Thulani Qithi vs Sunday World

Complainant: Thulani Qithi

Article: Qithi witch hunt cops, pagans seek con man.

Date: 31 March 2011

Respondent: Sunday World

COMPLAINT
Mr Thulani Qithi complains about two stories in Sunday World. The first article was published on January 23, 2011 and was headlined Predator at large; the second one appeared on January 30 under the heading Qithi witch hunt cops, pagans seek con man. Both stories were written by Zwelakhe Shangase.
Regarding the first story, Qithi complains that the reporter:
  • did not make known the fact that he was a journalist;
  • presented himself in a different capacity (as a would-be client);
  • did not disclose facts to him during the “interview”; and
  • did not ask him to respond to Ms Lesego Sebapadi’s specific complaint.
To this, he adds that the:
  • reference to Nedbank was out of context;
  • reference to his ancestors is out of context;
  • name of his business is not TQ Consulting; and
  • reference to the amount of R8 000 is incorrect.
With reference to the second story, Qithi:
  • denies that he was “on the run”; and
  • says the reference to a client in Aliwal North is fabricated.
ANALYSIS
The first story says that Qithi, a contestant in last year’s Top Billing presenter search, poses as an attorney who specializes in credit blacklisting removals. Apart from the allegation that his services were expensive, it is also alleged that when one client (Sebapadi) asked for proof that she had been cleared “things went pear-shaped”. He also allegedly threatened people with witchcraft.
The second story reports that Qithi is “on the run” and that he would soon be in jail; it also says that a local pagan organization contacted the newspaper and threatened to “sort Qithi out” for claiming to be a witch when he was not even a member of that organisation. The story also mentions some people who were allegedly “victims” of Qithi.
We shall now consider the merits of the complaint:
The first story:
No disclosure that he was a journalist
Qithi complains that the journalist (Zwelakhe Shangase) did not formally disclose himself as a reporter from Sunday World when he was contacted.
The Sunday World denies this and supplied our office with correspondence to prove its point.
In his reply to the newspaper’s response, Qithi says that:
  • Shangase phoned him twice and both times he refused to disclose his name; and
  • When he called Shangase, the latter again refused to disclose his real name or that of the newspaper he was working for.
The e-mail that the newspaper forwarded me, records that the journalist communicated with Qithi on Saturday, January 22, at 04:46. In this e-mail Shangase asks Qithi for contact details of a consultant at a credit checking company and of clients whose success stories are mentioned in his e-mails. This document is “signed” in the name of “Zwelakhe”.
Later that day, at 17:33, Qithi responds, starting his message with the words “Zwela boss”.
The following sentence proves that Qithi was aware of the fact that he was dealing with a journalist: “My plea would be, to wait for monday (sic) before publishing, so you can have all facts straight.”
I have no reason to doubt the validity of these e-mails. Also note that this correspondence took place prior to the publication of the first story.
Journalist presenting himself in a different capacity
Qithi says that the reporter (during the first encounter) wrongfully represented himself in order to elicit his response regarding the internal process of evaluation for the services his business offers.
The Sunday World says that it asked a (female) member of its staff to phone Qithi to ask if indeed he was delisting people and what the process was as well as the amount involved. The newspaper argues: “It was important to note that this was later revealed to him as there was a genuine and legitimate public interest in the story and as such, there was no dishonest motive.”
Qithi, in his reply to the newspaper’s response, says that the journalist pretended to be a certain Lerato, who said that s/he needed to be helped with his/her listing (Qithi says the journalist was soft-spoken and that he could not tell whether Lerato was male or female).
The relevant article in the Press Code (1.9) reads as follows: “News obtained by dishonest or unfair means…should not be published unless a legitimate public interest dictates otherwise.”
The following considerations are important:
  • The newspaper did not hide the fact that it tried to obtain information from Qithi in a roundabout way – the story says: “Sunday World tested Qithi when a colleague posed as someone who is blacklisted and needed urgent help”;
  • Posing as someone else is in this case justifiable as the journalist may otherwise have received different information; and
  • Even if the newspaper was dishonest and unfair in this regard, the nature of the news was such that it was in the public interest to publish the information.
No disclosure of facts during the ‘interview’
Qithi complains that the journalist who called him the second time did not give him sufficient information “to rebut the misleading and fabricated story” that was published two days after the phone call. He says that the journalist only wanted to confirm his name and the name of his business.
The newspaper denies this, again referring our office to relevant correspondence.
In the latest of this correspondence, which is dated a day before publication, the journalist asked Qithi for contact details of:
  • a consultant at a credit checking company; and
  • the clients whose success stories are mentioned in his (Qithi’s) e-mails.
This, the journalist said, was necessary for verification as it was Qithi’s word against those of his sources.
The main issue of the story, to my mind, is the fact that some people accused Qithi of fraud. Even if the journalist could have asked him other questions, the essence of the story is indeed addressed in Shangase’s e-mail as satisfied clients may have refuted the allegation of fraud.
However, the matter of Sebapadi is a different kettle of fish.
Not asked to respond to Sebapadi’s specific complaint
The story devotes seven paragraphs to Sebapadi’s side of the story. Moreover, the accusations she makes is serious – she accuses him of fraud and reportedly adds that she now fears for her life.
Qithi complains that Shangase did not disclose “formal facts”, especially regarding Sebapadi. He says that his formal response to the specific complaint by Sebapadi against his business was not asked for. He adds that Shangase did give him the name and surname of the complainant, but that this information did not match the detail of any of his clients since he started operating the business in 2007. Qithi says that he told the journalist that this client did not exist and that she probably was an ex-girlfriend of his who wanted to make trouble.
The Sunday World replies that it did ask Qithi’s response and that he replied that he did not know her. The newspaper adds that Qithi later told its journalist that his ex-girlfriend “goes about using the same name” and that he believed that she was behind the “smear” as she had told him that she was going to use newspapers to get back at him.
Qithi himself says that he told the newspaper that “this client (Sebapadi) does not exist”. This implies that the journalist did ask him for comment regarding Sebapadi.
However, this is not reflected in the story. Given the serious nature of Sebapadi’s accusations, it was necessary to state that Qithi denied that he had such a client.
Reference to Nedbank out of context
Qithi says that he only used Nedbank’s name as an example (implying that it is unfair or inaccurate to single out this bank), adding that each case is unique.
The newspaper does not respond to this part of the complaint.
It need not have to. The sentence in question does not single out Nedbank. It reads: “He (Qithi) told us he had connections at Nedbank and other major banks…” (emphasis added).
Reference to Qithi’s ancestors
The story says that Qithi threatened the journalist with witchcraft. He reportedly said the following (if the story was going to be published): “You are going to feel the wrath of my ancestors – they are alive and they work for me. My entourage is going to come for you and your family. You’d better watch out.”
Qithi complains that the expression “IIdlozi lami liya phila” (“my ancestors are alive”) has been taken out of context. He says what he meant was that his ancestors shall fight and protect him from all enemies; he also meant that the multitude of the reporter’s ancestors and those of past and existing happy clients can corroborate his success in facilitating the legitimate processes to clear their names from credit bureaus over the past three years. He denies that he threatened the reporter’s family by using those words.
The newspaper replies that its original source told its reporter that Qithi threated her with his ancestors when she started asking for progress reports. The editor says Qithi did the same with his reporter, maintaining that the quotation in dispute is correct.
This is largely a matter of one person’s word against the other’s – and therefore impossible for this office to decide who is right and who is wrong.
However, it is:
  • possible that Qithi did not mean to threaten the journalist; and
  • understandable that the journalist felt threatened, given the testimony of its original source.
Because of the latter, the benefit of the doubt goes to the newspaper.
The name of Qithi’s business
Qithi complains that the story incorrectly reported that the name of his business was TQ Consulting; the correct name, he says is TQ Consultancy.
The newspaper accepts that it got it wrong, but explains that it got its information from a source.
The reference to R8 000
The relevant sentences in the story are:
  • “He (Qithi) told me (Sebapadi) his intervention would set me back R16,000 and demanded R8,000 upfront.”
  • “He (Qithi) told us (a newspaper colleague posing as someone who was blacklisted and needed urgent help) we must deposit R5,000 before he starts work on the case.
Qithi says that the reference in the story to R8 000 is incorrect – he says it should be R5 000. He adds that he was not asked for comment regarding the amount of R8 000, which resulted in an unbalanced report.
The newspaper explains that it got this information from a source. It says that Qithi wanted R16 000 and that there was no receipt.
Firstly, note that the reference to R8 000 is not stated as a fact, but as an account of what Sebapadi said. Even if this amount is wrong, the newspaper was within its rights to report what this source told it.
Secondly, there was no need for the newspaper to ask Qithi for his comment on this issue, as the newspaper, albeit under disguise, did talk to him about the matter.
The second story:
‘On the run’
The story says that “cases” against Qithi were opened in Bloemfontein. The caption underneath his picture reads: “On the run: Thulani Qithi is now a wanted man”.
Qithi denies that he was “on the run”. He argues that:
  • he has never been contacted by police regarding cases opened against him;
  • he drove from Johannesburg to Bloemfontein and went straight to the Park Way police station to ask about any cases against him; and
  • the police gave him a report to the effect that he had been there and that the police had prepared an affidavit for him. (He furnished our office with a copy of this affidavit.)
The Sunday World says that the day after publication of the first story, the police wrote an e-mail to the newspaper “requesting our contact numbers because they believed we can help them trace this man”. The newspaper says it should be noted that this e-mail was a spontaneous response to the story.
The newspaper adds:
  • Qithi’s claim that he presented himself to a police station in Bloemfontein on January 30 this year is contradicted by Constable T.C. Litabe of the Free State Provincial Communication Office. It says that Litabe told its reporter that he (Litabe) had been in contact with investigating officer Captain Mahumane of the Free State Provincial crime intelligence unit about the case. “He says Thulani is lying and that no one would go to a police station knowing that they are being investigated.” The newspaper also says Litabe told its journalist that Mahumane has not reported anything to the effect that Qithi went to the police station and signed an affidavit. The newspaper says Litabe said: “It does not make sense, we are really investigating the guy and we wanted to get in touch with you guys (Sunday World) in order to get more information as we understand he now moves between Bloemfontein and Johannesburg.”
  • Qithi’s assertion that no one in the Bloemfontein police service where he allegedly presented himself knows Litabe should be dismissed with contempt. The newspaper says there was never an assertion that Litabe is an investigator in this matter.
I have contacted Colonel M.S. Makhele from the Provincial External Communication department of the Police in Bloemfontein in order to get to the truth of this matter. My question was if it was true that the Bloemfontein police are indeed investigating cases regarding Qithi.
Makhele responded as follows: “This office can confirm that cases were registered against the complainant (Qithi) as per Parkweg cas 1617/05/2010 and 242/10/2010. Both are fraud cases.” He added that a warrant for Qithi’s arrest was received from King Williams Town “as per cas 302/11/2009” and that he was subsequently arrested.
A copy of Litabe’s e-mail to Shangase is in my possession, in which he indeed (a day after the story was published) ased the journalist for Qithi’s contact details.
I also e-mailed a scanned copy of the affidavit as well as a cover document, dated January 30, 2011 (case reference number 183) to the Parkway Police Station in Bloemfontein to verify the authenticity of the affidavit. The officer’s conclusion was that it looked to him as if the document was fabricated, but added that he could only confirm this when he has seen the original documents.
Client in Aliwal North
The story refers to a source in Aliwal North who “also became his (Qithi’s) victim”. It adds: “He conned me out of R17 000 assuring me that he’ll help me but he just robbed me.”
Qithi complains that the reference to a client in Aliwal North is fabricated, arguing that when he was in that town in 2007 he was not working.
The newspaper says it has an e-mail in its possession, dated January 26, by another source from Aliwal North who was allegedly defrauded by Qithi. This source, it says, is available to talk to the Ombudsman’s office. The newspaper says that the same source told its reporter that there is also an Aliwal North based businesswoman who was looking for Qithi “after being defrauded too”.
I am satisfied that the newspaper’s reportage on this matter is justifiable as there is a reference to a source from Aliwal North in the newspaper’s documentation.
FINDING
No disclosure that he was a journalist
An e-mail records that the journalist communicated with Qithi before publication and that the latter was aware of the fact that he was dealing with a reporter. This part of the complaint is dismissed.
Journalist presenting himself in a different capacity
The newspaper was justified in trying to get information from Qithi by disguising the journalist’s identity as the latter may otherwise have received different information; it was also in the public interest to publish the information. This part of the complaint is dismissed.
No disclosure of facts during the ‘interview’
The essence of the matter, namely fraud, is indeed addressed in Shangase’s e-mail to Qithi. This part of the complaint is dismissed.
Not asked to respond to Sebapadi’s specific complaint
The newspaper did ask Qithi’s comment regarding Sebapadi. This part of the complaint is dismissed.
However, given the serious nature of Sebapadi’s accusations, it was necessary to state that Qithi denied that he had such a client. This is in breach of Art. 1.2 that states: “News shall be presented in context and in a balanced manner, without any intentional or negligent departure from the facts whether by…material ommissiones…”
Reference to Nedbank out of context
The sentence in question does not single out Nedbank, but instead refers to “other major banks”. This part of the complaint is dismissed.
Reference to Qithi’s ancestors
This is largely a matter of one person’s word against the other’s – and therefore impossible for this office to decide who is right and who is wrong. It is possible that Qithi did not mean to threaten the journalist; it is also understandable that the journalist felt threatened, given the testimony of his original source about the same matter. Because of the latter, the newspaper gets the benefit of the doubt. This part of the complaint is dismissed.
The name of Qithi’s business
The newspaper incorrectly said that the name of Qithi’s business was TQ Consulting as it should have been TQ Consultancy. This is in breach of Art. 1.1 of the Press Code that states: “The press is obliged to report news…accurately…”
The reference to R8 000
The reference to R8 000 is not stated as a fact, but as an account of what Sebapadi said. Even if this amount is wrong, the newspaper was within its rights to report what this source told the reporter. There was also no need for the newspaper to ask Qithi for his comment on this issue, as the newspaper, albeit under disguise, did talk to him about the matter. This part of the complaint is dismissed.
The second story:
‘On the run’
The newspaper was justified to use the phrase “on the run” as the police confirmed that they were investigating cases against Qithi, that a warrant was out for his arrest and that he was subsequently arrested. This part of the complaint is dismissed.
Note that this is not a decision that Qithi is guilty of anything – it merely says that, given the information gained from the police, the newspaper was justified in its reportage on this matter.
Client in Aliwal North
The newspaper relied on sources for its reportage on this matter. This part of the complaint is dismissed.
SANCTION
The newspaper is:
  • reprimanded for not stating that Qithi denied that Sebapadi was a client of his; and
  • directed to publish a summary of this finding and sanction, including the correct name of Qithi’s business.
Our office should be furnished with the text prior to publication.
Please add the following sentence at the end of the text: “Visit www.presscouncil.org.za (rulings, 2011) for the full finding.”
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