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Press Ombud dismisses Esidimeni funeral parlour complaint

Press Ombudsman Johan Retief recently dismissed a complaint against Daily Maverick/ Health-e News for a story we wrote about how former Esidimeni patients who had died had been found in a Pretoria morgue. 

The lawyers of Put U 2 Rest Funeral Parlour laid a complaint against the Daily Maverick after it had published our story, which reported on two sisters having to look through a pile of dead bodies at a morgue for their deceased brother.

The ruling is below:

Ruling by the Press Ombud

This ruling is based on the written submissions of Mr L. N’wamba of LB Nwamba Attorneys, on behalf of Put U 2 Rest Funeral Parlour, and those of Kerry Cullinan, managing editor of Health-e news, on behalf of the Daily Maverick.

The parlour is complaining about a story of 20 February 2017 headlined, Esidimeni’s dead were stored in pile in a rundown private Atteridgeville mortuary.

Complaint                                          

Put U 2 Rest complains that the following statements were untrue:

  • “Phumzile and Zandile Mashego found the body of their brother (Mr Solly Mashego) – an ex-patient from Life Esidimeni – in a pile along with other unclaimed bodies in a rundown building in Atteridgeville”;
  • “After we heard that Solly had passed away, we were told that he was at the funeral home called ‘Put U 2 Rest’, but his body was not there, said Phumzile. ‘They directed us to this place that looked like an old butchery’”; and
  • “Inside, the sisters were given gloves and told to look through bodies that were stacked on top of the other inside a large fridge. They found Solly’s unmarked body in the pile – and were told that they were lucky he hadn’t been given a pauper’s burial as had happened to others.”

The text

The three quotations above adequately summarise what the article was about.

It should be noted that 94 mentally ill patients died after being transferred from the Life Esidimeni Health facility into the care of various NGOs throughout Gauteng.

The arguments

N’wamba says Put U 2 Rest assisted Precious Angels Home with the storage of deceased bodies. He emphasizes that family members are not allowed to enter the mortuary and the cold room until the deceased has been taken out of the cold room and put on a stretcher – only then may family members view and identify the body. He says this policy is strictly enforced, and therefore he denies the “fabricated allegations” that the Mashego family found their loved on in a pile of other bodies.

Providing this office with names and dates, he says Put U 2 Rest removed nine bodies for storage. The firm received these bodies without any identity documents or contact details of their next of kin. These bodies could therefore not have been buried sooner and were kept in storage for a while.

The attorney also says Put U 2 Rest ran a finger print search at the Pretoria branch of the Department of Home Affairs – and eventually the families of all the deceased were traced. Six of the nine bodies were taken by the families concerned; the remaining three were taken by Royal Funeral Parlour, which is contracted to the Gauteng Department of Health.

He argues, “So it is mischievous for the publication to say some of the deceased persons held by Put U 2 Rest were given pauper burials. The Gauteng Department of Health can confirm that indeed all nine bodies held by Put U 2 Rest have been accounted for and the matter has been finalised.”

He concludes that the reportage was irresponsible and that it has tarnished Put U 2 Rest’s business in Atteridgeville and Pretoria at large.

Cullinan responds as follows:

  • The information in the first sentence (as cited above) came from the sisters;
  • A journalist went to Put U 2 Rest to ascertain the situation firsthand, but was denied access to the premises;
  • One sister repeated the allegations in question at a vigil convened by the Gauteng Department of Health, which was attended by the national Director-General of Health, Ms Precious Matsoso; and
  • Matsoso tried to attain access to the building for six hours – “[h]owever, as this was five months after the Mashego sisters’ experience, it is not surprising that there were no bodies of the Esidimeni dead there”.

The editor argues, “Thus, Health-e journalists took a number of reasonable steps to independently verify the Mashego sisters’ experience but were unable to get access to the morgue. However, we had no reason to disbelieve the sisters, especially as they were prepared to recount their traumatic experience in public to the most senior health official in the country.”

With regard to the pauper burials, Cullinan says the article did not mention pauper burials in connection with Put U 2 Rest. She says it mentioned private burials of ex-Esidimeni patients without the knowledge of their families. Matsoso had confirmed this information, and the story reflected it.

This is what the article stated: “[Matsoso] confirmed the claim made last week by Democratic Alliance MPL Jack Bloom that the Hammanskraal NGO, Tshepong, had buried six former Esidimeni patients privately without their families being informed. ‘Jack Bloom is correct. We followed that up and we are aware of where they have been buried’, said Matsoso.”

The editor emphasizes that there was no reference to Put U 2 Rest with regard to these burials, “[a]nd we believe that it was fair and reasonable comment to quote the Director General in this regard in response to Jack Bloom’s report, which had already been reported in the media.”

N’wamba replies that Daily Maverick did not give Put U 2 Rest a right of reply prior to publication, and it is understandable that the sisters were emotional after the death of their brother – “but not at the cost of [Put U 2 Rest’s] business reputation”.

Analysis

The sentences complained of were all attributed to the sisters, including the pauper burial issue. They had the right to state (more than once) what they had experienced – the same right Daily Maverick had to publish their story.

Cullinan’s conclusion that Health-e journalists took a number of reasonable steps to independently verify the information is convincing.

Regarding the statement that the Daily Maverick did not ask Put U 2 Rest for comment, I note that the journalist did try to get access to the premises, and did speak to a member of staff called Erica.

Finding

The complaint is dismissed.

Johan Retief

Press Ombud

 

 

 

 

 

 

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