously contacted Rangousis for the first time in 2021 when she worked at Huisgenoot (see point 2.5.2) and contacted him for the first time in her capacity as an investigative reporter at Netwerk24 on 28 September 2022 (see point 2.5.4.)
 See https://africacheck.org/infofinder/explore-facts/how-does-south-africas-femicide-rate-compare