Catherine Mokoena vs Sowetan

Complainant: Catherine Mokoena

Lodged by: Catherine Mokoena

Article: The elderly suffer at ‘hijacked’ home

Author of article: McKeed Kotlolo

Date: 25 March 2013

Respondent: Sowetan

This ruling is based on the written submissions of Mr Mokoena Mokoene, for his mother, Mrs Catherine Mokoene, and the Sowetan newspaper, as well as on a hearing that was held on 7 March 2013 in Johannesburg. The two Mokoenes were present, together with some colleagues; Phumla Matjila, McKeed Kotlolo and Peggy Nkomo represented the newspaper.

The two members of the Press Appeals Panel who assisted me were Franz Kruger (press representative) and Ethel Manyaka (public representative).

Note that this ruling has been adjudicated by the Panel that was in operation at the time of the publication of the story in dispute, and that the former Press Code was therefore in use in this process.

COMPLAINT

Mrs Christina Mokoene complains about a story on page 10 in Sowetan (16 November 2012), headlined The elderly suffer at ‘hijacked’ home.

She complains that:

·         the statement that the old age home was “hijacked” from its founder was untrue;

·         some of the pictures were staged;

·         the reporter did not verify his information with records, accounting documents or with any of the residents;

·         the reference to her as “abusive” was unfounded;

·         the story intentionally misquoted her regarding her alleged statement that some beds were borrowed and that “we cannot let pensioners who soil or wet themselves use them”; and

·         when the reporter understood that the donation from the Department of Public Works was not misappropriated, he focused his scathing attack on her.

In conclusion, she says that the story was baseless, untrue, intentionally misleading, subjective, unbalanced and defamatory.

ANALYSIS

The story, written by McKeed Kotlolo, was about a group of pensioners who lived in “shocking conditions” at a North West old age home “after it was ‘hijacked’ from its founder”. The article also quoted workers who called Mokoene “abusive”.

Old age home ‘hijacked’

The first sentence of the story read: “A group of pensioners is living in shocking conditions at a North West old age home after it was ‘hijacked’ from its founder.” The story clarified that Mrs Elizabeth Mogoru founded the home (Bagodile) in 2007. She lost her husband in 2011 and went into mourning – only to find on her return that Mokoene had “taken over” the home in her absence and had “even moved the institution…to a disused building – the Obed More Home”. The home’s treasurer, Mrs Minah Manamela, then allegedly told Mogoru that her services were no longer needed.

The headline also referred to the home as “hijacked”.

Mokoene complains that the statement that the old age home was “hijacked” from Mogoru is untrue. She says that the board of directors called up Mokoene and asked her to help out at the home. “Mamoguru was present at this meeting and there are minutes and records of this discussion with the board.” At a second meeting, Mogoru was given the role of CEA while she became the manager. She adds that they also discussed the move to the new place at this meeting.

She adds that Mogoru abandoned the home in 2010 when she found it less profitable, but asserts that the latter was kept abreast with all subsequent developments.

Sowetan says that its use of the word “hijack” was based on information from the chairman of the residents committee, Mr Victor Molefe, and on Mogoru. Kotlolo adds that Mokoene denied that she had “hijacked” the home. The reporter also states that Mogoru told him that she had not been informed about the move to the Obed More building and that, upon her return, she was told that her services were no longer needed.

Here are the panel’s considerations:

·         It is not our job to decide if it is true or not that Mokoene “hijacked” the old age home – we merely have to determine if Sowetan was justified in its reportage on this matter;

·         We noted that while the story put the word “hijacked” in inverted commas and therefore did not state it as fact, it also did not attribute this term to a source or sources – as it should have done;

·         At the hearing, Sowetan denied that this was done deliberately, and admitted that the term should have been attributed;

·         The opinion mentioned above was newsworthy as the public had a right to know about it;

·         However, Sowetan was obligated to publish the view of the person who had been responsible for this alleged “hijacking” (Mokoene);

·         The newspaper said that Mokoene denied the allegation about hijacking – but the story did not reflect this denial, as it should have; and

·         The story also did not include Mokoene’s comment on the statement that she had “even moved” the institution to somewhere else.

We therefore conclude that Sowetan was justified in reporting the statement about hijacking in inverted commas. However, we also believe that the story should have (but did not):

·         attributed the statement about hijacking to a source or sources;

·         included Mokoene’s views on her having “hijacked” the institution and her having moved it somewhere else.

These omissions amounted to unfair and unbalanced reporting.

Staged pictures

Mokoene complains that the following pictures were staged:

·         A worker with torn gloves.; and

·         An old man that was lying on the floor.

The caption to the first picture read: “CAREFUL: This worker runs the risk of contracting diseases because she is forced to use torn gloves. The general lack of cleaning material at the home puts workers at risk”.

Mokoene complains that these gloves were torn purposefully by the woman in the picture, Mrs Lucky Ntshegang (in full view of the photographer, Peggy Nkhomo, she says).

Both Kotlolo and Nohomo deny that the gloves were torn in their presence.

Mokoene adds that the old man was undressed by a young man called “Lejankrapa” who had accompanied the newspaper to the home for an “interview”. “The man was hiding his face in shame of being disrespected and his disgrace being captured on camera.”

The newspaper denies this accusation as well.

The panel recognised that this part of the complaint was of an extremely serious nature.

Unfortunately, we had little to go on and were basically caught between a rock and a hard place – at the hearing Sowetan denied that the pictures were staged, while the Mokoenes insisted that they were.

In the end, though, we noted that Mokoene’s arguments were not backed by any kind of evidence, but merely boiled down to assumptions about what “could not have happened”. These assumptions were not enough for us to find against the newspaper, and we are therefore giving Sowetan the benefit of the doubt as far as this issue is concerned.

No verification

Mokoene complains that Kotlolo did not ask to see records and accounting documents for the finances of the institution; he did not even interview any of the residents, but merely relied on what Mogoru had told him. She adds that he could have spoken to the board and the chief (who lived close-by). She alleges that the reporter’s interview with her lasted a mere three minutes – it was “intentionally short and not meant to afford her a right of reply”. She says that he came to the home not to find out the truth, but merely to confirm what he was told.

Kotlolo denies that this is true. He says that:

·         he did ask for proof that the workers were being paid, but Mokoene replied that they had just moved offices and that the documents were still mixed up;

·         he interviewed three residents, all of whom complained about management’s failure to give them their change after pensions payout time;

·         he recorded three other names in his notebook;

·         workers’ complaints were supported by memoranda that also stated that payment had been irregular;

·         his interview with Mokoene lasted much longer than three minutes;

·         Mokoene deliberately spoke softly and turned her face away “to avoid being clearly recorded”; and

·         he did try to contact the chief for comment “but he would not give me the opportunity to do so saying he was driving”; later attempts would have been futile as the chief attended a gathering elsewhere.

He says that the tape was inaudible and that he lost his notebook.

The panel found this to be unfortunate.

Our task now was to determine if Kotlolo did enough to verify his story and if not, if this was so serious that we could find that he was in breach of the Press Code.

Here are our considerations:

·         The reporter heard about problems at the old age home, and he decided to investigate (which is why he went to the home himself, to verify the conditions first hand);

·         At the home, he interviewed several people; and

·         He also spoke with Mokoene (although the exact nature and duration of this “interview” are in dispute).

We believe that Kotlolo could indeed have done more to obtain records and accounting documents for the finances of the institution. However, we also noted that he did report Mokoene’s version of financial matters.

This omission on his part was unfortunate, but it was not so serious that it can constitute a breach of the Press Code.

‘Abusive’

The story said that disgruntled workers at the home complained about the “abusive Mokoene”.

She complains that this attribute was unfounded.

Kotlolo replies that workers called her abusive. This allegation, he adds, was also contained in workers’ letters and memoranda.

After having mentioned this allegation, though (which it was justified to do), Sowetan was obligated to publish the view of the person who had been responsible for this “abuse” (Mokoene). The story did not reflect this denial, which amounted to unfair and unbalanced reporting.

Misquoted

The story quoted Mokoene as follows: “The families of those lying on the floors did not bring them beds. Some beds were borrowed and we cannot let pensioners who soil or wet themselves use them”.

She complains that Kotlolo intentionally misquoted her – while it was rather a direct quote from a letter that Mogoru had given him. She argues that this manipulated sentence was a “clear calculated act of malice”.

The reporter insists that he quoted Mokoene correctly. He denies that Mogoru gave him such a letter.

Again, the panel did not have any hard evidence to go on. We did establish, though, that Mokoene’s argument that the quote came from a letter by Mogoru was not true.

The Sowetan argued that Mokoene’s testimony (at the hearing) greatly coincided with what Kotlolo had reported.

In the end, the panel decided that the quote in dispute may reasonably have come from Mokoene and that we therefore did not have enough ground to uphold this part of the complaint.

Donation

Mokoene complains that when Kotlolo understood that the donation from the Department of Public Works was not misappropriated, he focused his scathing attack on her.

Kotlolo denies this allegation. He says that he did not set out to write a story about the misappropriation of the donation by the Department of Public Works as he was only made aware of this when he visited the home.

This part of the complaint has no legs to stand on. The panel cannot judge the reporter’s intentions prior, during or after the writing of the story.

In conclusion

In general, Mokoene complains that the story was baseless, untrue, intentionally misleading, subjective, unbalanced and defamatory of her.

Kotlolo meets these accusations with a blanket denial. He says that his facts were supported by copies of written complaints and an affidavit (which he received after the publication of the story).

Judged as a whole, the panel believes that the story was not baseless, untrue, intentionally misleading, subjective and defamatory, as the complaint went – but that it indeed was not balanced.

This is why:

·         The main allegation of the story, as reflected in the first sentence as well as in the headline, was that Mokoene had hijacked the organization. However, her views on this matter was conspicuous by its absence;

·         Another potentially damaging allegation was that Mokoene had been abusive – again her views on this matter had not been reported; and

·         As a whole, the story failed to reflect the broader context of conflict between different groups in the community regarding the management of the home.

The panel is convinced that these omissions were unfair to Mokoene, and also expresses the wish that, in the event of Sowetan publishing a follow-up story on the old age home, it would reflect these issues in such a story.

FINDING

Old age home ‘hijacked’

While Sowetan was justified in reporting the statement about the hijacking as somebody’s opinion, it should have (but did not):

·         attributed this statement to a source or sources; and

·         included Mokoene’s views on her having “hijacked” the institution and having moved it somewhere else.

These omissions are in breach of the following clauses of the Press Code:

·         Art. 1.2: “News shall be presented in context and in a balanced manner, without any intentional or negligent departure from the facts whether by…omissions…”; and

·         Art. 1.5: “A publication should seek the views of the subject of serious critical reportage in advance of publication… If the publication is unable to obtain such comment, this shall be stated in the report.”

Staged pictures

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

No verification

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

‘Abusive’

While Sowetan was justified in reporting the statement about Mokoene as having been abusive as somebody’s opinion, it should have reported her view on this matter. This omission is in breach of Art. 1.1, 1.2 and 1.5 of the Press Code.

Misquoted

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

Donation

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

In conclusion

The complaint is dismissed as far as it was concerned about the story having been baseless, untrue, intentionally misleading, subjective and defamatory.

The part of the complaint about the story having been unbalanced is upheld. This is in breach of Art. 1.2 of the Code.

SANCTION

Sowetan is directed to apologise to Mrs Mokoene for:

·         neglecting to publish her views on allegations of her having hijacked the old age home and having moved the institution to another location;

·         her having been abusive to workers; and

·         failing to reflect the broader context of conflict between different groups in the community regarding the management of the home.

The newspaper is asked to publish the following text on page 3:

Sowetan apologises to Mrs Catherine Mokoene for neglecting to publish her views on allegations of her having hijacked the Bagodile old Age Home in Jericho and for having moved the institution to another location, for stating that she was abusive to its workers, and for failing to reflect the broader context of conflict between different groups in the community regarding the management of the home.

Mokoene lodged a complaint with the Press Ombudsman about a story on 16 November 2012, headlined The elderly suffer at ‘hijacked’ home.

The matter was heard on 7 March 2013 in Johannesburg by the Press Appeals Panel that consisted of Franz Kruger (press representative), Ethel Manyaka (public representative), and Johan Retief (Press Ombudsman).

The story, written by McKeed Kotlolo, was about a group of pensioners who lived in “shocking conditions” at a North West old age home “after it was ‘hijacked’ (by Mokoene) from its founder”; the article also quoted workers who reportedly called Mokoene “abusive”.

The panel said that, while Kotlolo was justified in reporting these allegations because they were in the public interest, he was also obligated to ask – and to report – Mokoene’s views on these matters. He neglected to do so, which resulted in breaching the Press Code on three counts.

They added: “As a whole, the story failed to reflect the broader context of conflict between different groups in the community regarding the management of the home. The panel is convinced that these omissions were unfair to Mokoene, and also expresses the wish that, in the event of Sowetan publishing a follow-up story on the old age home, it would reflect these issues in such a story.”

However, the panel dismissed the largest parts of the complaints, the most serious of which was that we have allegedly staged pictures of people lying on the floor.

Other issues that were dismissed were that:

·         Kotlolo did not do enough to verify his information;

·         the reporter misquoted Mokoene;

·         the journalist turned on her when he realized that the donation from the Department of Public Works was not misappropriated; and

·         the story was baseless, untrue, intentionally misleading, subjective and defamatory.

Visit www.presscouncil.org.za (rulings, 2013) for the full finding.
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APPEAL

Please note that our Complaints Procedures lay 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 Adjudication Panel, Judge Ralph Zulman, fully setting out the grounds of appeal. He can be reached at khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.

Ethel Manyaka

Franz Kruger

Johan Retief