Shepherd Bushiri vs. Daily Sun


Mon, Mar 18, 2019

Particulars

Complainant: ‘Prophet’ Shepherd Bushiri, of the Enlightened Christian Gathering (ECG) church

Lodged by: Makhudu Sefara of Unscripted Communication (Pty) Ltd.

Date of article: 18 February 2019

Headline: On the front page: Sex claims rock Bushiri church! – ‘Luxury hotels used for sexual encounters’; continued on page 2: At least four women claim abuse

Online: Yes

Authors of article: Aaron Dube and Kgomotso Medupe

Respondent: Johan Vos, deputy editor

Complaint                                            

Mr Shepherd Bushiri complains, in general, that the story was not true, accurate and fair.

In particular, he complains that the:

·   article falsely and unfairly:

o   described the church as “one big bedroom”;

o   reported on how hotels in Gauteng provided “centres for sexual encounters and sickening orgies”; and

·   main headline was false and misleading.

Bushini adds that the reportage was meant to defame, shame and thus destroy the ECG, and complains that it has caused considerable – if not irreparable – harm to him, the church, and its leadership.

He asks for a complete withdrawal of the allegations and an unreserved apology published with the same prominence as the offending article.

The text

The article, that started on page 1 and continued to page 2, said #NotInMyNameSA alleged that four female members of the ECG had accused its top leaders of sexual harassment and abuse.

In particular, the women described the church as “one big bedroom”, and stated that luxurious Gauteng hotels were centres for sexual encounters and sickening orgies.

The arguments

SEFARA says the allegations are false and not supported by facts, and adds: “We believe such facts are not included in the story because they do not exist.”

He wants to know who participated in the so-called orgies, and when and where this happened. “There is no effort is the news story to support the allegation with facts or evidence. Our submission is that the orgies are a figment of someone’s creative imagination,” he submits.

VOS says #NotInMyNameSA sent out a media statement about the claims made in the article. The newspaper then phoned Mr Themba Masango, the organisation’s secretary.

He says the latter told a journalist that “many women described the church as ‘one big bedroom’.” He added that the movement had been approached by former and current congregants who confidentially narrated their sexual harassment and abuse ordeals.

Vos says Masango also said: “We have their statements and testimonies of how luxurious Gauteng hotels were centres for sexual encounters and sickening orgies. The encounters date back several years.”

The deputy editor submits:

·         The allegations published in the article were made by Masango and reflected in #NotInMyNameSA’s statement;

·         As Masango promised the women to keep their identities confidential, he refused to allow the newspaper to interview any of them;

·         Daily Sun offered Mr Ephraim Nyondo, communications director for the ECG, a right of reply and he said: “We are not aware of this. We are in the middle of a church service as we speak.” He adds that further attempts to solicit more comment from him failed; and

·         The article was in the public interest as serious allegations were made against church leaders, who were in the public eye and were role models in society.

SEFARA replies that libellous fabrications do not give Daily Sun a license too to defame as well.

He remarks that Daily Sun was the only publication that published the “offending, untruthful, malicious, unproven claims”, and argues that an allegation is not true just because it was made.

“Put differently,” he continues, “publishing without establishing the veracity of claims made against innocent people, ‘journalism’ becomes a murderous weapon! That’s the very antithesis of journalism as a force for good.”

He says journalists should do more than circulate rumour and conjecture. “If journalists can’t establish the truth of a situation they report on, they must at least pretend to have made a reasonable effort to get to the truth. Not Daily Sun in this case,” he adds.

He asks for the harshest sanction possible.

Analysis

The central (media ethical) questions are if Daily Sun was justified in:

·         publishing the allegation in question without verifying the facts; and

·         identifying Bushiri as the main accused.

Let me state, in general, that the more serious an allegation, the greater the possibility of causing unnecessary harm – and therefore the more wary the media should be in publishing such a statement.

The seriousness of the allegation against the preacher is not in question.

I have said umpteen times that a publication is not justified to publish an allegation just because someone has made it – there has to be some possibility that the allegation is, or could be, reasonably true. There should be some form of verification. If, for example, someone slanders a person (i.e. makes an untrue statement that significantly lowers that person’s reputation and that is not in the public interest – I shall shortly return to this matter), the publication of such a statement would also be defamatory.

But more needs to be said.

Without questioning #NotInMyName’s integrity, I cannot help but wonder why the organisation did not lay charges against Bushiri and other leaders at ECG, but instead opted to involve the media. If they were so sure of their case, as they seem to be, I would have expected them to “fight” for the women (as they said they intended to do) in a proper way – no real satisfaction can be gained from publishing their story in a newspaper, while much was to be gained by taking the preacher to court.

Another crucial factor is the fact that the accusers are all anonymous. (In the #MeToo movement, the accusers all revealed their identities.) This means they can say whatever they like, without fear that they could be contradicted or found to be malicious.

At this stage, the flickering lights should have turned to orange – the media have to be alert to the fact that all anonymous sources may have an agenda. Please note I am not saying the accusers in this case had an agenda, as I would not know if that was the case – the point is that a publication should be alert to such a possibility.

And then the newspaper was denied an opportunity to speak to the accusers. This should have turned the orange light into a red one. Yes, the newspaper wanted to interview them. The fact that it was prohibited from doing so, should have persuaded the editor not to publish. A proper decision to publish or not should only have been taken after such interviews.

I find it strange that the newspaper was not allowed to speak to the accusers – surely, it was not going to reveal their identity?

Also, according to Section 1.7 of the Press Code this should have been stated in the article.

The fact that Bushiri was a role model and that the matter was in the public interest should not have turned the yellow light to green. I would argue the opposite, namely that it was against the public interest to publish such serious allegations and to identify the preacher and the church under circumstances such as these.

I am not saying that Bushiri and the other church leaders are innocent. I simply do not know the truth – and, in any case, that is not for me to say.  

In the end, what happened was that the newspaper reverted to a #NotInMyName-said-accusers-said scenario. That is called hearsay.

The reportage has indeed caused considerable – if not irreparable – harm to Bushiri’s reputation, as well as to the church and its leadership.

Section 3.3 of the Press Code states that the dignity and reputation of people may be overridden inter alia if:

·         “the facts reported are true or substantially true; or

·         “the reportage amounts to protected comment based on facts that are adequately referred to and that are either true or reasonably true”; or

·         “it was reasonable for the information to be communicated because it was prepared in accordance with acceptable principles of journalistic conduct.”

The reportage has not met any of these requirements.

Finding

Daily Sun is in breach of the following sections of the Press Code:

·         1.1: “The media shall take care to report news … fairly”;

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

·         3.3: “The media shall exercise care and consideration in matters involving dignity and reputation…”

Seriousness of breaches                                              

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

The breaches of the Press Code as indicated above are all Tier 2 offences.

Sanction

Daily Sun is directed to:

·         unconditionally apologise to Bushiri, the ECG and the church’s leaders for publishing the damning allegations,; and

·         unreservedly withdraw those statements.

The newspaper is directed to publish:

·         the apology and withdrawal prominently at the top of page 2, with a headline containing the words “apology” or “apologises” and “Bushiri”;

·         a kicker on its front page, either immediately underneath the masthead, or directly next to it, also containing the words “apology” or “apologises” and “Bushiri”, and referring to the text on page 2; and

·         this text online, at the top of the article.

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”;

·     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.

Johan Retief

Press Ombud