Ms Selona Devipersad vs. Post

Tue, Mar 9, 2010

Ruling by the Deputy Press Ombudsman

February 1, 2010
This ruling is based on the written submissions of Ms Selona Devipersad and Post newspaper.
The complaint
Ms Selona Devipersad complains about one of the items on a compilation of court reports in Post June 24-28, 2009 written by reporter Logan Govender.
The item, the second of three under the headline Businessman convicted, is a report of a Durban High Court hearing at which Dr Sunil Bissoon opposed the interim restraining order granted to his former employee and lover Devipersad the year before.
Devipersad complains that parts of this report “are taken out of context and are incorrect”. In other words the report breaches the SA Press Code where it says:
“1.1 The press shall be obliged to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly.
 1.2 News shall be presented in context and in a balanced manner, without any intentional or negligent departure from the facts whether by:
            1.2.1 Distortion, exaggeration or misrepresentation;
            1.2.2 Material omission; or
            1.2.3 Summarisation.”
There is no dispute regarding the first part of the story, which reads: “The Durban High Court heard the testimonies of four witnesses from last Wednesday to Friday concerning the acrimonious fall-out in July last year of a Chatsworth woman and her ex-boyfriend, a medical doctor.
“Selona Devipersad, 20, of Peachtree Close, Umhlatuzana, in July 2008, obtained an interim restraining order against her former lover, Dr Sunil Bissoon, of Rooseveldt Drive, Winston Park.
“Bissoon is opposing the order.”
Ms Devipersad’s complaint relates to the rest of the story, which reads: “A witness, Kylie Jordaan, claimed that Bissoon had prescribed cholestrol (sic) medication which she did not require.
“Under cross examination by advocate Rithy Singh, acting for Bissoon, Jordaan agreed with Singh’s submission that the medication, Cymbalta, was for depression and not for cholestrol.
“In court, Jordaan, who worked at Bissoon’s surgery from January to March 2007, produced a box of Cymbalta from her handbag after she was asked by Singh if she had it in her possession.
“Jordaan testified that she had discontinued the medication. Devipersad in her evidence-in-chief claimed that a gynaecologist at Isipingo Hospital, Dr SN Naicker, had informed her on July 14 last year, after a consultation, that he (Naicker) had not seen a sac (for gestation purposes).
“She said thereafter Naicker had prescribed Cytolec, and that she was under the impression that the medication would regulate her cycle.
“Advocate Singh, during cross examination, pointed out that Cytolec induced an abortion. The matter was adjourned to an unconfirmed date.”  
Devipersad complains about four things in the June report:
  • She says she got a prescription from her gynaecologist to regulate her menstrual cycle after she had asked for it. She says she was not “under the impression” that the medication would regulate her cycle.
  • In reporting on her cross examination, the newspaper “made it sound as a matter of fact” that the medication Cytolec would induce an abortion. She denies that she had an abortion.
  • Govender was in court for only about 10 minutes on the last day – yet he reported on statements made when he was not there.
Devipersad also complained about an article about her father Deochand Devipersad in the same newspaper in January 2009 and says Govender continued to make incorrect statements regarding her family’s court matters and that caused the public to be misled and inflicted disgrace and humiliation upon her and her family.
This office did not entertain that complaint because 1. the newspaper corrected the January 2009 article and apologised immediately the correct facts were brought to its attention and 2. because it was lodged five months after the story was had been published.  
In her correspondence with the Ombudsman’s office, Devipersad asserted that:
  • Jordaan’s first name is Kayleigh and not Kylie;
  • Jordaan had told the court that Bissoon had made advances to her when she worked for him and she had left his employment because of his persistence in trying to have an affair with her; and
  • Jordaan had not agreed that the medication prescribed by Bissoon was for depression. She had told the court that she had been misled by Bissoon about it.
In his response Govender spells Jordaan’s name as Kayleigh and says in September last year POST carried a story that placed Jordaan in context, reporting that Jordaan used to work for Bassoon as a receptionist. He says Devipersad’s “take on Kayleigh’s testimony and Kayleigh’s response to the cross-examination, is distorted.”
In the story that Devipersad complains about Govender does mention that Jordaan had worked in Bissoon’s surgery from January to March 2007.
Devipersad is not arguing that there was no evidence led about the medicine Cymbalta: she is merely unhappy that Govender did not pick up on what she believes were the similarities in their situations.
On this medication, Devipersad raises two issues: the first is the use of the wording that she was “under the impression” that the medication would regulate her cycle. She argues that she had not told the court she was under the impression – she had told the court that she had asked the doctor for medication to regulate her cycle and he had prescribed Cytotec.
Secondly, she says Govender’s report on what an advocate asked her under cross-examination implied that she had performed an abortion. She says the newspaper “made it sound as a matter of fact” that the medication Cytolec would induce an abortion. She denies that she had an abortion.
She is not disputing that Advocate Singh had put it to her that Cytotec induced an abortion. She argues that the advocate is not a doctor and “simply assumed inducing an abortion was the purpose of Cytotec”.
Ten minutes in court
Devipersad says Govender spent most of the time in another court in the building and was in court for only about ten minutes on the third day of the hearing.
Govender told the Ombudsman’s office that he attended the proceedings on June 19 and was “certainly not there for 10 minutes as alleged by the complainant.
It is not unusual for reporters to use court records for their reportage. What we should be questioning is not the time spent in court but rather the accuracy of the reports.
This is a matter that could have been easily settled if Devipersad’s lawyers had referred the alleged inaccuracies to the court, which has the record of the proceedings. Instead she chose to bring this matter to the Ombudsman’s office.
Intrinsically, Devipersad objects to the way Govender wrote the story and is not disputing the basic facts, that Jordaan was asked about her medication and that she too was asked about hers.
1. Jordaan
  • The newspaper did spell Jordaan’s name incorrectly.
  • There is however no evidence that it selected what to publish and what to leave out from Jordaan’s evidence out of any intention to mislead its readers and to inflict disgrace and humiliation on Devipersad and her family.
In a brief story that is part of a compilation of briefs, it is inevitable that some evidence will not be included. The newspaper has pointed to other occasions when it gave more detail on this case.
2. Cytotec
Again, Devipersad does not dispute that she was asked about this medication.
She is unhappy with the use of the phrase “she was under the impression”. This degenerates into a game of semantics: if someone asks a doctor for medication to regulate her cycle, she is obviously under the impression that the prescription is for regulating her cycle. Her quibble is with Govender’s style. This office accepts that there was no breach of the code in the use of the phrase.
In cross examination lawyers will put their client’s perspective to the witness but in the end it is the court that will decide one way or the other. Govender wrote that Singh pointed out that Cytotec induced an abortion. “Pointed out” is probably not as elegant as “put it to the witness” but in the context of the story it is clear what he meant.
I accept Govender’s response: “A judge has to deliver his or her verdict on court matters. I cannot be a referee or judge.”
I accept that the newspaper has not passed a verdict on Devipersad.
3. Ten minutes in court
It is not unusual for reporters to use court records for their reportage. The issue is the accuracy of those reports. This leg of the complaint is dismissed.
Except for the issue of the spelling of Jordaan’s first name, the complaint is dismissed.
Post is cautioned for misspelling Jordaan’s first name.
Please note that our Complaints Procedures lays 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.
Johan Retief
Deputy Press Ombudsman