Khomo Family vs Umlazi/Eyethu

Complainant: Khomo Family

Lodged by: T.F. Khumalo

Article: Ushiswe nendlu kuthiwa uyathakatha (Burnt inside house over allegation of witchcraft)

Author of article: Sabelo Ngema

Date: 12 May 2014

Respondent: Umlazi/Eyethu

COMPLAINT

The Khomo family is complaining about a front page story published in Umlazi/Eyethu on 14 February, headlined Ushiswe nendlu kuthiwa uyathakatha (Burnt inside house over allegation of witchcraft).

The family complains that the following statements were inaccurate:

  • Ms Thembelihle Khomo had a grandson;
  • Ms Phindi Khomo was a blood relative to the family;
  • The former twice did not attend community meetings held to discuss her alleged behaviour; and
  • Khomo sprinkled muti at Kwa-Madida Store.

They add that a statement that Khomo had admitted to having been a witch was defamatory of her.

The family also takes umbrage to the “irresponsible, insensitive way and malicious way” in which the:

  • story mentioned the hospital where Khomo was treated and where the family was hiding; and
  • journalist wrongfully informed the family that Khomo had died.

THE TEXT

The story, written by Sabelo Ngema, stated that Ms Thembelihle Khomo was hospitalised after somebody had burnt down her house while she was inside – on the suspicion that she was a witch, based on an allegation that she had shaved the left eyebrow of a three-year-old boy. The grandmother of this child told the newspaper that the matter had been reported to the local councilor, who allegedly said that the community should decide what to do in matters such as this one. Some males then went to Khomo’s house and set it alight. She reportedly was willing to die, but then was rescued.

ANALYSIS

Inaccurate statements

The Khomo family complains that the following statements are inaccurate:

  • Khomo had a grandson

The story quoted the mother of the boy, Ms Slie Hadebe, who reportedly said that she had asked Khomo’s grandson (4) about the incident.

The family denies that Khomo had a grandson.

The editor does not respond to this part of the complaint.

Based on the newspaper’s non-response to this part of the complaint, I accept the family’s version on this matter.

However, I also:

  • notice that the story did not state it as fact that Khomo had a grandson – it attributed this information to the mother of the three-year-old boy whose eyebrow had been shaved off;
  • submit that this specific piece of information was not of such material importance to the story to expect the journalist to have verified this matter; and
  • fail to see what unnecessary harm this could have caused Khomo and her family.

I therefore conclude that the newspaper was reasonable in its reportage on this issue, even though the statement was possibly incorrect.

  • Phindi Khomo a blood relative

The story referred to Ms Phindi Khomo as Thembelihle’s niece.

The family complains that this statement was not true.

Hlongwa replies that the journalist got this information from Phindi. He adds that she shared her surname with both the victim and her husband.

Again, I believe that the newspaper was justified in its reporting – its arguments are persuasive. Again, if a mistake was made in this regard (if she was not a blood relative, but only related by marriage) it did not go to the heart of the story.

  • Phindi twice did not attend community meetings

The story quoted Hadebe as saying that Khomo twice failed to attend community meetings about her alleged behaviour, and that she only turned up for the third one.

The family complains that this was not true – they say that Khomo only once did not attend a meeting, and argues that she was unable to do so on that occasion as she was on an annual pilgrimage.

The newspaper does not respond to this part of the complaint.

I have no concrete evidence to make a decision on this matter – and again, this matter is not materially important to either the story or the complaint.

  • Khomo sprinkling muti at Kwa-Madida Store

The story quoted an anonymous neighbour as follows: “Last year at midnight [Khomo] was caught spraying (some liquid/muti) in another neighbour’s house and at the Madida shop and on her she had a plastic packet.”

The family denies that this was true, and adds that the journalist never verified his information and that he never spoke to Mr Xolani Khomo (the victim’s husband, who could have given him first-hand information about the burning of her house).

The editor does not respond to the complaint about the muti, but only says that the reporter tried to get a response from the family at the scene of the event. “With no real response from the family, the article tried as best as was possible what could be gleaned, to reflect the plight of the victim, how she was burnt, her being prepared to die inside her house, and her crying as she was pressured to admit being a witch in a community meeting.”

He adds that Ngema, when back at the office, did phone two family members, including Phindi – who answered Xolani’s phone. He says that the second family member was hostile and abusive, and refused to give the reporter any information.

I accept that the newspaper did try to obtain comment from the family – I have no reason not to.

However, the reference to a neighbour who accused Khomo of having sprayed muti on a previous occasion is questionable and unfortunate. Clearly, this was intended to add weight to the story – but was the journalist justified in doing so?

I have on numerous occasions ruled that an accusation should not be published just because somebody has made it. A newspaper must have some sort of foundation for any such potentially harmful reporting.

The story provided no such evidence – there was no verification or corroboration, and the accusation merely rested on one unnamed source. If it was not possible to verify this information, the story should have stated it (as required by the Press Code).

Khomo admitting to being a witch

The story quoted some members of the community who reportedly had asked Khomo if she was a witch “… and she agreed on her own and pointed out the grandmother of the child whose eyebrow was shaved and said she is also a witch …”

The family complains that the statement that Khomo admitted to being a witch is defamatory of her.

Hlongwa replies that the story never suggested that Khomo was a witch. “It reported [the]alleged sequence of events and allegations preceding the attack on her home and on her person.”

The editor is correct in a certain sense – the story was about allegations by more than one person to this effect, and the newspaper was justified in reporting that statement. The community meetings were about this exact same issue, and therefore it would have made no sense to report this matter if witchcraft was not mentioned.

I asked the editor to give me some proof of this. He replied that Hadebe had heard Khomo’s admitting to being a witch, as well as Thenjiwe Madida, Khomo’s neighbour.

I accept his word on this point; besides, I also believe that Khomo has since died, which means that a finding of defamation (or, of course, “dignity and reputation” as the Press Code puts it) would be inappropriate. One cannot defame a dead person.

Irresponsible, insensitive, malicious statements/behaviour

The family takes umbrage to the “irresponsible, insensitive way and malicious way” regarding the following matters:

  • Hospital mentioned; asking where the family was hiding

The story mentioned that Khomo was being treated at Prince Mshiyeni Memorial Hospital. It also quoted Phindi, who allegedly said that the family was “staying with relatives together with the children at V section”.

Khumalo argues: “No responsible journalist takes such liberties with other people’s rights (victim and family); unless his only aim is to recklessly pursue sales and profit to his newspaper at all costs.”

The editor replies that the reporter got this information from the police and from Phindi.

I do not care from whom the reporter got his information – the real question is, how responsible was it to publish these data?

In this regard I need to take public interest into account, as well as the safety of Khomo and her family.

Any “public interest” argument about Khomo’s whereabouts should be outweighed by her privacy, and the clear and imminent danger in which she was:  Some members of the community tried to burn Khomo’s house down while she was inside – this indicated that information as to her location may have been potentially dangerous to her and her family.

This was irresponsible journalism that made for a potential disaster. An accusation of being a witch is an extremely serious one in certain cultures. If there was another attack on Khomo and/or her family, based on the knowledge of their whereabouts, the newspaper would have had to carry at least part of the blame.

  • Wrongfully informing the family that Khomo had died

The family complains that the reporter phoned a family member (at 10:00 on Tuesday, 18 February) and told her that Khomo had died in hospital.

Hlongwa denies this. He says that the reporter wanted to get an update from the family on Khomo’s condition. “Instead the family member spoken to asked, ‘Is that why you called – to find out if she is dead’?”

In Khumalo’s response to the editor’s reply, he argues that Ngema phoned to inquire whether Khomo had died or not.

This makes me believe that this part of the complaint is without merit.

FINDING

Inaccurate statements

  • Khomo had a grandson

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

  • Phindi Khomo a blood relative

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

  • Phindi twice did not attend community meetings

There is no finding on this part of the complaint.

  • Khomo sprinkled muti at Kwa-Madida Store

The complaint about the lack of verification is dismissed.

The reference to a neighbour who accused Khomo of having sprayed muti on a previous occasion is in breach of Section 2.4 of the Press Code that states: “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 such report.”

Khomo admitting to being a witch

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

Irresponsible, insensitive, malicious statements/behaviour

  • Hospital mentioned; asking where the family was hiding

This reporting unnecessarily endangered Khomo’s life as well as those of her family members. This is in breach of Section 4.1 of the Press Code: “The press shall exercise care and consideration in matters involving the private lives and concerns of individuals. The right to privacy may be overridden by a legitimate public interest.”

  • Wrongfully informing the family that Khomo had died

This part of the complaint dismissed.

SANCTION

Umlazi/Eyethu is directed to apologise to Khomo and her family on its front page for:

  • publishing the unsubstantiated accusation that Khomo sprayed muti on a previous occasion; and
  • invading their privacy by making known their whereabouts after the attack.

The newspaper is reprimanded for not stating that it could not verify the muti allegation.

The publication is directed to prepare text to that effect and to provide it to this office prior to publication. The text should end with the words: “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 for the appeal. He can be contacted at Khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.

Johan Retief

Press Ombudsman