Unfounded allegations imply innocent until proven guilty
The journalistic code of ethics should be embraced by journalists as a guide for ethical behaviour in the newsroom. This series of articles was designed to create awareness of the lack of ethics in journalism. Real-life case studies are used to demonstrate the flags of unethical journalism. The question in this article is whether news reporters should publish unproven allegations.
The terms ‘journalist’ and ‘news reporter’ are used interchangeably, but there are notable differences in terms of the scope of their work that distinguish them from one another. Both focus on collecting and disseminating information, but while journalists often cover a range of stories across various media formats, news reporters focus on news. Both are essential to the functioning of a well-informed society and the key is ethical reporting. In this series of articles, the focus is on measuring the News24 EXODUS campaign against key ethical standards of fairness, public accountability honesty, independence, and minimising harm. Ethical news reporting also implies that an accused remains innocent until proven guilty by a court of law through fair processes.
Unfounded allegations mean there is no evidence or proper basis which supports the allegation being made. News outlets should be careful about how they report alleged crimes, especially if no charges have been laid yet against the accused. Crime reporting can be a legal minefield for news reporters and a news outlet can be sued for defamation. In most cases, claiming a crime was committed is impossible until a court has passed a guilty judgment.
The media is not above the law. When reporting about an alleged crime, the media should respect the presumption of innocence rule until the accused is arrested and found guilty by a court of law. This is to avoid harming those who are wrongly accused. Before that, it remains an allegation and should be stated as such.
Omitting the word ‘alleged’ from a news story can create issues for reporters, but it is also unfair and unethical. The presumption of innocence is a legal right of the accused and an international human right stated in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 11. In South Africa, it is also a guaranteed constitutional right. This means in layman's terms that the accused remains innocent until proven guilty by authorities who properly investigated them through fair processes. The accusers have the burden of providing proof and must present compelling evidence of guilt.
An accused can be severely impacted regarding personal liberty, social life, finances, and general well-being if wrongly accused. It is assumed that large media outlets are aware of their legal responsibilities, and their reporting should reflect this.
CASE STUDY: THE CASE OF KWASIZABANTU MISSION
The News24/KwaSizabantu reportage makes for an excellent case study for exposing the perils of disinformation. The onslaughts on the KwaSizabantu Mission by mainstream media started in 2019. The Mission was trialled by the media and was found guilty until proven innocent! Almost three years after mainstream media launched its attack on the Mission, it was clear that nothing that the media reported about them should be taken at face value.
By then it was also clear that a smear campaign which the media was dragged into, was at the core of the negative news reports about the Mission and was prominent in the News24 EXODUS campaign. A smear campaign, generally known as character assassination by way of false allegations, uses discrediting tactics such as labelling; relentless and continuous attacks; removing of context and/or omitting critical information; unverifiable rumours; distortions; blatant lies and half-truths. All of these red flags of unethical journalism are present in the EXODUS campaign.
In many cases, News24 and its sister publications reported on a wide variety of unfounded allegations, and many times omitted the word, ‘alleged’ from the narrative, giving the impression that the Mission and its managers are guilty of the atrocities they were accused of. These media outlets presented no compelling evidence of guilt against any of the accused, only wild accusations. None of the accused in the endless media reports was arrested for any of the alleged crimes, and none of the mission’s managers was found guilty in a court of law for any of the crimes they have been accused of. But the Mission was found guilty by the media. The media used the untested information as a weapon to harm the Mission and its directors and eventually, they were also found guilty by the court of public opinion, with much harm to the reputation of the Mission and to its image.
Presuming guilty until proven otherwise is a significant oversight that is definitely not aligned with quality and ethical journalism. Credibility in reporting is judged by the story and how it is told by the narrator. A reporter should address credibility issues openly. The emotional content of the reporting should match the need for the story to be told and believable, for instance, what relevance the story has to the audience.
This is unfair and not in the interest of the community that works there or those that benefit from their ministry and humanitarian work over a broad spectrum. Credibility in reporting is judged by the story and how it is told by the narrator. A reporter should address credibility issues openly. The emotional content of the reporting should match the need for the story to be told and believable – for instance, what relevance the story has to the audience.
The media onslaught against KwaSizabantu was eventually exposed for what it was – an orchestrated attempt to take over the mission and its businesses by family members in cahoots with disgruntled former workers. The EXODUS campaign represented problematic journalism. It is nothing less than tabloid puffery and presents little well-researched news. Instead, it uses eye-catching headlines, scandalmongering, and sensationalism to target specific people at the Mission.
(Read more: A Journey to the Truth: The Case of KwaSizabantu Mission, by Gerda Potgieter. Available on Amazon)
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Journalism in the interest of the public
The media strive to hold these rights (as described in Section 16 of the Bill of Rights) in trust for the country’s citizens, and they are subject to the same rights and duties as the individual. Everyone has the duty to defend and further these rights, in recognition of the struggles that created them: the media, the public and the government, who all make up the democratic state. The media’s work is guided at all times by the public interest, understood to describe information of legitimate interest or importance to citizens…
Investigative news and local democracy reporting are generally regarded as ‘public interest journalism’, but is it always the case? It is my experience that stating in a news report that a case was investigated, without providing clear evidence, cannot be automatically regarded as public interest.
Journalism plays a critical role in promoting a healthy society. In essence, journalism should provide news consumers with trusted and fact-based information while remaining independent. In the interest of the public does not mean issues or topics that the public would find interesting. It refers to matters that affect the public’s health, livelihoods, quality of life, and governance. In effect, it means the ‘common good’ and ‘societal relevance’ of the broader public and does not include what might fascinate or entertain them.
Journalism plays a central role (as a watchdog) in a democracy where the public interest is in having a safe, healthy and functional society. Investigative news reporting often challenges the powerful and stands up for the powerless, but the coverage must adhere to the basic principles of fairness, accuracy, truthfulness, accountability, independence, and humanity. The accused must also be given the right to reply.
The key in the quotation at the beginning of the article is the word ‘trust’. And there is no doubt that the spread of false news has escalated, advancing hidden agendas and generating significant advertising revenues in the process. This resulted in a general loss of trust in mainstream media.
The media should not be seen as becoming involved in a smear campaign with a personal agenda or family fall-outs. The media should not intrude into people’s private lives without being shown and seen to be in the wider public interest.
The valuable website, www.mediahelpingmedia.org gives some justifications for public interest justifications where the published story:
THE CASE OF NEWS24/KWASIZABANTU REPORTAGE
The unfounded allegation against the KwaSizabantu Mission in the News24 reportage is that the Mission is a cult, more particularly that its teachings are not scriptural and in line with the Apostles’ Creed. Another false allegation is that it used nefarious means to compel people to stay at the Mission against their free will and that they were then abused.
Following an extensive onslaught by News24, the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities (CRL Rights Commission) started investigating the allegations in November 2020. On 13 July 2023, the Commission released its findings and found that in terms of the church’s doctrines and cults’ practices, “the teachings, principles, rules, (doctrines) of the Mission are within the scope of freedom of religion.” The chairperson, Prof Mosoma, also said during the press conference on 13 July 2023 when the findings were released, that KwaSizabantu displays no qualities of a cult and that the media abused the word ‘cult’.
If a Christian organisation is a cult and it is proven to be a cult, it would definitely be in the interest of the broader public if it is published to warn them. However, the media onslaught against KwaSizabantu was based on a smear campaign for personal gain, driven by opportunistic family members and disgruntled former workers. There are countless evidence of that.
An interesting part of the News24 EXODUS campaign was that it was driven by the editor-in-chief, Adriaan Basson, who called on the public to boycott the aQuellé bottled water brand. He asked the public: “Want to stop a cult? Then Don’t buy aQuellé bottled water.
The water is bottled on the Mission and proceeds are used to run the ministry and mission, to execute the humanitarian work over a broad spectrum and to reach out to the community in various ways. News24’s fierce campaign escalated with dire consequences to the remote community whose livelihoods depend on the Mission for work, and support. The aQuellé brand, as well as other produce from the Mission, was immediately removed from the shelves of various retailers with dire financial and other consequences to the Mission and its community.
At first glance, this request to boycott the aQuellé water seemed like an invitation to hate and to financially harm the Mission. Could that be seen in any way as to the benefit of the broader public?
Another question that could be asked is: Was it a personal request by Adriaan Basson, or was it representative of News24 in his capacity as editor-in-chief? Basson appealed to the public in his name but then gave substance to his request by mentioning the high position he holds at the country’s current biggest online news outlet. Why would the big news outlet support a personal vendetta and what seems to be an agenda of the editor-in-chief? How can they benefit from that?
The most important question to ask is: “Taking into account the consequences of the disinformation, was it in the interest of the broader public or the public whose livelihoods were affected by the EXODUS campaign? In this case, only the agenda of the conspirators was pushed and it cannot be seen as being in the interest of the broader public. The evidence was not sufficient to justify putting the economic survival of thousands of rural families at risk. More importantly, Basson’s request for a boycott and his subsequent media attacks on KwaSizabantu damned the religious beliefs of thousands of people who have been attending the church services at the Mission for over 53 years.
In short, the News24 EXODUS campaign was not in the interest of the general public but was based on an agenda for personal gain.
(Read more: A Journey to the Truth: The Case of KwaSizabantu Mission, by Gerda Potgieter. Available on Amazon)
021 689 4400