The South African Press Ombudsman ruled that the Johannesburg newspaper the Mail & Guardian broke guidelines with its Sept. 3 story “Prison inmate ‘tortured to death’; Chilling new claims of inmate abuse at the embattled Mangaung prison are emerging.”
The ombudsman, Johann Retief, decided the weekly newspaper had to retract its claim that “the death in custody of inmate Tebogo Bereng was referred to the police,” according to the newspaper. However, Bereng’s death wasn’t referred. “A referral had not been confirmed by the department or by any other source,” the newspaper admitted in its retraction.
Bereng died in a Mangaung prison isolation cell in 2013, the newspaper wrote. The state mortuary pathologist ruled Bereng died of natural causes, but the Mail & Guardian reported “eyewitness accounts” said he “was electroshocked repeatedly to the head on 31 March 2013, which most likely caused his death.”
(The Department of Correctional Services told the paper “The National Commissioner has appointed a Task Team to look into all unnatural deaths at MCC.”)
The newspaper also apologized for its error, but noted that Retief “dismissed five complaints by the department, in which it had alleged an ‘intentional, and negligent, departure from the facts.'”
“Complaints dismissed by the ombud included that [the article’s author Ruth] Hopkins qualified the department’s failure to finalise the report as ‘slow progress’; that Hopkins noted that, despite department’s knowledge of the abuse, it handed back control of the prison to G4S in August 2014; and that the department was unable to confirm whether the report will be published,” the Mail and Guardian reported.
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The Department of Correctional Services complained to the press ombudsman about the coverage.
The ombudsman’s ruling read in part: “The M&G is directed to publish a retraction of the statement that Bereng’s death had been referred to the SAPS, with an explanation that this had not been confirmed by either the DCS or by any other source. The text should appear on its website. The newspaper is free to mention the parts of the complaint that were dismissed.”
Check out the whole press ombudsman ruling here.
iMediaEthics has written to the Mail & Guardian and the Department of Correctional Services for comment.
UPDATED: 11/4/2015 8:09 AM EST To add additional information