Siphiwe Mathobela vs Sunday World

Compliant: Siphiwe Mathobela

Lodged by: Siphiwe Mathobela

Article: No kids…no papgeld from me’

Author of article: 

Date: 28 April 2011

Respondent: Sunday World

This ruling is based on the written submissions of Mr S. Mathobela and the Sunday World newspaper, as well as on an informal hearing that was held at our office on April 14, 2011. The newspaper was represented by its assistant editor, Xolile Mtshazo, and the writer of the disputed story, Norman Masungwini. Mathobela was accompanied by Mr Lindo Nkomonde.
 
Complaint
Mr Siphiwe Mathobela complains about a story in the Sunday World, published on December 12, 2010, and headlined ‘No kids…no papgeld from me’.
Mathobela complains that the following statements in the story are false and/or inaccurate and/or untruthful, namely that:
  • he has intensified his bid to evade paying maintenance for his two kids;
  • he has proposed an out of court settlement to his ex-wife;
  • his current wife Valerie kicked his children out;
  • the High Court transferred the maintenance case to the Pretoria Maintenance Court to reinforce the order; and
  • he handed himself over to the police.
 Analysis
The story says that Public Rail Agency of South Africa General Manager Siphiwe Mathobela has intensified his bid to evade paying maintenance by trying to win the custody of his two children that he fathered with his ex-wife, Ms Zamankosi Mathobela. However, his proposal to settle the matter out of court was reportedly rejected by his ex-wife. The story also says that Mathobela’s ex-wife went to court after he failed to comply with a court order to pay maintenance of R2 500 a month for each child.
I shall now consider the merits of the complaint:
Intensifying his bid to evade maintenance
The sentence in dispute says: “…Siphiwe Mathobela has intensified his bid to evade maintenance by trying to win custody of his two kids he fathered with his ex-wife Zamankosi Mathobela.” (own emphasis)
Mathobela complains that this sentence falsely asserts that he had been uncooperative in the civil matter between himself and his ex-wife regarding the maintenance of his two children.
In its written response to the complaint, the Sunday World says that:
  • Mathobela financially ostracised his children and that he wrote a letter to their former school principal in which he said that he was no longer going to pay for their school fees and other activities, including transport to school;
  • before its story was written, Mathobela failed to turn up at court;
  • on a second occasion, the court issued a warrant for his arrest;
  • court documents show that there were “other warrants against him issued in Pretoria”;
  • when his ex-wife refused to give him full custody of the children, he told them that he would not support them; and
  • his ex-wife claims to have SMSes from his current wife, stating the children were not Mathobela’s and that he would not support them.
At the informal hearing, the newspaper reiterated that Mathobela was indeed uncooperative as he had been “more than two times in court” for not paying maintenance. It also said that it based the disputed sentence on various sources.
The newspaper provided me with:
  • a Pretoria Magistrate document, dated May 8, 2008, stating that Mathobela is R5 000 in arrears for paying maintenance;
  • an order stating that he was sentenced to imprisonment for a period of five years for contempt of court; and
  • the letter by Mathobela to the principal of Tomorrow’s People Independent Primary School (dated July 1, 2009), stating that he is terminating his payment contract in respect of his two children and that, if the mother chose to keep the children at the school, a new contract should be signed with her.
Based on the above-mentioned documentation, the newspaper was justified in reporting that Mathobela has intensified his bid to evade maintenance. Note that this is not a statement that it is true that Mathobela has “intensified his bid to evade maintenance”.
Proposing an out of court settlement
The sentences in dispute read: “Instead of arguing the method of paying his papgeld arrears of a whopping R300 000, Mathobela (42) has proposed an out of court settlement to Zamankosi (35) in which he demands full custody of the children. According to the document, which was sent to Zamankosi’s legal representative, Siphiwe says he is not going to pay maintenance unless he gets full custody of the children aged nine and 12.”
In his complaint, Mathobela categorically denies that such a proposal exists.
At the informal hearing, the newspaper provided me with a document that it says it based its reportage on. This letter, dated 23 November 2010, is by Mathobela’s lawyer and is directed to his ex-wife’s attorneys.
In this document, Mathobela’s lawyers say regarding a settlement agreement that they:
  • were “awaiting further instructions” from him and also that they were awaiting a proposal by him;
  • had asked his ex-wife’s attorneys to obtain her proposals regarding an amicable settlement; and
  • had “every intention of settling the matter on an amicable basis”.
Note that the story states it as a fact that there was a settlement agreement. However, the document that the newspaper says it based its reportage on, does not say that. All it mentions is a possible settlement agreement, an intention to settle and the awaiting of a proposal by Mathobela in this regard – nothing less, but also nothing more.
Based on the above, it is not reasonable for me to believe that there indeed was a settlement agreement – it certainly cannot be based on the document that the newspaper says it used to base its reportage on.
Valerie kicking Mathobela’s children out
The sentence in dispute says: “Zamankosi rejected his proposal, arguing the children had long waited to live with him, but his current wife Valerie kicked them out of the house saying she can’t raise five children.” (emphasis added)
Mathobela complains that this statement is a fabrication. He also says that the newspaper did not attempt to verify this statement before publication.
In its written response, the newspaper does not reply to the statement itself. It does, however, state that Masungwini was reporting court proceedings. The newspaper also argues that it did previously ask Mathobela for comment, but says that he then refused to comment and told the journalist that he “must write what he wants to write”.
At the “hearing”, the newspaper reiterated that it based this sentence on the testimony of Mathobela’s ex-wife in court and that its journalist was therefore under no obligation to ask him for comment. The newspaper also argued that it was inappropriate to ask Mathobela’s comment while the court case was still underway as this could influence court proceedings.
The newspaper is correct – journalists do not normally ask participants in court cases for comment. The other side will later be presented in court, which is when the journalist gets a chance to report on the views of the other party.
However, the following should also be said:
  • It is only after the disputed sentence that it becomes clear that the story is actually court reporting – normally, this should be made clear upfront; and
  • I have already said that the newspaper was right in not asking for Mathobela’s comment. However, its argument that Masungwini previously did not want to comment and that it therefore did not approach him this time is no argument at all – even if a journalist thinks that the subject of his/her reportage would not comment s/he still is under an obligation to try to get comment.
 Order reinforced
The sentence in dispute says: “The High Court transferred the maintenance case to the Pretoria Maintenance Court to reinforce the order.” (emphasis added)
Mathobela complains that this statement gives the impression that a court order on the maintenance of the two children exists. “This is untrue. No permanent maintenance court order has been issued by any court since the finalization of the divorce between myself and Zamankosi in July 2009.”
At the “hearing” the newspaper said that it based this sentence on:
  • an order document; and
  • what Mathobela’s ex-wife testified in court.
Mathobela explained that the “order” to which the sentence in dispute refers is based on Rule 43, which has elapsed when he got divorced on July 24, 2009.
According to internet sources, a Rule 43 order is for temporary relief only when, during a divorce process, one of the spouses applies to the court for help. This order indeed elapses when the divorce becomes official.
The document that the newspaper refers to is dated March 5, 2008. It orders Mathobela to pay his ex-wife R2 500 per child per month, as well as school fees and a contribution of R1 500 to legal fees. This order, it states, is “in terms of Rule 43 and other documents filed”.
There is little doubt that this order has expired on July 24, 2009 – the date of Mathobela’s divorce.
The newspaper’s other argument, namely that it based this sentence on the testimony of Mathobela’s ex-wife, also does not hold water – it may be true that she said it, but then the statement in dispute should have been attributed to her. As it stands, it is rather stated as a fact.
This makes it unreasonable for me to accept either of the newspaper’s arguments.
Handing himself over to the police
The sentence in dispute says: “The warrant was cancelled after he handed himself over to the police three weeks ago.”
Mathobela complains that this statement gives the impression that he was at some time arrested, which he says is untrue. He states: “I have never been a fugitive nor is my freedom based on any condition.”
At the “hearing”, Mathobela explained that he first read in the newspaper that there was a warrant out for his arrest. He then went to a magistrate’s court to establish the truth.
The newspaper argued that that the magistrate’s court and the police form part of the justice system and that it is a matter of six of the one and half a dozen of the other.
I am willing to accept Mathobela’s word that he did not go to the police and that he did not “hand himself over”. It is in fact the more reasonable thing to do. Also, note that the police and the magistrate’s court are two very different entities, even if they form part of the same justice system. Art. 1.1 of the Press Code is crystal clear when stating that the press is obliged to report accurately.
Finding
Intensifying his bid to evade maintenance
Based on documentation, the newspaper was justified in reporting that Mathobela has intensified his bid to evade maintenance (which does not necessarily mean that the statement in dispute is true). This part of the complaint is dismissed.
Proposing an out of court settlement
It is not reasonable to believe that there was a settlement agreement (as the newspaper bases its reportage on a document that does not contain such a settlement agreement). This is in breach of Art. 1.1 of the Press Code that states: “The press shall be obliged to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly.”
Valerie kicking Mathobela’s children out
The newspaper was under no obligation to verify the statement in question as it was reporting on a court case. This part of the complaint is dismissed.
Order reinforced
The order that the sentence in dispute refers to, has expired on 24 July 2009. Besides, this sentence is not attributed to Mathobela’s ex-wife (but rather stated as a fact). This makes its reportage inaccurate and therefore in breach of Art. 1.1 of the Press Code.
Handing himself over to the police
Mathobela’s argument that he did not go to the police but rather to the magistrate’s court, and that he did not “hand himself over” to the police is reasonably true. This makes the sentence in dispute inaccurate and therefore in breach of Art. 1.1 of the Press Code.
Sanction
The Sunday World is reprimanded for breaching Art. 1.1 of the Press Code in that it inaccurately reported that:
  • there was a settlement agreement between Mathobela and his ex-wife;
  • the maintenance case was referred to the Pretoria Maintenance Court to reinforce the order; and
  • Mathobela went to the police and handed himself over to them.
The newspaper is directed to publish a summary of this finding (not the whole ruling) and sanction and to furnish our office with the text prior to publication.
Please add the following sentence at the end of the text: “Visit www.presscouncil.org.za (rulings, 2011) for the full finding.”
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