The School Governing Body of Hoër Volkskool Heidelberg vs Daily Sun

Complainant: The School Governing Body of Hoër Volkskool Heidelberg

Lodged by: Corrie Human

Article: Mum reports attack on her son to cops (17 July 2013) and Playground Battle! – Racism blamed for fight at school

Date: 8 December 2013

Respondent: Daily Sun

Complaint

The SGB, on behalf of the school, complains about two stories in the Daily Sun, headlined Mum reports attack on her son to cops (17 July 2013) and Playground Battle! – Racism blamed for fight at school (August 6).

The complaints about these stories, both authored by Tebogo Thamage, are practically identical. Human argues that the:

  • journalist did not contact the right people for comment prior to publication;
  • stories were one-sided, unsubstantiated and untrue; and
  • articles may have caused huge unnecessary damage.

The text

The first story reported that a mother (Ms Annah Sebiloane) said that the police failed to act after her son’s teacher allegedly got classmates to beat him up (at the school in question).

The second story said that at least 27 children from the same school were suspended after a fight broke out between black and white learners. The article mainly put the blame for this fight at the door of white pupils.

Analysis

General comment: Both parties refer to a court case regarding the admission of a child at Rivonia Primary School. However, this was about an entirely different issue (admission, and not the right of reply) – which is why I am not going to entertain arguments about this matter.

Hearsay

The SGB complains that the journalist did not contact the principal, the SGB, the teacher and/or the parties that were involved for comment prior to publication, relying merely on hearsay.

Boerner replies that a student’s mother contacted Thamage regarding the allegations. The journalist then obtained comment from the Department of Basic Education through its official spokesperson (Mr Gershwin Cheunyane). He argues that the school was regulated and controlled by the Department, and that the journalist in fact followed the correct procedures. “I took the liberty of contacting [Cheunyane]. He confirmed that should the media wish to investigate a story regarding an incident at a school or [a]schooling related matter, the media must contact a department spokesperson and not a principal or teacher directly.”

He notes that, by the SGB’s own admission, the matter was brought to the Department’s attention. “Thus, as is normal practice amongst the press…comment from the Department of Education was sought.” He adds that, should the school be unhappy with that comment, it should take up the matter with its controlling body.

Boerner also quotes Thamage, who explained in an email that she consulted the Department “because teachers, SGBs’ principals and other school or regional officials are not allowed to talk to the media”. She said that she had also conducted interviews with parents at the school, had visited the boy who had been assaulted, and had confirmed her information with police spokesman Constable Mathews Shabangu.

In its response to Boerner’s reply, the SGB reiterates that it indeed had the jurisdiction to respond to questions regarding the matter at hand, and states that the journalist was in breach of the Press Code for not having asked it for comment.

Citing Section 15 and 16 of the SA Schools Act, the body also denies that is was “regulated and controlled” by the Department. These sections state that every public school is a juristic person, with legal capacity to perform its functions, and that its governance is vested in its governing body. “Subject to this Act and any applicable provincial law, the professional management of a public school must be undertaken by the principal under the authority of the Head of Department.”

The above-mentioned matter is a technical one that can only lead me astray. I need to keep my eye on the ball here, which means that I have one question only: Did the Press Code oblige the journalist to have contacted the school as well?

In some cases that I have ruled on some time ago, this very same matter was raised. In my experience, the Department of Education insisted that all queries should be directed at itself, and not directly at the school. In this case, this practice was confirmed by Cheunyane himself. This situation was clearly at the back of the reporter’s mind as well.

I have no reason whatsoever to believe that Thamage stepped out of line in this regard. On the contrary, the reporter really needs to be commended for her efforts to obtain her information properly and along accepted lines.

One-sided, unsubstantiated, untrue

The SGB complains that the story was one-sided (portraying the school, particularly its white learners and the personnel, in a bad light), and that the facts were unsubstantiated and untrue. It says that a full disciplinary inquiry by the school has shown most of the claims to be false.

Boerner replies that on 29 August 2013 he requested documents alluded to in the SGB’s complaint. The documents referred to are the report of the preliminary inquiry, the final disciplinary inquiry, and the independent report from the Department of Education. He repeated this request on October 31 and on November 25, but no such documents were forthcoming.

He also provides this office with extensive documentation to prove that the issues at the school were widely reported “and [were]of such a serious nature that the Complainant confirms that the Department conducted an investigation”.

These are my considerations:

  • Having spoken to parents, the injured child, the police and the Department, the journalist cannot be blamed for publishing the information these people gave her; and
  • It would therefore be unfair of me to find that her reportage was biased and unsubstantiated.

The documentation that Boerner asked for may retrospectively have put the matter in a different light. However, in the absence of these reports I cannot justifiably come to any such conclusion. In any case, I am convinced that Thamage was justified in her reporting at the time of publication. Any new light on this issue can therefore not lead to any kind of an apology – at best, it may have opened up the way to a follow-up story.

However, the SGB did not grab this chance with both hands.

Unnecessary damage

The SGB complains that the reporter ignored the possible dangerous effects that it could have led to in the community. He calls the story irresponsible, unprofessional and generally damaging to relationships. “It borders on instigating potential racial violence between the different parties and can definitely not be condoned in a civilized constitutional society and is specifically reprehensible where the environment that it targets are the youth, specifically learners and educators at school.”

Based on all of the above, I conclude that if the stories were to cause damage, the blame for this cannot be laid at the newspaper’s door. The messenger should not be blamed.

Finding

The complaint is dismissed.

Appeal

Our 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 Adjudication Panel, Judge Bernard Ngoepe, fully setting out the grounds of appeal. He can be contacted at Khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.

Johan Retief

Press Ombudsman

 

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