Journalist in the firing line

2014-06-12 00:00

Journalist in the firing line

WITNESS newcomer Jeff Wicks has found himself in the firing line as he reports on the initiation saga at Voortrekker High School in Pietermaritzburg.

Readers who have followed his reporting will be familiar with the story: a 14-year-old boy and his mother have blown the whistle on a series of alleged initiation rituals in the school boarding house. During one of the incidents, the boy claims he was branded with a hot iron and has made a sworn statement to this effect — and included other details of alleged incidents involving pornographic pictures and the initiates being stripped naked — to police investigating the case.

As Jeff reported the story, other parents have come forward telling him of similar incidents involving their children, adding credence to the initial claims.

A series of reports like this are likely to inflame passions and the school itself has not taken kindly to our reporting, as one would expect.

An internal inquiry into the affair was taking place at the school yesterday, while a provincial Education Department-appointed task team conducts its own probe and the police investigate possible criminal charges.

Jeff, meanwhile, has been on the receiving end of some significant abuse from anonymous tormentors.

A Twitter account (VoriesKZN) was created shortly after we broke the first story and the person or people running the account have been vitriolic in their cyber-stalking of Jeff. He has been attacked for his alleged lack of talent as a journalist and The Witness has been spat upon with some enthusiasm.

Jeff tells me he received several phone calls from presumably the same person who repeatedly called him a name that would make a sailor blush, which says more about the person dishing out the insults than the target of them.

He was also on the receiving end of a tirade by an anonymous woman caller who at first congratulated him for exposing the alleged incidents, and then rebuked him for causing suffering to children still at the school, and told him he was sensationalist and lacked balance.

Well, que sera, sera. Jeff is no push-over, and it is going to take more than a couple of nasty phone calls and some acidic tweets to keep him away from the story.

The school also threatened in a statement to Jeff to bring legal action against us for our reporting.

Let me place on record now that they have been given fair and ample opportunity to provide comment on each and every story prior to publication.

We also applied for permission to attend yesterday’s hearing, which would allow us to reflect all sides of the story as they were aired, providing a full account of the affair. Our request was denied by the school, which cited the Child Act, so we are left to glean information from the sources available to us.

So, how did this story come about and why are we covering it so vigorously?

The initial reporting did not emanate from the mother and son who have become central to it, as many assume. The story originated in a thinly detailed anonymous e-mail tip-off sent to me that indicated that Ladysmith (where the mother and son live) was awash with talk about what had happened at the school.

On this skimpy information, Jeff was dispatched to Ladysmith where he gumshoed the streets trying to find out if what we had been told had any legs to it, and if there were any primary sources who could talk about it.

It turned out that there were, and from there our coverage grew.

So why have we pursued this story with such vigour?

It’s simple: there is an overwhelming public interest to be served in bringing allegations of this nature concerning a leading school in the community we cover to light. Schools are meant to be a place of education and enlightenment to our children, not places in which they are physically and mentally abused.

Incidentally, I also recall well what it was like to be a schoolboy on the receiving end of such puerile and humiliating “rites of passage”.

Yes, I concede that there are many other factors to consider too. Of course, reports of this nature will be disturbing to the school’s community, but in my view the external public interest outweighs this factor.

There is also sensitivity in dealing with a story that involves juveniles as alleged victims and perpetrators of some disturbing behaviour, and I believe we have handled this ethically and responsibly.

We will not turn away from covering this story and we will vigorously defend our reporting in any forum in which we are challenged.

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• Twitter: @andrewtrench

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