Phumzile Buthelezi vs Weekend Witness

Complainant: Phumzile Buthelezi

Lodged by: Mr Thulasizwe Buthelezi

Article: Buthelezi’s daughter arrested

Date: 04 April 2011

Respondent: Weekend Witness

Complaint
Princess Thulasizwe Buthelezi complains about a story in the Weekend Witness, published on January 8, 2011 and headlined Buthelezi’s daughter arrested.
The complaint is that:
  • the reference to Buthelezi being arrested “for intimidating” an ANC leader is misleading;
  • the newspaper did not ask for Buthelezi’s comment; and
  • the story is not objective.
Analysis
The story says that Phumzile Buthelezi, one of Inkatha president Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s daughters, was arrested together with two other IFP supporters for intimidating an ANC leader, Mr Skhumbuzo Mabaso at a community meeting in Mhlabathini (which is Buthelezi’s hometown). Mabaso is an ANC nominee for the upcoming local government election. The story quotes a source – another ANC local government elections candidate – who reportedly said that Buthelezi accused Mabaso of having killed one of her relatives a long time ago and ordered him to leave the meeting. When he refused to do so, the IFP women then reportedly challenged him to a fight, after which Mabaso reported the matter to the police. The story the ANC elections candidate, “who cannot be named for fear of intimidation”, said that senior IFP members who were from outside the area “came in and hijacked the meeting to discuss IFP issues”. An IFP spokesperson is quoted as saying that Buthelezi’s arrest was an abuse of power by the ANC and the police, and that it was part of a smear campaign by the ANC.
We shall now consider the merits of the complaint:
‘Intimidating’
Buthelezi complains that the reference to Buthelezi being arrested “for intimidating” an ANC leader is misleading. She says this is presented as a fact (that she intimidated the leader), while it should have been presented as an allegation as a court of law has not yet ruled on the matter.
The newspaper replies that it did err – it says that the word “alleged” (intimidation) should have been used.
I beg to differ. The word “for” (“arrested ‘for’ intimidating”) is synonymous with “on a charge of”. When the press reports that a person was arrested for (or: on a charge of) murder, it does not imply that that person is guilty – it is still for a court to decide on the matter. If someone was arrested for (or: on a charge of) murder, the arrest – and not the guilt of the person – is stated as a fact.
Moreover: The story later mentions that “a case of intimidation had been laid against them”. Surely, the ordinary reader would understand that only the court will decide whether Buthelezi was guilty or not, and that the newspaper was also aware of that.
Not asked for comment
Buthelezi complains that the newspaper did not ask her for comment.
The Weekend Witness argues thus: “Given the fact that the conflict was rooted in political hostilities, we thought it appropriate and relevant to solicit a response from the IFP as a party.”
This argument is solid.
Also consider the fact that Buthelezi has already appeared in court. It is not customary for newspapers to ask parties to a court case for comment, at least not before the case is over. Buthelezi would in any case get a chance to put forward her case in court, which is the opportunity that the newspaper should take to report on that.
Not objective
Buthelezi says that the reportage was not objective and balanced.
The Weekend Witness denies this.
It says that:
  • it quoted the IFP’s deputy national spokesperson, who ascribed the events to an ANC “smear campaign”;
  • the story refers to only one ANC sympathizer who provided detail about the circumstances of the alleged intimidation;
  • the information gained from this ANC supporter was important for the reader to know;
  • had the IFP spokesperson responded more fulsomely, “it is likely that we would have had perhaps another paragraph or two reflecting the IFP’s opinion and that would, in terms of a word count, have balanced the two political parties out; and
  • the police, the ANC, and the IFP have all had their say and put across their perspective.
Van der Merwe replies that:
  • she checked with Thulasizwe Buthelezi “who said that he had given the journalist more much more than just the one-liner the paper published as IFP comment on the issue”;
  • the story paints the picture that Buthelezi was the aggressor and guilty in this incident, “which is irresponsible given the historical relationship between the two parties”;
  • the story is unbalanced – not only because the word “alleged” (regarding the matter of intimidation) was not used, but also because “much more weight” was given to the ANC’s side of the story; and
  • most of the story is about how the ANC felt about the incident.
I asked Van der Merwe if Thulasizwe’s contact with the newspaper was in writing so that I could ascertain for myself what the newspaper did not use. It was not – the contact was verbal.
It is true that more words are allotted to the ANC elections candidate than to the IFP. However, “balance” and “fairness” can normally not be judged by the mere counting of words. More than quantity is quality the heavier yardstick to “measure” balance with, as Van der Merwe correctly argues.
The following considerations should be kept in mind:
  • The reference to the ANC source was necessary, as s/he was an eye-witness to the events and, as such, could provide valuable information;
  • The IFP spokesperson’s reaction was telling – he is quoted as saying that the arrest was “clearly an abuse of power” by the ANC and the police, and that it was part of a “smear campaign” by the ANC;
  • The story indeed devotes more words to its ANC source;
  • It may be argued that the article gives less weight to the IFP; and
  • The story is a relatively short one.
While it may be argued that the story is not perfectly balanced, I am satisfied that there is enough balance so as not to warrant a finding against the newspaper.
Finding
‘Intimidating’
The word “for” (“arrested ‘for’ intimidating”) is synonymous with “on a charge of”. The ordinary reader would have understood that Buthelezi was not guilty because the court has not ruled on the matter yet. This part of the complaint is dismissed.
Not asked for comment
The conflict was rooted in political hostilities and it was appropriate and relevant to ask a response from the IFP as a party. Besides, Buthelezi has already appeared in court – newspapers do not normally ask parties to a court case for comment, and Buthelezi would get a chance to put forward her case in court. This part of the complaint is dismissed.
Not objective
Within the confines of this rather short story, the newspaper did enough to bring balance to the story as both sides of the political divide were reported on. This part of the complaint is dismissed.
Sanction
There is no sanction.
Appeal
Please note that our Complaints Procedures lay 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. He can be reached at khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.
Johan Retief
Deputy Press Ombudsman