Noupoort Christian Care Center vs Rapport

Wed, Feb 29, 2012

10 November 2009

On 10 May 2009 Rapport published on its front page a report on the Noupoort Christian Care Centre (“Gruverhale van marteling by Noupoort”). Mr Bennes de Wet, who left the Centre, is quoted saying that he would rather commit suicide than return to the Centre.
A further two reports were published on page 8. In the first one a long list of alleged torture and degrading actions is listed. The second report quotes two Noupoort officials (Mr. Paul Ferreira, warden, and Mr. Lukie Carelsen, official spokesperson), stating that they knew of no atrocities at the Centre.
All the reports were written by Marlene Malan.
The following week five more articles appeared in Rapport:
  • three “negative” ones, describing the experience of some of Noupoort’s inhabitants;
  • a “positive” one, where mothers of Noupoort children praised the Centre; and
  • a “neutral” one on heroine.
Noupoort then filed a complaint at the Press Ombudsman’s office with regards to the 10 May 2009 and 17 May 2009 editions.
The first edition: 10 May 2009
The complaint on this edition is twofold:
  • Noupoort was not given an adequate opportunity to respond to the allegations in the articles.
  • Rapport did not publish its formal response.
The relevant Articles of the Press Code are Art. 1.5: “A publication should usually seek the views of the subject of serious critical reportage in advance of publication…” and Art. 1.1: “The press shall be obliged to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly.”
Adequate opportunity
The operative word in the complaint is “adequate”. Noupoort concedes it had an opportunity to respond, but states that that opportunity was not adequate. The question, therefore, is what constitutes an adequate opportunity to respond.
Malan sent an e-mail to Pastor Nissiotis, Noupoort’s head, on Saturday 9 May at 13:59. That constituted ample time for a response – if the e-mail was read as soon as it was sent. But it was not. Nissiotis generally does not check his e-mails on weekends.
Malan should have checked with Nissiotis if he indeed received her e-mail. As the head of the Centre, his comments would have been more than important.
According to Noupoort, Malan’s e-mail to Nissiotis “…came to the attention of Nissiotis only later in the evening preceding the publication of Die (sic) Rapport on the next day when it would have been too late to have formulated a response timeously for publication”.
However, if the matter was of urgent importance to Nissiotis, as it is reasonable to believe, one would have expected an urgent reply by him – or, at the very least, a phone call to Malan to find out if he still had a chance of replying. There is no evidence to suggest that he did make such a phone call. His lack of action is rather strange.
At what time did Nissiotis receive the e-mail?
There is a discrepancy between the complaint and Noupoort's response to Rapport. In the first instance, it is stated that Nissiotis first saw the email from Malan “…on the night of 9 May 2009” (emphasis added); in the second instance it is mentioned that Nissiotis received the e-mail only later in the evening. This is not to split hairs, as Noupoort argues that Nissiotis thought it to be too late for a response. It was winter and therefore it became dark quite early. Can evening be anything from 18:00, 19:00? And night? From 10:00, 11:00? So which is it?
In any event, Malan should have checked that Nissiotis did receive this rather important e-mail. In the end it turned out that he received the e-mail at a time which seemed to him to be too late to reply.
Did Ferreira and Carelsen have adequate opportunity to respond? Of course they had. There is no evidence to suggest that they complained about it at the time. Moreover, both did find time to talk to Malan. What would have been different if the conversations took place a day or two earlier?
Unfair reporting
The Centre states that Rapport reported unfairly by not reporting its formal response, despite having been given an undertaking to that effect. Ferreira’s comment that the Centre does not condone any acts of violence or assault on its patients and that the Centre has never been found guilty of any wrongdoing in the 17 years of its existence, was also not published.
Some other allegations in the complaint could also be construed as being unfair, resulting in grouping them all under this heading.
Why did Rapport not publish the formal response and the statement that the Centre does not condone violence? Rapport explains: “That singular, unsubstantiated statement is meaningless…” 
This comment is unfortunate, to put it mildly. A formal response is a formal response – whether a newspaper believes it to be meaningless or not and whether a newspaper likes it or not.
Noupoort states the allegation that Malan “…made repeated attempts to make contact with Mr. Carelsen for his comments is … highly improbable.” On the contrary – it is rather highly probable. Malan is a seasoned journalist who surely knows the value of hearing all parties in a matter.
Did Malan indicate that Ferreira must not worry “…because Rapport did not intend to publish anything in the newspaper at that stage.”? On the balance of probabilities, this is unlikely. It is hard to believe that a senior journalist, who knows that the decision to publish or not to publish does not rest with her (as Rapport rightly points out) would give that impression.
According to Noupoort, Malan did not disclose to Ferreira that an e-mail had been sent to Nissiotis “…requesting his specific comments on a number of allegations against the Centre”. Then Noupoort states Malan never put the list of allegations to Ferreira. But why should she do that, seeing that Ferreira told her that she should rather speak to Carelsen as he was the official spokesperson of the Centre? And seeing that she already did so in her e-mail to Nissiotis? Furthermore, why should she in the first place “disclose” to Ferreira that she sent an e-mail to Nissiotis?
Noupoort states: “Malan never sought a response to the allegations, which appear in the article entitled ‘Rehabilitasie – stories skok’ on page 8…” To this, Rapport replies that it was clear that the allegations “are simply rejected out of hand and, moreover, branded as untrustworthy allegations made by liars, thieves and criminals”.
It must be said that it is always dangerous to pre-empt people’s responses. The questions should always be asked, even if a journalist expects a certain type of answer. Malan would also have done well if she also asked specific questions relating to specific people. Attention to detail is always important. But does this oversight constitute a breach of the Press Code?
The second edition: 17 May 2009
The gist of this complaint is that Rapport breached Art. 1.5 and Art. 1.1 of the Press Code by not:
  • publishing their response that was sent on Wednesday, 13 May; and
  • affording Noupoort an adequate opportunity to respond to new allegations contained in three “negative” articles.
Non-publication of response
Why was Noupoort’s response not published?
The real question should be: What newspaper will publish a response that is nothing more than a personal attack on one of its journalists? For example: “totale verwronge beeld”, “uiters swak en onprofessionele joernalistiek”, “moes eers seker gemaak het van haar feite”, “sensasionele storie kon opdis”, “aan Rapport se lesers af te smeer”. No self-respecting newspaper will publish that sort of language aimed at itself and at one of its journalists.
Moreover, it is not only what is said, but what is not said in Noupoort’s response that is significant. Why not use this chance to reply to all the allegations that the Centre keeps on saying it never had “adequate opportunity” to do? Why not (again) state that Noupoort does not condone any form of violence?
 On the “undertaking” of Ms Magda Botha to publish the Centre’s response: It is highly unlikely for a personal assistant to an editor to give an undertaking that something will be published.
Lack of response to new allegations
According to Noupoort, the new allegations are:
  • no medication is administered at the Centre during the drug-withdrawal phase;
  • patients are forced to drink water until they vomit;
  • the food is worm-infested; and
  • there is a 50% chance that a child will not come out of the Centre alive.
Rapport’s response to these allegations is inadequate. Yes, in the edition of May 10 medical issues were mentioned, as the newspaper points out, but not so for this specific allegation. The same goes for bad food – “worm-infested” is never mentioned. In its response to the complaint, Rapport is silent as far as the “50% chance” allegation is concerned and materially also quiet on the allegation that patients are forced to drink water until they vomit.
Rapport blames the Centre’s “persistent failure to deal with any of these allegations” for its decision not to seek further comments from it. Pre-empting Noupoort’s response, it said: “In these circumstances, there was no point and indeed no need for Rapport to seek further comments from the Centre…”
There may have been no point in asking these new questions, but there certainly is a need to do just that – even if a newspaper thinks it knows in advance what the comment will be.
This is even more so if the new allegations are as serious as the ones in question.
While it is impossible for this office to ascertain the truth concerning the first three allegations, the same does not apply to the “50% chance” allegation. This is clearly not true. There were four deaths at Noupoort since its inception in 1991, as reported by Rapport. Statistically this means that Noupoort dealt with only eight people between 1991 and 2009. Yes, that is not Rapport’s view – it quotes Mr Richard Klingan. But is it fair to publish a statistic that is clearly wrong? Especially when it can cause huge damage to so many people?
It must be said that the story “Ma’s loof Noupoort – Onortodokse metodes maak hul gesinne heel” did much to the balance of the reporting. Rapport is to be commended for that.
Ferreira and Carelsen indeed had adequate opportunity to respond. There is no reason to believe that they would have said anything different if they were contacted a day or two earlier. The complaint pertaining to Clause 1.5 of the Press Code with respect to Ferreira and Carelsen is therefore dismissed.
Due to unfortunate circumstances, Nissiotis did not have adequate time to respond. This situation would have been avoided if Malan checked with Nissiotis. The complaint pertaining to Clause 1.5 of the Press Code with reference to Nissiotis is therefore upheld.
The decision by Rapport not to publish the Centre’s formal response (10 May) cannot be condoned. The crux of the matter seems to be that it was not reported that the Centre does not condone violence, as well as that the Centre has never been found guilty of any wrongdoing in its 17 years of existence.
So what did Rapport publish?
It reported, among other things:
  • Ferreira’s denial that he knew anything about the alleged abuses;
  • Carelsen saying that the allegations were totally untrue (“’n pot snert – totaal onwaar”); and
  • Ferreira stating that Noupoort had been taken to court three times, and was found not guilty on all three occasions.
The last sentence knocks the bottom out of Noupoort’s statement that Rapport did not report that the Centre had never been found guilty of any wrongdoing.
But the refusal to report the statement that Noupoort does not condone violence still lingers on.
Ferreira’s denial that he does not know of any abuses, as well as Carelsen’s statement that the allegations of abuse are totally untrue, suggest that violence is not condoned in the Centre. By reporting that, Rapport indeed gave Noupoort’s view on the matter, albeit in a different form.
If not for those two statements, the reporting would indeed have been unfair and the ruling would have gone against Rapport.
The complaint is therefore dismissed
The complaint that Rapport did not publish Noupoort’s formal response (17 May) is dismissed for reasons already given.
Rapport should have asked Noupoort’s comment on the new allegations, especially in the light of the seriousness thereof. By not doing so, it has breached Art. 1.5 of the Press code. Rapport should also not have published the “50%”allegation, as it is clearly misleading and unfair – breaching Art. 1.1 of the Press Code. This complaint is therefore upheld.
Rapport is reprimanded for:
  • not affording Nissiotis adequate time to respond;
  • not asking Noupoort’s comments on the new allegations; and
  • publishing the statement that children have a 50% chance of surviving Noupoort.
Please note that our Complaints Procedures lays down that within seven days of receipt of this decision, anyone of the parties may apply for leave to appeal to the Chairperson of the SA Press Appeals Panel, Judge Ralph Zulman, fully setting out the grounds of appeal.
Yours truly,
Johan Retief
Deputy Press Ombudsman