Complainant: Cindy van Vuuren
Lodged by: Cindy van Vuuren
Article: Tyd van wonderwerke nie verby
Date: 4 October 2013
Ms Cindy van Vuuren, who was involved in a fundraising campaign for a terminally ill person in Groblersdal, complains about a story in the Daller on 23 August 213, headlined Tyd van wonderwerke nie verby.
She complains that the newspaper:
· disclosed the detail of the person’s illness without consent; and
· omitted the time of the function and changed it from a spit braai to a braai.
The story said that one of Groblersdal’s beloved traffic officers, Mr Freddie van Dyk, had cancer. A fundraising event (a braai) was reportedly planned by Ruby River Resort to assist him with future expenses regarding his illness. The Daller also appealed to the public to make contributions towards this fund.
Disclosing the nature of van Dyk’s illness
The Daller reported that van Dyk was “seriously sick with cancer”.
Van Vuuren says that the newspaper was requested not to disclose private information about van Dyk, and argues that the disclosure of his illness resulted in “great distress and hurt to the sick person and his family and friends, and great embarrassment to the organisers of the function”. She adds that van Dyk potentially lost sponsorships as a result of the story.
The newspaper replies that van Vuuren requested its journalist to mention that the funds being collected was for a terminally ill person. It argues that readers would take it for granted that van Dyk had AIDS if it used that expression, and continues: “Because it is common knowledge that the resident has cancer, and it was published in Facebook and in…SMS’s, we decided to do what any journalist would do and publish the nature of the illness.”
In later correspondence van Vuuren says that the:
· family requested the newspaper on more than one occasion not to reveal the nature of van Dyk’s illness. She writes: “One of the children has been so traumatized by the illness that they (sic) are in councelling already… This is NOT fair or reasonable (reporting)”; and
· newspaper had no way of knowing that “everyone already knew about the illness” and argues that she received two phone calls from people who did not know about van Dyk’s cancer.
She concludes: “Is it fair impartial reporting to take away the right of a sick person to choose whether or not to reveal the nature and extent of his illness? I hope not. I have always been such a believer in the press code and the moral and ethical responsibility of journalists that I would be really disillusioned should an invasion of privacy of this nature…be deemed to be fair.”
Firstly, the newspaper’s questions about the legality of the fundraising project fall outside the scope of this ruling and I am therefore not entertaining that part of its correspondence.
My first observations are:
· Ethical matters aside for a moment, it is in fact illegal to disclose someone’s medical condition without that person’s consent; and
· The newspaper does not deny that the family requested its journalist not to disclose the nature of van Dyk’s illness – it is therefore reasonable to believe that the publication was aware of this request (read: that neither van Dyk nor his family gave the newspaper permission to reveal the reason for his condition).
However, as this office is not a court of law I cannot find against the Daller on the basis described above (I mentioned the illegality of the newspaper’s actions merely as background). My sole purpose is to measure reporting against the Press Code, and not the law.
Now: The Daller’s argument that everybody knew about van Dyk’s cancer cannot withstand the test of the Code. In fact, this argument is irrelevant – even if that was true (the use of the phrase “common cause” seems to be an over-statement, though), the newspaper still had to “exercise care and consideration” regarding his private life, which means to me that at the very least it should have obtained permission from van Dyk to publish the nature of his illness before it could do so.
I have no reason to believe that the Daller obtained this permission, which simply means that the newspaper did invade his privacy. I also do not think that there was any legitimate public interest in this matter that may have overridden this right to privacy.
Secondly, the newspaper’s argument that people may have thought that van Dyk had AIDS if the story did not mention his cancer is illogical – the same publication says that his cancer was “common knowledge”. If that were the case, why then would people suspect that he had AIDS (if they already knew that he had cancer)?
I submit that the Daller should have stuck with the wording “terminally ill’’ (as the story had to report a reason for the fundraising campaign) and moreover, I strongly suspect that the family was happy with that expression. I also note that an advertisement that was published later merely said that he was “very sick”.
However, let me add that I do not believe that the newspaper acted maliciously – on the contrary. Sadly, though, this does not negate the fact that the publication did invade van Dyk’s privacy – with the unnecessary harm that it most probably caused him and his family.
It also caused van Vuuren some harm as members of the public, including van Dyk’s family, may have thought that she disclosed the nature of the illness to the newspaper with the intention that it should be published – which may have unnecessarily tarnished van Vuuren’s integrity.
Van Vuuren complains that the story omitted the time of the function and changed the event from a spit braai to a braai.
This part of the complaint is frivolous, as there is no way in which the matters complained about could have breached the Press Code. Also, the advertisement that was published later, did mention the time that the event would start, as well as the fact that it would take the form of a spit braai.
Disclosing the nature of van Dyk’s illness
The Daller disclosed the nature van van Dyk’s illness without consent. This is in breach of Section 4.1 of the Press Code that states: “The press shall exercise care and consideration in matters involving the private lives and concerns of individuals…”
This part of the complaint is dismissed.
The Daller is:
· severely reprimanded for not exercising care and consideration when disclosing the nature of van Dyk’s illness, resulting in unnecessary harm; and
· directed to apologise for the unnecessary harm that this has caused him and his family.
The newspaper is directed to publish the following text:
The Press Ombudsman has “severely reprimanded” us for disclosing the nature of the illness of a well-known person in Groblersdal without exercising the necessary care and consideration in doing so.
This concerned a story that we published on 23 August 213, headlined Tyd van wonderwerke nie verby, about a fundraising event by Ruby River Resort to assist this person with future expenses regarding his illness.
The Ombudsman, Johan Retief, concluded that it was unethical of us to disclose the nature of the illness. He continued: “However, let me add that I do not believe that the newspaper acted maliciously – on the contrary. Sadly, though, this does not negate the fact that the publication did invade [his]privacy – with the unnecessary harm that it most probably caused him and his family.”
Retief dismissed the complaint that we omitted the time of the function and changed the event from a spit braai to a braai. He called this part of the complaint “frivolous”.
We accept that we have made a mistake by disclosing this person’s illness and sincerely regret the unnecessary harm that this has caused him and his family. Visit www.presscouncil.org.za for the full finding.
End of text
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 Chair of Appeals, Judge Bernard Ngoepe, fully setting out the grounds for the application. He can be contacted at Khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.