Tefo Mohale vs. Sowetan


Tue, Nov 20, 2018

Ruling by the Press Ombud

20 November 2018

Particulars

Date of article: 17 October 2018

Headline: Son’s chilling call: ‘Mom, I killed my sister, – Dagga-smoking man slits sibling’s throat and kills her son as well

Page: 1, 2

Respondent: Wendy Pretorius, managing editor

Complaint                                            

The gist of Mr Mohale’s complaint is that the article, and especially the sub-headline, perpetuated stereotypes about the cannabis plant and its users, based on prejudice and not on fact.

The text

The article was about a woman, Ms Nokulunga Pita, who had returned to her home in Tembisa after a frantic phone call from her son saying something bad had happened.

She reportedly found her son sitting next to her daughter’s mutilated body and that of her 13-month old baby (whose private parts were missing).

“My son told me he had killed his sister and nephew,” the woman said.

Pita said her 25-year-old son had a drug problem and behaved strangely when he was on a high. “He is a good person but [he] behaves strangely after smoking dagga. He would act wild, and be angry about everything. He had stopped smoking some time ago but I smelled dagga on him recently. I asked him if he was smoking again but he did not respond,” she was quoted as saying.

The arguments

MOHALE complains the sub-heading implied that it was the dagga that made this man to kill. He says the mother’s testimony that “he is a good person but behaves strangely after smoking” was not a good enough reason for the Sowetan to have justified its sub-headline.

He says the newspaper cannot claim to be ignorant of the:

  • kind of social prejudice that this plant has endured;
  • social impact the illegality of this plant has had on its users;
  • kind of social context that continues to surround its use; and
  • fact that dagga is often misused and mixed with a number of other drugs.

Mohale asserts that the legalisation of the private use of cannabis use is not just about privacy laws, but also about the dignity of those who choose to use this plant. He adds that, to the extent that the Rasta is perhaps the most prominent ambassador of this plant, this reportage is an attack on their dignity and reputation.

He asks for a retraction of the story, as well as for a prominent front-page apology.

He requests: “As part of its apology, the paper should make it clear that it does not know why this man did what he did and call on the public not to make this inference. It should go further to commit itself to publishing - beyond the apology - a series of articles aimed at educating members of the public about responsible cannabis use and the need to restore the dignity of the most public ambassador of dagga use in South Africa.”

PRETORIUS offers the following apology: “On October 17 2018, Sowetan’s front page read ‘Mom, I killed my sister - Dagga-smoking man slits sibling’s throat and kills her son as well”. We apologise for giving the impression that smoking dagga leads to violence or death.

MOHALE is not satisfied with this apology, and asks for adjudication.

Analysis

The crux of the complaint is the sub-headline that reads: Dagga-smoking man slits sibling’s throat and kills her son as well.

The question is if this was pejorative of the cannabis-smoking community because it implied that the man who had confessed to the murders had acted under the influence of the plant – giving the impression that all use of dagga leads to wild behaviour.

Firstly, Section 10.1 of the Press Code says, “Headlines … shall give a reasonable reflection of the contents of the report … in question.”

In the story, the mother made no bones about it – she said her son had a drug problem and behaved strangely when high ( and singled out the use of dagga). She elaborated: “He would act wild, and be angry about everything. He had stopped smoking some time ago but I smelled dagga on him recently. I asked him if he was smoking again but he did not respond.”

The article, therefore, made a connection – or at least a possible one – between the smoking of dagga and the heinous murders. Please note: The connection was made by the mother, and not by the newspaper. She certainly was justified to voice her opinion, as was Sowetan to report it as such.

Back to the sub-headline – it said that the “murderer” was a dagga-smoking man. That was true, was it not. Again, it was the mother’s opinion, and not that of the newspaper.

Mohale complains that the reportage has stereotyped the plant as well as its users. I have two fundamental considerations in this regard:

  • The question to him is this: How he can be sure that the man who had confessed to the murders did not act violently as a result of his use of dagga? Surely, his mother (who probably knows him better than anybody else in this world) left open that possibility? and
  • Even if the mother’s instincts were correct, that would not necessarily have meant that all users of cannabis would automatically act in such a violent way. Neither the story nor the sub-headline extended this scenario to all users of the plant.

This coin, therefore, has another side to it: The reportage could be in the public interest, as it could serve as a warning to the public that it is possible that the use of cannabis might lead to irresponsible behaviour in some instances.

Sowetan is welcome to apologise for the sub-headline, if it wants to – but I am certainly not going to ask it to do so.

Finding

The complaint is dismissed.

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