Complainant: Sharifa Natha
Article: Victims claim agents wore parda and used religion. A second heading reads:‘She said that Allah sent her to take my R75 000’ – Muslim people targeted in R50 million fraud case
Date: 06 December 2010
Respondent: Daily Voice
Ms Sharifa Natha complains about a story in the Daily Voice, published on August 6, 2010, and headlined Victims claim agents wore parda and used religion. A second heading reads:‘She said that Allah sent her to take my R75 000’ – Muslim people targeted in R50 million fraud case.
Natha complains that:
- it is not true that she used religion as a means of luring investors;
- the picture of a woman wearing parda is not of her; and
- she was not asked for comment.
Other stories on the same topic in the same edition which Natha does not complain about are:
- Apologies for losses;
- Dying man left broke after ‘con’;
- Entire pension is gone; and
- What is a ponzi scheme
The front page is covered by the heading Devil in a Doekie’s R50 m ‘con’.
The story in dispute says that cops are investigating “one of the biggest fraud cases in (Cape) Flats history”. A company (World Focus 899 cc) ran by husband and wife Jasmine and Maksuud Ebrahim allegedly offered investors an opportunity to buy into black empowerment deals and promised them massive monthly returns. World Focus, the story says, was recently liquidated “in what is expected to be the first step towards recovering the millions investors claim are owed to them”.
The story links this “fraud case” with the Muslim religion: “Victims say company representatives conned them out of roughly R50 million by quoting texts out of the Qur’an and even praying on the holy book, promising them their hefty investments would guarantee huge returns.”
A total of 88 people reportedly took the couple to court.
The article also mentions an agent (Natha), who “allegedly targeted respected Muslim business owners”. She reportedly wore parda when visiting potential clients and coerced them into handing over cash. The story reports that one investor said that Natha was not ashamed to abuse religion to get what she wanted and even convinced elderly women to spend their Hajj money. This (unnamed) source told the newspaper: “Natha told me that she was sent by Allah so that she can take my R75 000 from Absa and invest it with World Focus.” The source also reportedly said that Natha made a soemba (an oath) on the Qur’an that she would not lose her money.
One investor, Ms Zareena Osman, reportedly agreed to be named and photographed. The story mentions some occasions when Osman allegedly paid several amounts over a period of time. Initially, her returns reportedly did not arrive in her bank account as promised. By the end of 2009, the cash stopped altogether – “…and Natha came up with all kinds of excuses.”
Osman: “When I eventually tracked down Sharifa after a month, she denied it was a ponzi scheme.” The story then quotes her as saying that it was sad that the Muslim community was targeted and that Sharifa damaged the image of Islam as well as women in parda.
Natha, however, reportedly denied that she used her religion to trick anyone and maintained that her dealings were genuine. She is quoted as saying: “I did nothing wrong and recruited clients for Jasmine for which I was promised a commission. Jasmine owes me R2 million…” (Ms Ebrahim however reportedly denied that Natha ever worked for her.)
The story says a police spokesperson estimated that losses were in the region of R50 million, but that that figure might change as the investigation unfolds.
We shall now consider the merits of the complaint:
Using religion to lure investors
The sentences in question read:
- “…investors claim the couple used agent Sharifa Natha, who dressed in parda, to visit potential clients and coerce them into handing over cash.”
- “A 67-year-old investor…says Natha wasn’t ashamed to abuse religion to get what she wanted and even convinced the elderly woman to spend her Hajj money.”
- “The granny even claims that Natha made a soemba on the Qur’an that she would not lose her money.”
- “It is sad that only the Muslim community was targeted. Sharifa has damaged the image of Islam as well as woman in parda.
Natha says that she never coerced people into “handing over cash” – her role was to find prospective investors for World Focus (for which she would get a commission). She adds that she is a devoted Muslim and that the community now ostrasizes her – for something she is not guilty of and did not commit.
The reporter, Vincent Cruywagen, says that he interviewed over 50 people who were taking the Ebrahims couple to court. These people included several prominent businessmen and medical professionals, who claimed that they were “conned” by Natha. He says that most of these people are from the Muslim Indian community – who pleaded with him not to mention their names “out of shame and their status in the community”.
Cruywagen adds that all these interviews were done in the presence of his Muslim colleague photographer, and that all the claimants that he interviewed referred to Natha as the parda woman who used the name of Allah and verses from the Qur’an.
The reporter says that he did not publish the following quotes:
- “I don’t even want to see her face again – she is the devil dressed in parda” (from a businessmen who allegedly lost R10 million); and
- “Natha does not deserve her holy status in the community” (from a lawyer who claims that Natha phoned him from Mecca).
In her reply to the above, Natha says that she herself was an investor for a year before she started working as an agent. She says that her investments were working for her and that she therefore decided to take on the opportunity to better the lives of other people. She maintains that she had “no ulterior motives or bad intentions” when looking for prospective investors. She adds that Jasmine Ebrahim “left her under the impression that the investments were all legal”.
Natha explains that wearing parda had nothing to do with the job that she was employed to do – if people saw it as a means of luring investors it was their personal choice. She also denies that she used the Qur’an as a tool to lure investors.
She says that she has no knowledge of anybody investing R10 million, adding that the man “who was contacted from Mecca had previously enquired about investing a further amount as the investments he had were working well for him”. Her role in this, she says, was merely to send the investor a text message to convey Ms Ebrahim’s instruction that the money for the new investment needed to be deposited.
Now: The question before me is not whether or not Natha indeed abused the Muslim religion (wearing parda for personal gain and misusing the Qur’an) – our office is not a court of law. The issue is if the newspaper was justified in reporting the way it did.
It has to be noted that, nowhere in the story, the allegations in dispute are stated as facts – every single time they are attributed to (the opinion of) sources. Here are examples:
- “Investors claim…” (that Natha, dressed in parda, was used as an agent to visit potential clients);
- “A 67-year old investor…says that…” (Natha was not ashamed to abuse religion to get what she wanted)”;
- “The granny even claims…” (that Natha made a soemba on the Qur’an that she would not lose her money).
The following considerations are also important:
- It is more reasonable to accept that Cruywagen indeed spoke to many investors who were taking this matter to court (and that many of them did blame Natha for misusing the Muslim faith for personal gain) than to believe that he sucked this out of his thumb;
- The story quotes people who have the right to say what they believed; and
- The article does not state their opinion as a fact but presents it for what it is – the views of sources.
All of this does not necessarily mean that Natha did abuse the Muslim religion for personal gain – all it means is that the newspaper was justified in reporting that its sources said that that was the case.
Somebody else in the picture
The caption to the picture of a woman wearing parda that goes with the story reads: “Religious influence: ‘Agent’ wore parda”.
Natha says that it is somebody else in the picture and that it was published without any kind of confirmation.
The Daily Voice does not respond to this part of the complaint.
It has to be noted that, although Natha’s name is not mentioned in the caption, the use of the word “agent” does point to her – she is the only “agent” mentioned in the story.
The only reasonable explanation for the newspaper to not respond is that it actually concedes that it made a mistake.
It is hard to establish if this was intentional or not. However, by the Daily Voiuce’s own admission it never spoke to Natha in person – the interview was done telephonically (see the next part of the complaint). So maybe the newspaper obtained her picture from someone else.
But then it would have said so, wouldn’t it.
Not asked for comment
Natha complains that the Daily Voice published “without confirmation from the person involved”.
Cruywagen says that Natha was given a fair opportunity to give her side of the story. He says that many appointments were arranged, only to be cancelled at the last minute. Eventually, he says, he conducted a telephonic interview with her. The result of that interview was published.
In her reply to the above, Natha says that no “official” telephonic interview was done and that Cruywagen “refused to discuss details (with her) over the phone”.
This means that Natha admits that there was a telephonic conversation between her and the reporter. Her complaint therefore is watered-down to an “official” interview that never took place. In this specific case, it is hard to conceive of a telephone call from Cruywagen to Natha being “unofficial”.
Using religion to lure investors
The newspaper was justified in its reportage as it is reasonable to accept that the reporter spoke to many investors who blamed Natha for misusing the Muslim faith for personal gain. Also, the story quotes people who have the right to say what they believed; and it does not state their opinion as a fact. This part of the complaint is dismissed.
Somebody else in the picture
The Daily Voice’s failure to respond to this part of the complaint is understood as an admission that it made a mistake with the picture. This is in breach of Art. 5.3 of the Press Code that states: “Pictures shall not misrepresent or mislead…”
Not asked for comment
By Natha’s own admission there was a telephonic conversation between her and Cruywagen. This conversation was most probably “official” – hence Natha’s reported denial that she used the Muslim religion for personal gain as well as the direct quote attributed to her. This part of the complaint is dismissed.
The Daily Voice is reprimanded for pretending that the picture of the woman wearing parda is that of Natha.
The newspaper is directed to publish the following on either page 4 or page 5:
Ms Sharifa Natha complained about a story in the Daily Voice, published on August 6, 2010, and headlined Victims claim agents wore parda and used religion. A second headline read:‘She said that Allah sent her to take my R75 000’ – Muslim people targeted in R50 million fraud case.
The story said that the Police were investigating “one of the biggest fraud cases in (Cape) Flats history”. A company (World Focus 899 cc) allegedly offered investors an opportunity to buy into black empowerment deals and promised them massive monthly returns.
The article mentioned an agent (Natha) who “allegedly targeted respected Muslim business owners”. She reportedly wore parda when visiting potential clients and coerced them into handing over cash. The story said that Natha was not ashamed to abuse religion to get what she wanted and even convinced elderly women to spend their Hajj money.
Natha complained that it was not true that she used religion as a means of luring investors, that the picture of someone wearing parda was not of her, and that she was not asked for comment.
Deputy Press Ombudsman Johan Retief found that we were justified in our reportage as it was reasonable to accept that the reporter spoke to many investors who blamed Natha for misusing the Muslim faith for personal gain. Also, the story quoted people who had the right to say what they believed; and we did not state their opinion as a fact.
Retief stressed that this does not necessarily mean that Natha did abuse the Muslim religion for personal gain – all it means is that we were justified in reporting that our sources said that that was the case.
The complaint that our reporter, Vincent Cruywagen, did not ask her for comment was also dismissed.
However, we were found to have published a picture of Natha that was not of her but of somebody else. This, Retief said, was in breach of Art. 5.3 of the Press Code that states: “Pictures shall not misrepresent or mislead…”
Retief reprimanded us for this.
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 email@example.com
Deputy Press Ombudsman