Coen Vermaak vs Saturday Star (Translated english version)

Complaint: Coen Vermaak

Article: ET murder sex riddle – Bombshell revelations expected in court.

Date: 12 July 2010

Respondent: Saturday Star

Complaint
Mr Coen Vermaak, leader of Die Boerestaat Party, complains about a front page story in Saturday Star, published on 10 April 2010 and headlined ET murder sex riddle – Bombshell revelations expected in court.
Vermaak says the following three sentences are lies or a distortion of the truth and yet they are presented as facts and not rumours:
  • “But, now it appears that Terre’Blanche might not have been the victim of a racist killing, but rather involved in a homosexual relationship with one of the men, Chris Mahlanga, 27, and a 15 year old minor, who are suspected of his murder.”
  • “Police…found a used condom at the scene…”
  • “Police placed the condom and its contents in a crime kit, which has been sent to the forensic unit in Pretoria for analysis, and will reveal the identity of Terre’Blanche’s sexual partner.”
He also says that the story is libelous.
Analysis
The story is about a new reason that was put forward to explain AWB leader Eugene Terre’Blanche’s murder – not racism or the non-payment of wages (as was previously widely speculated), but indeed a homosexual relationship with the two accused.
We shall now take a look at the merits of the complaint:
The three sentences
According to the complaint the three sentences in dispute is untrue, yet they are presented as facts and not as rumours.
Before we proceed, the following must first be clear: The question whether or not the sentences are true or false (the first part of the complaint), cannot be answered here – it is for the court to decide on. However, the second part of the complaint, namely that rumours are presented as facts, is relevant.
It is from this perspective that we are now going to take a look at each of the sentences.
“But, now it appears that Terre’Blanche might not have been the victim of a racist killing, but rather involved in a homosexual relationship with one of the men, Chris Mahlanga, 27, and a 15 year old minor, who are suspected of his murder.”
The words “it appears” can be understood in two ways – it can either mean “it is clear” or “it looks like”. The former is a stronger construction and puts the matter as a fact; the latter is softer and leaves more room for other possibilities.
The question which of these two possibilities was intended can possibly be answered by the use of the words “might not have been” in the same sentence. This wording was clearly chosen carefully – it does not state it as a fact that there was a homosexual relationship, but puts it as a possibility.
It is therefore reasonable to accept that the second possibility (“it looks like”) is the correct one and that this sentence therefore does not put a homosexual relationship as an irrefutable fact.
“Police…found a used condom at the scene…”
Saturday Star says in its defence that it was not yet sure (read: proven) whether or not the rumour about the condom is true or not – that information was however obtained from an extremely credible source (the identity of whom was confidentially revealed to me) and it was corroborated by a second source. The newspaper adds that it did make it clear in the story that this was received information.
However, the story does not say it clearly – there is indeed no reference to a source. The story does not state that the Police said that they had found a used condom at the scene – the sentence says: “Police…found a used condom at the scene.”
There is also no reference to a second source. If indeed the newspaper did verify its information, it neglected to mention it.
The sentence in dispute is indeed presented as a fact, without any reference to a source or without any verification.
“Police placed the condom and its contents in a crime kit, which has been sent to the forensic unit in Pretoria for analysis, and will reveal the identity of Terre’Blanche’s sexual partner.”
The second part of this sentence is in dispute, namely “…and will reveal the identity of Terre’Blanche’s sexual partner.”
Again, this phrase is not attributed to a source, neither is it verified; it is presented (without qualification) as a fact (not a possibility) – Terre’Blanche did have a homosexual friend, the identity of whom will be revealed.
Libel
The newspaper rejects this part of the complaint “because a dead person cannot be defamed”.
Of course, the newspaper is correct – the law about defamation is about the protection of a (living) person’s interests by preserving his or her good name and reputation. A dead person does not have interests anymore.
An Internet search yielded many examples, confirming the newspaper’s position.
Note, however, that a false statement about a dead person can defame a living person.
Applied to this complaint: The story possibly may amount to libel – but then with reference to the two accused (who are said to have had a homosexual relationship with Terre’Blance) and not with regards to Terre’Blanche’s family or to Die Boerestaat Party. This means that, would the accusation be false (one cannot defame somebody else with the truth), the accused may lodge a complaint of libel.
Finding
The first sentence
Due to the careful wording in this sentence, this part of the complaint is dismissed.
The second sentence
This sentence is presented as a fact, without any qualification and without mentioning a source. It is therefore in breach of Art. 1.2.2 of the Press Code: “News shall be presented in context and in a balanced manner, without any intentional or negligent departure from the truth whether by…material omissions…”
As there was also no attempt to verify the statement, it also breaches Art. 1.4 of the Code: “When there is reason to doubt the accuracy of a report and it is practicable to verify the accuracy thereof, it shall be verified. Where it has not been practicable to verify the accuracy of a report, this shall be mentioned in such report.”
The third sentence
This sentence is presented as a fact without any qualification, namely that Terre’Blanche had a homosexual friend and that the identity of that friend will be revealed – yet again without any reference to a source or without any attempt at verification. It therefore breaches Art. 1.2.2 and Art. 1.4 of the Press Code.
Libel
This part of the complaint is dismissed.
Sanction
Saturday Star is reprimanded and directed to publish a summary of this finding on its front page. Our office should be furnished with the text prior to publication.
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 Appeals Panel, Judge Ralph Zulman, fully setting out the grounds of appeal. He can be reached at khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.
Johan Retief
Deputy Press Ombudsman

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