Geshy Reddy vs. The Witness


Mon, Jun 22, 2020

Particulars

Complaint number: 7777

Headlines:

  • Socialite lived in fear – Was her killer known to Northdale businesswoman Kavitha Nerputh? (22 January 2020, page 1);
  • ‘Nobody deserves to die the way she did’ – (22 January 2020, page 1);
  • Pietermaritzburg businesswoman found strangled to death in her luxury SUV lived in fear (22 January 2020, online); and
  • ‘Fun, hardworking mother’ – (1 February 2020, page 8).

Online: Yes

Author of articles: Niyanta Singh (first, third and fourth story) and Sharika Regchand (second article)

Respondent: Yves Vanderhaeghen, editor

  1. Complaint                                            

1.1 The crux of Ms Geshy Reddy’s complaint is that the reportage (both the texts and the publication of her picture) has linked the murder of Ms Kavitha Nerputh to the court case between the two women – resulting in the impression that she has somehow been involved in the latter’s murder.

1.2 She adds the newspaper:

  • incorrectly reported that Nerputh had won the court case;
  • published pictures of her and her husband without permission;
  • refused to give her a right of reply;
  • was prejudiced against her; and
  • has damaged her reputation and was “emotionally murdering” the family.

1.3 Reddy asks for an apology both in print and online, including a statement that she was not involved in Nerputh’s murder.  

  1. Matters outside the Ombud’s jurisdiction

2.1 Reddy complains and argues about many issues that are not relevant to her complaint lodged at this office. They may be relevant in cases before the court, or elsewhere – but I am not mandated to decide who is right or wrong, as a court of law would do. The one and only object of my adjudication is the newspaper’s reportage on this matter.

2.2 That is why I am not entertaining:

  • a so-called video confession by Ms Shiloh Woodrajh;
  • evidence that Woodraj has been arrested and Reddy and her son have a protection order against her for threatening them and for attempted extortion;
  • Reddy’s claims regarding the magistrate;
  • correspondence between the various parties;
  • what other newspapers did, or did not, publish; and
  • Reddy’s remarks regarding Nerputh’s possible “assisted suicide” as her “final attempt at revenge”.

2.3 She also complains about newspaper reports dating back to 2019. Section 1.3 of the Complaints Procedures does not allow me to entertain those stories either. This section reads: “A complaint shall be made as soon as possible, but not later than 20 working days after the date of publication giving rise to the complaint. The Public Advocate … may on reasonable grounds accept late complaints if, in his or her opinion, there is a good and satisfactory explanation for the delay.”

2.4 I do understand Reddy’s persistence in this regard – but my hands are tied. The only matter on my table are the articles published on January 22 and February 1, 2020.

  1. Relevant articles of the Press Code

According to Reddy, the articles collectively breach the following sections of the Press Code:

  • 1.2: “The media shall present news in context and in a balanced manner, without any intentional or negligent departure from the facts whether by distortion, exaggeration or misrepresentation, material omissions, or summarization”;
  • 1.7: “The media shall 1.7 verify the accuracy of doubtful information, if practicable; if not, this shall be stated;
  • 1.8: “The media shall seek, if practicable, the views of the subject of critical reportage in advance of publication, except when they might be prevented from reporting, or evidence destroyed, or sources intimidated. Such a subject should be afforded reasonable time to respond; if unable to obtain comment, this shall be stated;
  • 1.10: “The media shall make amends for presenting inaccurate information or comment by publishing promptly and with appropriate prominence a retraction, correction, explanation or an apology on every platform where the original content was published, such as the member’s website, social media accounts or any other online platform; and ensure that every journalist or freelancer employed by them who shared content on their personal social media accounts also shares any retraction, correction, explanation or apology relating to that content on their personal social media accounts; and
  • 3.3: “The media shall exercise care and consideration in matters involving dignity and reputation…”
  1. The texts

4.1 The first article said days before Pietermaritzburg businesswoman Kavitha Nerputh was found strangled to death and locked in her vehicle, she had feared for her life and for that of her family. The second sentence read, “Nerputh, from Stella Road, New-holmes, Northdale, who ran a herbal weight-loss tea business at Camps Drift business park, and who had been embroiled in several harassment and protection orders, had expressed her concerns about their safety over the weekend to her young adult children, Aryana (19) and Junior (22) – both law students.”

4.2 The second story was about a protection order that Nerputh had secured against her former friend, Geshy Reddy – who reportedly “vehemently denied ever harassing Nerputh” and was appealing the granting of the order. “The crux of Nerputh’s complaint was content referring to her as a ‘sex trader’ and ‘prostitute’,” the journalist further reported.

4.3 The third story chiefly related Nerputh’s fear prior to her death, as well as police action afterwards. Roughly, in the middle of this article, the harassment case between Reddy and Nerputh was mentioned, with a picture of both of them. It was reported that Reddy had denied harassing Nerputh. It also stated the crux of Nerputh’s complaint against her, namely that Reddy had called her a “sex trader”, a “prostitute” and a “whore”. The journalist summarised the background to the case between the two women as follows: “In August 2017, Nerputh brought an urgent application to stop the online harassment (by Reddy), which dragged on until March. Reddy opposed the application and then brought a counter-application against Nerputh, saying she was in fact the one being harassed by Nerputh. The magistrate dismissed Reddy’s application saying it had no ‘merit’. Reddy repeatedly labelled Nerputh as a prostitute, emphasised the magistrate, who found that Reddy calling Nerputh a ‘whore’ on Facebook and other media platforms – which are accessible to everyone in the world – was harassment.”

4.4 The fourth article was a human-interest story, chiefly about the relationship Nerputh had with her family. Under the headline Quick Recap, the following was stated: “Nerputh was found strangled in her luxury SUV at the Alexandra Park on the evening of January 20. While no arrests have been made, police investigations continue at a high level. Nerputh was at the centre of several harassment cases that were granted in her favour. In the days before her murder she faced more harassment, threatening telephone calls and messages, and had sought help from the police.”

  1. The arguments

5.1 Motivating her complaint, Reddy says that:

  • by singling out her court case against Nerputh, while some twenty other court cases which the latter had been involved in were not touched upon, the newspaper was implying that she could have been linked to the murder. She adds that, since the article was published, a man has been arrested for the murder;
  • the newspaper sent her a letter, demanding that she did not contact the newspaper – which was in violation of her right of response;
  • it was wrong to state that Nerputh had won the court case as she appealed the court’s ruling, arguing that that made the matter sub judice (read: therefore, there was no winner at that stage); and
  • while her name was not mentioned in the 1 February article, it did refer to “several harassment cases” – which, she argues, has implicated her in the murder.

5.2 Vanderhaeghen denies that the newspaper was “targeting” Reddy – he says the main report of January 22 did not mention her and, besides, the article referred to “multiple cases” in which Nerputh had been involved. For that reason, he argues, the newspaper has nothing to correct, nor did it have any reason to solicit comment from her.

5.3 However, in the secondary story (‘Nobody deserves to die the way she did’), Reddy had the opportunity to address and pre-empt the speculation that she was behind the murder. “It is her commiseration that is the point of the headline and the story, and so [it] cannot be said to be prejudicial to her. Headlines create an important first impression which frames the story, and so the story has to be read in this light,” he argues. He adds this story reported that Reddy “vehemently denies ever harassing Nerputh”, and that “she is appealing the granting of the order”.

5.4 The editor says that, in the main, Reddy persistently attempted to get the newspaper to report on allegations she had been making against Nerputh while the court case was being heard, which the newspaper refused to do “for obvious reasons”.

5.5 He submits: “Her wishing to circumvent and subvert the court process was out of order, and any demand to be allowed space in the newspaper on these terms is equally out of order. She has also persistently swamped The Witness, and also George Claassen and the Ombud, with allegations about Ms Nerputh and unspecific complaints about our reporting, which had got to the point of harassment and we asked her to desist, as did George Claassen. Had she asked to address an error of fact, we would have been happy to oblige. To ask her to desist from harassment is not the same as denying her the right of reply where it is warranted. She is not, for example, entitled to the right of replying to a court judgment in which she has been found guilty (even though this is effectively what we granted her by quoting her as saying ‘vehemently denies ever harassing Nerputh’).”

5.6 Vanderhaeghen says Reddy’s feud with Nerputh, which led to the court ruling against her, is a matter of public record, and was factually reported on. He argues that subsequent references to this matter cannot be imputed to imply that she was responsible for the murder. He submits the public record cannot be expunged, and The Witness cannot refrain from making reference to it where it may be relevant.

5.7 The editor concludes that, as The Witness did not malign Reddy, either in motive or in fact, it is hard to understand what it is the newspaper should be allowing Reddy to reply to.

5.8 Reddy says the fact that she has suffered “direct damages” to her reputation and business testifies to the fact that the newspaper created the impression that she had been involved in Nerputh’s murder. “The crux of my complaint is that regardless if the Witness argues it was not their intent to imply it is me the fact is the public drew the conclusion due to the deliberate implication…”

5.9 She asks why the newspaper left out all the other people who were involved in court matters with Nerputh. “By reporting on me and falsely implying she won it is no wonder the public gets the impression I am implicated in this murder/death,” she argues.

5.10 She says she even had to incur legal fees to have damaging statements regarding her on social media removed.

5.11 She adds, “As a direct result of the … articles my employer was harassed and questioned. I [even] have had telephone calls from individuals asking me if I am arrested.” These people, she submits, wanted to know why the newspaper was suggesting that she had been involved.

5.12 She says the newspaper was biased to report on Nerputh allegation that her (Reddy’s) husband made a woman pregnant. This, she says was ludicrous and false, and not in the public interest. Again, this shows the newspaper has taken it upon itself to assume the roles of legal advisors, judge and jury, she argues. “[The Witness saw] fit to champion Nerputh in violation of my right to freedom of speech, my right to dignity and my family’s right to dignity,” she submits.

5.13 Reddy also accuses the journalist that she missed a day in court “because she and Nerputh had an understanding to cherry pick what to report on to prejudice me and favour Nerputh”.

5.14 Regarding the fourth story, she says while her name was not mentioned, her case was. She says the newspaper published that story approximately ten times the previous year, so readers would have understood that she was referred to.  She argues the newspaper should not have published the article because the matter was on appeal and sub judice. She calls this a “highly unethical attempt to sway public opinion”.

5.15 Reddy says she takes offense to defamatory comments suggesting she tried to “expunge” records, and asks the newspaper to immediately withdraw this accusation. 

  1. Analysis

6.1 Linked to murder

6.1.1 The crux of Reddy’s complaint is that the reportage (both the texts and the publication of her picture) has linked Nerputh’s murder to the court case between the two women – resulting in the impression that she was somehow involved in the latter’s murder.

6.1.2 Like Reddy, I was wondering why the newspaper mentioned her in the first place, and why she was indeed singled out (as the names of the other people involved in court cases against Nerputh were not mentioned).

6.1.3 I therefore wrote the following message to Vanderhaeghen: “On the front page of January 22, a story and a picture of Reddy accompanied the lead. She was also mentioned in the story headlined, ‘Pietermaritzburg businesswoman found strangled to death in her luxury SUV lived in fear’. The question is why Reddy was mentioned at all. I see Nerputh was involved in about 20 other cases - so why single out Reddy? Please help me to understand this.”

6.1.4 The editor replied that the:

  • feud between Nerputh and Reddy was “very public”, especially on social media;
  • row between them culminated in a court judgment (against Reddy);
  • case between the two was the only one that has led to a judgment; and
  • newspaper desisted from reporting on the feud except when it was heard in court.

6.1.5 He adds, “When Nerputh’s murder became known there was immediate speculation about whether Reddy might have had a role in it. We thought it appropriate … to allow Reddy an immediate expression of commiseration so that she could be on the record and scotch the rumours. It would not have been possible to extend her the courtesy without also placing her relationship with Nerputh in context. To my mind this is not a case of singling her out, and more one of giving her a platform to have her say.”

6.1.6 It is a fact that The Witness has singled out Reddy, as no other people involved in court cases with Nerputh were mentioned. The newspaper’s reasons for doing this, though, are convincing (as bulleted immediately above) and, I believe, do not need any further argumentation.

6.1.7 Regarding the fourth story: Reddy’s name was not mentioned, and the reference to harassment issues in that text merely served as context.

6.2 Court case ‘won’

This part of the complaint has no legs to stand on. Even though the matter was on appeal, the fact remains that the appeal was lodged against a decision that went against Reddy. In other words, a case that she lost. The fact of the appeal does not negate that fact. The newspaper did report that she had appealed the court’s ruling (in the story, Pietermaritzburg businesswoman found strangled to death in her luxury SUV lived in fear).

6.3 Pictures published without permission

Reddy’s complaint that The Witness published pictures of her and her husband without permission is without any ground. The newspaper does not need their permission to do so.

6.4 Right of reply

6.4.1 In the story, headlined ‘Nobody deserves to die the way she did’, she was given a right of reply – and she made use of it. Neither the story Socialite lived in fear, nor in the one headlined, ‘Fun, hardworking mother’, Reddy was mentioned. The newspaper was therefore under no obligation to ask her for comment. The story, Pietermaritzburg businesswoman found strangled to death in her luxury SUV lived in fear, mentioned her – but again, her comment was published.

6.4.2 Vanderhaeghen is correct – the newspaper was under no obligation to ask Reddy for comment while the court case was being heard. In fact, by asking her for comment the newspaper could have compromised the court case.

6.4.3 Therefore, it is not true that The Witness did not give Reddy a right of reply. It did, and it did so adequately.

6.5 ‘Prejudiced’

Given my finding above, I have no reason to believe that The Witness was biased against Reddy. Her complaint that the journalist (Singh) had missed a day in court “because she and Nerputh had an understanding to cherry pick what to report on to prejudice me and favour Nerputh” is also without foundation. Reddy had no way of knowing why Singh did not attend the court on that specific day – which is why I cannot take this part of her complaint seriously.

6.6 Reputation ‘damaged’

Based on my reasoning above, I have no grounds to find for Reddy on this issue.

  1. Finding

The complaint is dismissed.

Appeal

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

Johan Retief

Acting Assistant Press Ombud