Loyiso Vili vs Daily Dispatch

Complainant: Loyiso Vili

Article: Zingisa elderly ‘starving’ – Relatives of residents ‘living in squalor’

Date: 17 May 2012

Respondent: Daily Dispatch

COMPLAINT

The manager of the Zingisa Rehabilitation Centre (ZRC), Ms Loyiso Vili, complains about a story in the Daily Dispatch on 14 February 2012, headlined Zingisa elderly ‘starving’ – Relatives of residents ‘living in squalor’ call for Empilweni to be reopened.

Vili complains that the:
• allegation of appalling living conditions at the ZRC is without substance;
• mental patients do not stay with the other patients;
• centre does not rehabilitate drug addicts; and
• newspaper did not seek comment from the management of the ZRC.

ANALYSIS

The story, written by Poliswa Plaatjie, says that relatives of elderly residents of ZRC are calling for Empilweni Home to be reopened, “claiming their relatives are now living in squalor”. After Empilweni Home was closed down in September 2011, the ZRC welcomed the elderly. However, living conditions at ZRC were reportedly appalling.

Dire conditions

The story quotes a relative who learnt that her mother had died at the ZRC the previous day. She reportedly said that the ZRC had “starved” her mother. It also says that residents are living in squalor, that there was a stench of urine, that people were swatting flies, that patients went hungry, and that their condition deteriorated after they had moved to the centre.

Vili says the allegation that people are starving lacks substance “as no evidence was corroborated before the article was published”. She also denies that people live in squalor – “the centre is clean and very well maintained”. She adds that the reference to a stench of urine and that people were swatting flies is a “gross exaggeration”. She explains that most of the patients wet their beds, and “there is no way you can completely eliminate the smell but we do our best”. She says patients are washed in the morning and not during the day, unless they have soiled themselves.

In later correspondence, Vili says: “If there were such serious health risks and lack of food these would have been detected in the regular audits conducted by the department of Social Development. None of the Dispatch’s allegations could be confirmed by a reliable source like the Dept. of Social Development.”

She concludes that the story was based on unfounded allegations.

The newspaper says what Plaatjie wrote was based on her experience at the ZRC.

Although Vili says that the ZRC has no record of the journalist visiting the centre, I accept that she was there – her description in her reply to the complaint is too vivid and detailed for me to believe otherwise.

I also take the following into consideration:
• Plaatjie clearly did not rely on one source only, but took care to corroborate most of her information;
• She did not state her source’s information as fact, but consistently presented it as their opinion; and
• The only fact that Plaatjie stated (with one exception, which I shall address below), is about the stench and people swatting flies – which was merely a report of what she had experienced.

Based on the considerations mentioned above, Plaatjie was justified in her reportage.

Note that this does not mean that I have found that living conditions at the ZRC were indeed appalling.

The issue of not asking the ZRC for comment is another matter, which I shall address at the end of this analysis.

Mental patients

The story quotes a visitor who reportedly said that she was worried about mentally ill patients living in the same yard as the elderly.

Vili denies that this is true, saying that the mental patients have a fenced ward and that they do not stay with the other patients.

I note that the story attributes this matter to a visitor, who merely stated her opinion. She was within her rights to do so, and the newspaper was justified in reporting her concern – whether that concern was valid or not.

No drug rehabilitation

The story says that the ZRC also helps to rehabilitate drug addicts.

Vili complains that this is not true.

This is the exception that I mentioned above. The story states the disputed phrase as fact and does not ascribe it to a source.

Plaatjie says that a source told her that reformed drug users were “staying” at the ZRC.

I have no reason to disbelieve her, but I also note that if reformed drug users stay at the ZRC it does not necessarily follow that the centre also “helps to rehabilitate” them.

Because the phrase in dispute is stated as fact, is not attributed to a source, and differs materially from what the reporter herself says that the source told her, I accept that the reference to the ZRC helping to rehabilitate drug addicts is inaccurate.

Also, Plaatjie herself refers to one anonymous source only. She therefore did not corroborate the information as she should have done, according to the Press Code.

No comment sought

Vili complains that the newspaper did not seek ZRC’s comment prior to publication.

The Daily Dispatch says that it has run a sequence of stories by a number of reporters on the Empilweni Home – and in each report the Social Development Department and MEC Pemmy Majodina was approached for comment. “The reporter…followed this trend and got comment from the MEC on the complaints about Zingisa Rehabilitation Centre.”

Vili responds that the MEC and the Social Development Department are merely stakeholders, “they neither own nor manage Zingisa so the Dispatch cannot be satisfied that by contacting them they have spoken to management”.

She adds that management has more information pertaining to the day by day operations of ZRC “and thus it would have been appropriate and fair to consult them before publishing about their institution”.

Firstly, Plaatjie did well to contact the MEC. I can foresee a situation where obtaining only Majodina’s comment would suffice.

However, in this case the allegations are quite specific, and rather harsh. The best person to have asked for comment was indeed the person on the spot – Vili, or somebody else senior enough. I therefore believe that the reporter should have gone the second mile in this case. It is quite possible that this story may have done the ZRC unnecessary harm by neglecting to ask the ZRC for comment.

The Press Code is clear that publications should get comment from the subject of their reportage – in this case, the ZRC.

FINDING

Dire conditions

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

Mental patients

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

No drug rehabilitation

The reference to the ZRC helping to rehabilitate drug addicts was in breach of Art. 1.1 of the Press Code that states: “The press shall be obliged to report news…accurately…”

Plaatjie also breached Art. 12.2 of the Code that states: “…Care should be taken to corroborate the information” (that was obtained from an anonymous source).

No comment sought

Plaatjie was in breach of Art. 1.5 of the Code that says: “A publication should seek the views of the subject of serious critical reportage in advance of publication…”

SANCTION

The Daily Dispatch is directed to:
• apologise to Vili for not asking her comment prior to publication;
• obtain her comment for inclusion in the text that follows below if she wishes to do so (the length of her comment should be fair to both parties – five to eight sentences would probably do); and
• furnish this office with the text if it adds Villi’s comment.

It is directed to publish the following text:

The Daily Dispatch apologises to the manager of the Zingisa Rehabilitation Centre (ZRC), Ms Loyiso Vili, for not obtaining her comment on a story about poor living conditions at the centre.

This comes after Vili lodged a complaint with the Press Ombudsman about a story on 14 February 2012, headlined Zingisa elderly ‘starving’ – Relatives of residents ‘living in squalor’ call for Empilweni to be reopened.

Deputy Press Ombudsman Johan Retief found that, although we contacted the Department of Social Development, we also should have obtained comment from the ZRC itself, as it was the subject of our story. He said that the allegations against the ZRC were specific and harsh enough in order for him to direct us to apologise.

He also reprimanded us for inaccurately stating that the ZRC helped to rehabilitate drug addicts, and for not corroborating this information that our reporter got from an anonymous source.

Insert comment by Vili, if she wants to.

Retief dismissed the complaint about:
• the reportage on the alleged appalling living conditions at the ZRC. He said that Plaatjie clearly did not rely on one source only and that she did not state her source’s information as fact, but mostly presented it as their opinion. He noted that this does not mean that he found that living conditions at the ZRC were indeed appalling – only that the reporter was justified to mention the information that she got from her sources; and
• a quote by a visitor who reportedly said that she was worried about mentally ill patients living in the same yard as the elderly, as this was merely the opinion of this source.

Visit www.presscouncil.org.za (rulings, 2012) for the full finding.

End of text

APPEAL

Please note that our Complaints Procedures lay down that within seven days of receipt of this decision, either party 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 contacted at Khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.

Johan Retief
Deputy Press Ombudsman