Thobeka Madiba-Zuma vs Isolezwe

Complainant: Thobeka Madiba-Zuma

Lodged by: Thobeka Madiba-Zuma

Article: The headline on the front page read UmkaZuma nezinsolo zokuqola imali – Kuthiwa udayise imoto mbumbulu (Zuma’s wife and suspicions of robbery – Said to have sold a car that does not exist). The full article appeared on page 5, headlined Uzovulela umkamengameli icala lokuqolwa imali (A case of robbery to be opened against President’s wife).

Author of article: S’bu Masango

Date: 14 May 2014

Respondent: Isolezwe

Complaint

Madiba-Zuma is complaining about a story published in Isolezwe on 23 March 2014. The headline on the front page read UmkaZuma nezinsolo zokuqola imali – Kuthiwa udayise imoto mbumbulu (Zuma’s wife and suspicions of robbery – Said to have sold a car that does not exist). The full article appeared on page 5, headlined Uzovulela umkamengameli icala lokuqolwa imali (A case of robbery to be opened against President’s wife).

She complains that the:

  • story contained false allegations (details below);
  • journalist did not give her enough time to respond, with no proper verification; and
  • publication of unsubstantiated allegations has caused harm to her reputation and dignity.

The text

The story, written by S’bu Masango, said that Ms Mbali Khumalo from Mpendle had opened a case against Ms Madiba-Zuma for robbing her of R40 000 after the latter had agreed to sell her a Toyota Raider for R46 000. Khumalo was reportedly going to pay the outstanding R6 000 after she had collected the car – but now the vehicle seems to be unavailable and no refund was forthcoming either. Masango also quoted Khumalo as saying that the car belonged to Madiba-Zuma’s mother and that she had deposited the monies into an account “held in the name of CA Dlamini believed to be Thobeka’s mother’s account”.

Analysis

False allegations

Madiba-Zuma complains that she knew nothing about the content of the story, nor was she familiar with the individuals to whom it referred. She also denies that her mother is CA Dlamini (instead, she is Ms Nomfanelo Mabhija), that she lives in Mpendle and that she owns a car.

Mdadane replies that the newspaper has now established that Madiba-Zuma did not know about the matter and that she had “no connection whatsoever” with the owner of the car. The editor adds that there was a follow-up article in which Madiba-Zuma’s side of the story was reflected.

I am afraid that Mdadane mistakenly seems to think that it was enough for him to have included Madiba-Zuma’s “side” of the matter – without clearly and unequivocally enough stating as fact that the newspaper got it wrong in the first place. This is worrisome. It is one thing to report the other “side” of a story (which remains that person’s viewpoint), and something altogether different to admit that you were wrong.

Not enough time to respond; no verification

Madiba-Zuma complains that Masango contacted her the day prior to publication, which did not leave her enough time to respond properly to his questions (the nature of which was quite serious). She adds that, when she did receive correspondence from him, it was in the form of a completed story and not a list of questions.

“Had he sent me the questions in time without rushing to printing, I am confident he would have seen that there was no story, but [that instead it was]individual(s) who wish to embarrass me and my family.” She adds that proper research and independent verification would have shown that the allegation was false as “the credibility of the content is so questionable and the allegations so unlikely and improbable”.

She concludes that the journalist was reckless, acted irresponsibly, was driven by sensation and relied only on one (unsubstantiated) version.

I agree that Madiba-Zuma had very little time to respond – but, in fact, to her credit she did so in time (and adequately at that).

However, the story indeed rested on merely one, unsubstantiated version of an allegation – something that the Press Code states quite clearly should never happen.

The form in which the journalist sent his correspondence to Madiba-Zuma is irrelevant.

Harm to her reputation, dignity

Madiba-Zuma complains that the nature of the story was damaging to her reputation and dignity, and that it defamed her. “I have no doubt that the information which gave rise to this story had been done for the purposes of trying to cause embarrassment to myself and indirectly to my husband.”

Of course the story unnecessarily damaged her reputation and dignity. Not only was it inaccurate; it was also fundamentally unfair to her. Sometimes the unnecessary damage done to people by such irresponsible reporting is just frightening.

For this, the newspaper will have to take the consequences.

Finding

The complaint is upheld.

Isolezwe is in breach of the following sections of the Press Code:

  • 2.1: “The press shall take care to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly”;
  • 2.4: “Where 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 stated in the report”; and
  • 4.2: “The press shall exercise care and consideration in matters involving dignity and reputation …”

Sanction

Isolezwe is directed to unreservedly apologise to Madiba-Zuma for:

  • publishing a damning, unsubstantiated and ultimately untrue allegation of robbery against her;
  • merely publishing her “side” of the matter in a follow-up story, instead of admitting that it got its information fundamentally wrong in the first place; and
  • unnecessarily harming her dignity and reputation in this process.

The newspaper is directed to publish on:

  • its front page, immediately under its masthead, in a size that matches its wording on March 23, the following words: “Isolezwe unreservedly apologises to Ms Thobeka Madiba-Zuma – see page 5”; and
  • the inside page a summary of this finding and sanction, together with an appropriate apology – which should adequately include my comments above.

The newspaper should furnish our office with the text prior to publication. Please add to the text: “Visit www.presscouncil.org.za for the full finding.”

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