The South African National Editors’ Forum (SANEF) is outraged by the complete collapse of journalistic ethics and standards in the reporting on the case of the so-called Tembisa decuplets by Independent Media.
On 8 June, Piet Rampedi, editor-in-chief of the Pretoria News, authored a lead story in the newspaper and on the IOL website that stated as fact that a Gauteng woman had given birth to 10 babies and broken the Guinness World Record.
Rampedi interviewed the couple, Gosiame Sithole and Teboho Tsotetsi, at their home in Tembisa, Ekurhuleni a month before the story was published and uncritically reported their version of events about the birth without verifying the facts with the hospital or doctors involved, as required by the Press Code of South Africa.
The code states very clearly that journalists “must take care to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly.”
When other journalists started to investigate the matter, they were told by parties in the story that Rampedi told them not to speak to any other journalist and that he would speak on behalf of the family.
The Pretoria News and IOL further published a fundraising campaign for the so-called miracle babies and published bank account details of a firm that was supposedly collecting donations for the family. Independent Media also asked its readers to deliver clothing and gifts for the children.
Shortly thereafter, Rampedi and Tsotetsi flew to Cape Town to accept an R1 million donation for the family from Dr Iqbal Survé, chairperson of Independent Media. At that point, serious gaps were visible in the story and the Gauteng provincial government confirmed that no decuplets were born in any private or public hospital in the province.
Notwithstanding the many holes in the story, Rampedi and Independent Media doubled down and continued to report the story without the basic facts having been confirmed or established. Rampedi steadfastly refused to provide the name of the hospital or medical professionals involved.
On 14 June, Rampedi and Independent Media, after sustained attempts by the rest of the country, the government and other journalists to verify the story, changed tack and started to blame Sithole, the woman, claiming she had disappeared and was not responding to messages from Tsotetsi, the alleged father.
It is now clear that Rampedi never saw the babies or had proof of their birth, but solely relied on WhatsApp messages between Sithole and Tsotetsi to report as fact that they were born. This is reckless and irresponsible journalism of the highest order.
Throughout his reporting, Rampedi purported to know which hospital Sithole and her babies were at. This has proved to be untrue. And instead of admitting his lapse of basic journalistic ethics, Rampedi is now victim-blaming Sithole, who needs medical assistance, according to the head of the Steve Biko Academic Hospital.
This entire episode ranks as one of the lowest points in the history of South African journalism. The failure of Rampedi and Independent Media to do basic fact-checking and verify grandiose statements before publication has undermined and damaged the entire journalistic profession.
The Press Code is clear that journalists should take the utmost care when reporting on matters involving children. Even though Independent Media is not a signatory of the Press Code, it is clear that all journalistic standards were abandoned with the handling of this story.
SANEF calls on the management of Independent Media to urgently institute an independent inquiry, led by an expert in media ethics, to investigate how this story was investigated, reported and responded to by Rampedi and his colleagues.
SANEF recently hosted a conference on media ethics and credibility in South Africa, that ended a thorough study into the matter, sparked by the Sunday Times’ unethical and flawed reporting on an investigating unit at the South African Revenue Service. Ironically, Rampedi was part of that reporting team and has steadfastly refused to admit wrongdoing in his reporting, despite numerous findings to the contrary.
SANEF will continue to promote ethical and credible journalism through training, workshops and interactions with newsrooms and editors across the country.