Mzwandile Phupha vs The Weekly

Complainant: Mzwandile Phupha

Lodged by: Mzwandile Phupha

Article: Warlord’s last dance

Author of article: 

Date: 2 July 2012

Respondent: The Weekly

Complaint

Mr Mzwandile Phupha complains about a story in The Weekly on 10 February 2012 and headlined Warlord’s last dance.

Phupha complains the story incorrectly says that:

  • he was a warlord;
  • he was close to being arrested;
  • Mr Mojanaga was his right-hand man and that both he and Mojanaga evicted people from their sites;
  • he has sold houses; and
  • he was suspended from the ANC.

He also complains that he was not given the opportunity to give his side of the story.

Although he does not complain that the story states it as fact that he has shot somebody, I am adding it to the complaint.

Analysis

The intro to the story neatly summarises what it is about. It reads: “After numerous allegations of removing people from their legitimate stands, intimidation, and harassment to maintain power and divisions, the curtain seems to be closing on Mzwandile Phupha, who this week shot an ANC branch secretary.”

Warlord

The story says that Phupha has been dubbed “the Motheo Warlord”; the headline states it as fact that he was a warlord.

Phupha says that he would like the newspaper to prove that he was a warlord, and to inform the public where he was fighting his wars and who his commander was.

The Weekly says that its use of the word in question was justified as:

  • it was based on Phupha’s previous actions and conduct, which included the alleged shooting of an ANC branch secretary;
  • it has reported extensively about people who have been violently removed from their legitimate stands by Phupha, his wife and a group of young people – and states that these people have called him a warlord; and
  • senior ANC members have said that Phupha behaved violently in ANC meetings and disrupted these meetings by heckling at speakers and intimidating people who were of a different opinion than him.

The newspaper adds that it can understand Phupha’s literal interpretation of the word “warlord”, but maintains that his interpretation is not applicable to the context of the story.

Note that it is not my task to decide if Phupha was a warlord or not, but only if it was reasonable for the newspaper to call him such.

Wikipedia defines a warlord as a “…person with power who has both military and civil control over a subnational area due to armed forces loyal to the warlord and not to a central authority. The term can also mean one who espouses the ideal that war is necessary, and has the means and authority to engage in war. Today, the word has a strong connotation that the person exercises far more power than his official title or rank (if any) legitimately permits.”

I shall now deal with each of the newspaper’s arguments (above):

Based on Phupha’s previous conduct, including the alleged shooting

The newspaper elaborates on his “previous conduct” (see below, including my comment). The alleged shooting of an ANC official can certainly not serve as a valid reason for calling Phupha a warlord, as one is innocent until proven guilty – and at the time of publication he has not been proven guilty.

Evacuees calling Phupha a warlord

Surely, one cannot state it as fact that somebody is a warlord merely because other people have called that person so.

Behaving violently, heckling, disrupting

These allegations may or may not be true – but even if they are, these actions do not match the criteria for a warlord (as stated above).

I note that the story did not state it as fact that Phupha was a warlord – only that some people called him that. I have no reason to believe that these people did not use that word.

However, the headline (unjustifiably) stated it as fact. It would have been acceptable if “warlord” was used in inverted commas in the heading, because that would have indicated that some people called him that. As it stands, the newspaper states an opinion or allegation as fact – which it was not justified to do.

I therefore conclude that the headline did not reasonably reflect the contents of the story, as required by the Press Code.

Close to being arrested

Phupha complains about the statement “in one of their copies” that he was about to be arrested for removing people from their sites.

This statement may have been made in another story, but certainly not in the one that Phupha complains about. I therefore cannot come to a finding on this part of the complaint.

Mojanaga

Phupha complains that the newspaper falsely stated that Mojanaga was his right-hand man and that the two of them evicted people from their sites.

Again, the story in dispute does not mention Mojanaga, and so this part of the complaint falls away.

However, the story does state the following about the alleged evictions by Phupha: “The Weekly has reported extensively in the past about Phupha’s alleged site swindling in Mangaung informal settlements that left the poor destitute. Scores of people have come forward to relate their pain after Phupha, his controversial councillor wife…and a group of intoxicated youths forcefully removed them from their houses and moved in new tenants. Several cases of fraud have been opened against Phupha. Despite his alleged victims speaking on record to the newspaper and opening criminal charges against him no action has been taken against him.” (emphasis added)

I am worried about the second sentence, which states it as fact that Phupha was involved in the eviction of people. Even if a thousand people may have alleged that he was involved in evictions, it still would not give the newspaper the right to state it as fact. One is innocent until proven guilty – which Phupha was not at the time of publication.

Even though the first and the last sentences mention Phupha’s “alleged” site swindling and his “alleged” victims, the newspaper still should have been more careful regarding the second sentence.

Selling houses

Phupha says that the newspaper must provide him with one house number from the many it claimed that he has sold.

The story in dispute does not say that he has sold houses. Again, I cannot make a ruling on this specific issue.

Suspended from the ANC

The story that Phupha complains about, does not say that he was suspended from the ANC, only that “tough action” and “disciplinary action” would be taken against him. This does not necessarily mean “suspension”. The newspaper may have reported elsewhere that the ANC has suspended him, but I cannot make a ruling on a story that has not been complained about and is not at my disposal.

Not asked for comment

Phupha complains that the newspaper did not ask for his side of the story.

The newspaper denies this, saying that it did afford him an opportunity to respond, and that he in fact responded to the questions that the journalist put to him telephonically.

The story carries one sentence (only) that reflects Phupha’s views (stating that he told the newspaper that he shot the “attackers” out of self-defence).

The question now is if that was enough (if it brought the necessary balance to the story).

The central issue of the story is about Phupha who allegedly shot a man – to which he had a chance to have his say. This was good, but it was not good enough.

Secondary issues include allegations that Phupha has evicted people, threats by ANC members to act against him, and allegations that he was involved in a reign of terror. Fairness dictates that the newspaper should not only have asked, but also published his side of the story regarding these secondary (but still serious, and indeed not unimportant) issues. If that was not possible, the story should have stated it.

Shooting somebody

The intro to the story states it as fact that Phupha has shot somebody – fact, not an allegation or accusation. This statement of fact is repeated lower down in the story.

This is out of line – even though the story also mentions that he “allegedly” shot someone, and that he was “accused” of shooting the person, and even though he himself has reportedly confessed to the newspaper that he shot the man (out of self-defence).

The fact remains that he has not been found guilty by a court of law. The story should therefore consistently have presented this as an allegation, and not as fact.

Finding
Warlord

The use of the word “warlord” in the headline without inverted commas is in breach of Art. 11.1 of the Press Code that states: “Headlines…shall give a reasonable reflection of the contents of the report…in question.”

The complaint about the use of the word “warlord” in the story is dismissed.

Close to being arrested

This part of the complaint is dismissed.
Mojanaga
The part of the complaint is dismissed.

One sentence states the allegation that Phupha was involved in the eviction of people as fact. This is in breach ofArt. 1.3 of the Code that says : “…Where a report is not based on facts or is founded on opinions, allegation, rumour or supposition, it shall be presented in such manner as to indicate this clearly.”

Selling houses

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

Suspended from the ANC

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

Not asked for comment

Although Phupha’s view was reflected on the central issue of the story, that was not the case with related matters that flowed from it (allegations that Phupha has evicted people, threats by ANC members to act against him, and allegations that he was involved in a reign of terror). These were serious allegations and it was unfair not to reflect his comments on these issues. This is in breach of Art. 1.5 of the Code that states: “A publication should seek the views of the subject of serious critical reportage in advance of publication…” Although the words “and publish” do not appear in this sentence, it certainly is the implication.

Shooting somebody

The statements of fact (more than once) that Phupha shot someone are in breach of Art. 1.3 of the Code.

General comment

The newspaper must be more careful when it reports on allegations, or on accusations that have not been proven yet. The story did use the word “allegation” often, and did from time to time ascribe information to sources – which is good, and must therefore be commended. However, this was not done consistently. Beware of stating an allegation or an accusation as fact.

Sanction

The Weekly is directed to apologise to Phupha for using the word “warlord” in the headline without inverted commas.

The newspaper is reprimanded for not publishing Phupha’s views on the allegations that he has evicted people, that there were threats by members of the ANC to act against him, and on allegations that he was involved in a reign of terror; and it is directed to include his comment on these matters in the text below (if he wants to comment). This comment, if forthcoming, must be of reasonable length – not more than six sentences.

The newspaper is cautioned for portraying allegations as facts, such as that Phupha:
  • was involved in the eviction of people; and
  • shot someone.
The newspaper is directed to publish the following text:

The Weekly apologises to Mr Mzwandile Phupha for calling him a warlord in a headline.

This comes after he lodged a complaint with the Press Ombudsman about a story headlined Warlord’s last dance (10 February 2012).

The story was about Phupha who allegedly shot an ANC branch secretary; it stated that the curtain seemed to be closing in on him.

Deputy Press Ombudsman Johan Retief directed us to apologise, because we were not justified to state an opinion or an allegation as fact. He also said that the headline did not reasonably reflect the contents of the story, as required by the Press Code.

He reprimanded us for not publishing Phupha’s views on the allegations that he has evicted people, that there were threats by ANC members to act against him, and on allegations that he was involved in a reign of terror – and directed us to include his comment on these matters in the text below (if he wants to comment).

PHUPHA’S COMMENTS (if applicable)

Retief also cautioned us for portraying the allegation as fact that Phupha was involved in the eviction of people, and that he shot someone.

He dismissed five other parts of the complaint.

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