/ 24 September 2019

Beyond betrayal: Is redemption possible for a journalist who lived a lie?

Roxanne Joseph lied about having cancer for nine months in 2015-16. She has admitted to this
Roxanne Joseph lied about having cancer for nine months in 2015-16. She has admitted to this, and undergone therapy for a serious mental illness. (Twitter)



In Johannesburg, the worlds of journalism and civil society are tightknit. Gossip moves quickly between the two spheres, and disappears just as quickly. But in recent years there has been one bit of gossip that has refused to go away.

Did you hear about Ray Joseph’s daughter, Roxanne? The one who faked having cancer?

It appeared to be nothing more than a throwaway rumour connected to a familiar name. The details appeared just too salacious to ever be true, and there was no evidence.

She shaved her hair off! She drew bags under her eyes with permanent marker! All her friends got matching tattoos in solidarity!

Except most of those rumours have now proven to be true.

Roxanne Joseph, a journalist who trained at the University of the Witwatersrand and then went on to work at nongovernmental organisation Section27, lied about having cancer for nine months in 2015-16. She has admitted to this, and undergone therapy for a serious mental illness.

Roxanne now works as an associate data journalist for environmental journalism unit Oxpeckers. And she insists that the journalism she has produced there is above reproach. Her detractors, most of whom were duped by Roxanne, believe she ought not to be trusted to practice journalism. Her family and friends, however, believe she has been rehabilitated and ought to be allowed to pursue her chosen profession.

What emerges is an uneasy debate about who may be trusted to do journalism, and when a journalist who has crossed an ethical line can be considered to be sufficiently rehabilitated to do this work again.

Roxanne’s rehabilitation looked to be complete when she was chosen as a speaker at the African Investigative Journalism Conference, one of the continent’s most prestigious journalism events.

“I’ve just seen that @rox_jos is a speaker at this years African investigative journalism conference #AICJ19. The same @rox_jos who faked having cancer for a year. The same one who lied about being raped and having had an arbortion [sic]. @AntonHarber can you explain?” tweeted Maverick Citizen journalist and former Section27 employee Nomatter Ndebele.

@rox_jos is Roxanne’s Twitter handle. @AntonHarber is Anton Harber, the head of Wits Journalism, which organises the conference. He is also a doyen of the South African media fraternity (full disclosure: he co-founded The Weekly Mail, which became the Mail & Guardian). Ndebele’s tweet, and several follow-ups, were retweeted dozens of times.

Days after the tweets, Roxanne was quietly removed from the conference programme, but the debate continued. The M&G decided to look into the story, even though it felt too close to home — a violation of that unspoken rule that says that journalists don’t throw stones at other journalists, because we all live in glass houses.

Before proceeding, we agreed first to gather as much information as possible, and to publish only if we felt there were a clear public interest in doing so.

Living with cancer in your 20s

The M&G interviewed three of Roxanne’s friends and colleagues about the period of her life during which she faked cancer — and the enduring impact it has had on them.

Dinesh Balliah is the co-ordinator of the journalism honours programme at Wits, as well as the co-ordinator of the student newspaper. Roxanne was her student, mentee and friend. Ricky Stoch grew up in the same circles as Roxanne in Cape Town, and became close friends with her in 2013. One friend asked to remain anonymous, for fear of professional repercussions. Their accounts are consistent.

Roxanne grew up in Cape Town, and moved to Johannesburg to study for a postgraduate journalism degree at Wits. She was a model student — so good that she won journalism student of the year in 2014. Then she began getting sick.

On two occasions in early 2015, Balliah was alerted when Roxanne — then 25 years old — was found bleeding profusely in a university building. Roxanne said she had severe nosebleeds, and that the doctor had told her she had anaemia. Later she told Balliah that she had some kind of blood disorder but that they did not yet know what.

A few months later, Roxanne was employed at Section27 in the communications office, where she did advocacy work focusing on education. It was not long after she began working there that she was “diagnosed”. Balliah remembers Roxanne visiting her office at Wits, for no particular reason. Afterwards Roxanne sent Balliah a WhatsApp message saying that she had been diagnosed with leukaemia. Balliah cried for days after receiving the news.

Ricky found out via WhatsApp too. “Hey Gurl! Okay so I just practised this on [another friend], so here goes: I was referred to an oncologist last week and I have myeloid leukaemia. I started chemo on Monday … I’m obviously feeling awful but I’m going to be okay.”

Roxanne’s physical appearance deteriorated fast. Her eyes grew dark and sunken. Her hair began to fall out, so a colleague taught her how to tie a head wrap properly. At work she spent a lot of time in the bathroom, and started to move slowly as if she were in pain. On the stairs, she would tell colleagues to go on ahead and not to wait for her.

She would disappear for two weeks at a time, ostensibly to receive chemotherapy. Once, when she returned to work, she had somehow inserted a subcutaneous IV port into her own chest, and covered it with a clear plaster. In a V-neck T-shirt, it was visible to everyone.

Roxanne blogged about what it was like to live with cancer in her 20s. She was inspiring. “I refuse to let having cancer in my 20s affect my future” became her mantra.

In one post, she wrote: “So instead of telling you that I plan on selling my car, telling my bosses to suck it (they would probably laugh and tag along for the adventure) and getting myself into an exorbitant amount of debt by travelling the world and buying a bunch of things I don’t need, I’ll tell you the truth.

“I’ll tell you that it took me over a month to cry about it. That when I do sleep, it’s for only a few hours at a time and is usually filled with fitful dreams. That I still wake up to clumps of hair on my pillow, despite not having had chemotherapy for a few months now. That I feel like my lungs are on fire when I climb a flight of stairs. That talking about it makes me want to punch a wall. And, of course, that a broken hand would feel like nothing in comparison to the everlasting dull ache that’s settled itself into my bones.”

Roxanne’s friends did whatever they could to ease her pain. She would not let any of them come with her to chemo but there are other ways to express solidarity. Stoch and some other friends took her shark cage diving in the Atlantic Ocean — this adventure was on her bucket list. A few of them got tattoos at the same time, although contrary to the rumours, they were not matching. Roxanne’s says: “ALIVE”.

But one colleague wondered why she wasn’t losing any weight. Another noticed that although her hair had fallen out, her eyebrows hadn’t — the classic tell of the cancer scammer.

Eventually, after nine months of keeping up the pretence, she was caught out when her line manager phoned the number of the doctor who had been signing her medical certificates. The doctor had never heard of Roxanne Joseph.

Stoch received a call from her mother, who worked at Wits and wanted to tell her before anyone else did. The situation is something she still talks a lot about in therapy.

Balliah heard the news from a mutual friend, who said: “She is not dead. But Dinesh, she made it all up.” Another friend had a nervous breakdown that put her in hospital for three weeks, and she is haunted by unanswered questions: “Where did Roxanne go when she said she was at chemo? When she phoned her friends at 3am saying she was in a bad place, had she set an alarm the night before?”

I will make sure you regret it

Roxanne’s family whisked her back to Cape Town. It is unclear how much they knew about what was going on. Her father, Ray, refused to answer questions from the M&G — but more on that later. She received treatment in Cape Town — it was clear that she had a severe mental health issue — and the treatment apparently worked, because in June 2016 she was able to begin a new job just three months after the truth about her cancer had been discovered.

Code for South Africa (now called OpenUp) describes itself as a civic technology lab that uses data and technology to drive social change. It is not strictly a media organisation, but data journalism is a big part of what it does. At the time, Code for South Africa employed Ray Joseph as the head of its data journalism academy.

Adi Eyal was Code for South Africa’s director (he is still director of OpenUp). He hired Roxanne in a technical, background role. He said that Roxanne had been on his radar for some time because of her data journalism experience.

When asked if he thought nepotism played a role in her appointment, Eyal said: “It’s hard to say no but I don’t think so … Essentially she had a good track record and was competent at her job.” He gave her a strict probation period and kept a close eye on her. “The fact that she came to me three months after a very serious event, it doesn’t bear out that she should be unemployable.” Eyal said that she was one of his hardest workers, and at no point during her employment did he ever have any issues with her work or ethics.

When Balliah heard that Roxanne had started a new job, she was concerned. “My intention was to prevent what happened to us from happening again.” She contacted someone at Code for South Africa and asked if they were fully aware of Roxanne’s history. At about the same time, on Twitter, a Wits Journalism student tagged Code for South Africa in a tweet that raised the issue, although Roxanne’s name was not mentioned; and Eyal claims he received an anonymous email and a phone call warning him about Roxanne. Eyal describes this as the beginning of “a campaign to discredit her in her chosen profession”.

Roxanne’s father swung into action. Ray Joseph has worked as a journalist for four decades. He is a prominent media figure, who currently spends much of his time as a journalism educator, running trainings on fact-checking and how to spot fake news.

Ray wrote an email to Balliah on August 5 2016. The M&G has seen this email. At first his tone is conciliatory. “First, let me say unequivocally that I understand how hurt and betrayed you feel over what happened with Roxanne. I know too that many others rightfully feel the same. But she is ill and is receiving treatment and trying to rebuild her life. This is something you and others seem unable to understand, and appear to be hell-bent on preventing her from ever working as a journalist again.”

The email escalates from there. He accuses Balliah of making defamatory allegations, and of unethical and unprofessional behaviour. And then come the threats. “And if I ever hear that you have badmouthed her again (and I am well-connected, as you are aware, so it will come back to me) I will make sure you regret it — just as Roxanne will regret what she has done for the rest of her life.”

To the young Wits Journalism student who posted on Twitter, Ray sent a WhatsApp message. He accused her of defamation and a “lack of empathy for someone with a mental illness”. He concludes with another threat: “Unless you take that tweet down immediately I will ensure that there are severe consequences for you, personally, legally and professionally.”

The tweet was subsequently deleted.

We approached Ray for comment, specifically mentioning that we wanted to run some of these allegations past him. He phoned back within minutes. “Honestly, Simon, I’m gobsmacked [that the M&G is looking into the story]. Fuck that. Every time she sticks her head above the trenches. I’m shocked at Khadija [Patel, the M&G’s editor-in-chief].”

               Ray Joseph. (Twitter)

Ray described Ndebele’s recent tweets, and the replies to it, as “the worst kind of cyberbullying”; a “witch-hunt by a gang of cyberbullies that goes beyond what is normal”. He also issued a warning. “You must live with the consequences of what might happen,” he said. And later: “I’ll do whatever I have to do.”

We cannot report fully on the conversation because, halfway through, Ray insisted the entire conversation was off the record. (Common journalistic practice is that all comments are on the record unless otherwise specified beforehand, and that an agreement to be off the record requires the consent of both parties.)

He also refused to answer to specific allegations.

The M&G spoke to several senior journalism figures who are close to the issue, who confirmed off the record that they were aware that Ray had bullied and threatened anyone who wanted to speak out about Roxanne. Eyal, the head of OpenUp, did not deny that Ray’s behaviour was an issue, but did express sympathy, saying “if someone was attacking my daughter I would contact them directly”.

Different if she were a novelist

Eighteen months ago, Roxanne began working with Oxpeckers as an associate journalist, which is not a full-time position. Fiona Macleod, who heads Oxpeckers, said that the organisation was unaware of the fake cancer incident. “[Allegations] were subsequently mentioned in a vague way by contacts in the industry, but we could find nothing about them online and assumed they were of a personal nature. We did not ask Roxanne about the issues, nor were they revealed to us by her.”

Macleod praised Roxanne’s professionalism and character: “We are saddened by these allegations against Roxanne, whom we know as an empathetic, gentle person focused on building her career. We have no reason to believe she has misled Oxpeckers, its readers or supporters in any way. She has produced an impressive body of work for the unit, and has consistently acted in a professional manner.” (Full disclosure: the M&G published one of Roxanne’s stories, on the links between rhino smuggling and cybercrime, in August this year. “The story was pitched to us by Oxpeckers and went through our regular editorial process,” said editor-in-chief Khadija Patel.)

Even after Roxanne was removed from the list of speakers at the African Investigative Journalism Conference (AIJC), Oxpeckers still intended to send her as a speaker to the Global Investigative Journalism Conference in Hamburg. When asked for comment on this, Macleod replied: “This arrangement was made months ago, and cannot be potentially hurtful to participants — as is the assumed case with AIJC. Is the intention here to completely destroy Roxanne’s future, or to mend the hurts and correct the mistakes of a young woman? I would hope the latter.”

A few hours later, Macleod sent a follow-up email saying that Roxanne had been withdrawn from the Hamburg event.

The issues involved in Roxanne’s appearances at such conferences — and in the writing of this story — are complex. One issue is the potential hurt to participants, as Macleod acknowledges; the other is the potential hurt to journalism.

“On a professional level, Roxanne was in breach of journalism’s most fundamental ethic, telling the truth. As a result the integrity of any project she works on, or is associated with, is tainted and brought into question. It would be different if she was a novelist,” said Ricky Stoch.

“She returned to the field very soon after being found out. I believe this is partly due to her father’s influence in the industry and partly to the fact that the organisations, such as the Wits Journalism School and Section27, did not make public statements regarding their relationships with her and her actions. I think that this was irresponsible. It is the duty of the organisations she was associated with to acknowledge and own what happened in order to prevent it, or anything like it, happening in the future. It is also important that industry leaders do their due diligence, hear all sides of the story, and are not influenced by those who are obviously biased.”

Mark Heywood, the former head of Section27, declined to comment for this story.

Another former friend of Roxanne’s, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of professional repercussions, said: “She did all of this to us then went back to Cape Town, grew her hair back and started again. No consequences, nothing … had it been a black person they would not have survived this. Their career would be over. And as for the likes of Anton Harber, whose excuse is that we have a duty of care to our past students, I say — where is your duty of care to your other students who were affected by this?”

This former friend also cannot understand how Wits Journalism can square Roxanne’s past with journalism’s most fundamental principle: telling the truth. “This is absolutely ridiculous. This girl is going to speak as a voice of authority for journalism? Considering where the [journalism] industry is right now, to have someone who is a liar speak at this conference…”

The M&G spoke to Wits Journalism head Anton Harber about the decision to remove Roxanne as a speaker from the investigative journalism conference. He knows Roxanne’s history, as he was at Wits for part of the time during which it played out. He said he has in previous years declined to have her participate in the conference. This year, however, she was nominated by Oxpeckers and he took the view that she is “treated and rehabilitated”.

But he got it wrong, Harber said now. “It was a mistake and a misjudgment and as soon as I realised that we corrected it. When her name appeared a lot of people raised it with me.” He said he is concerned about perceptions that Roxanne received special treatment because of her race or her industry connections. “There are other examples where we have made allowances for students who have behaved inappropriately and given them space to get back on track.”

We also asked Harber if he thought it would be in the public interest to cover this story. He acknowledged that he is too close to this story to give an unbiased answer, saying: “I do think there is a need for a discussion about how one deals with a person who has clearly had quite severe mental health issues and if and when and how to allow rehabilitation … I think the critical thing is how the story is done. Naturally one wants to avoid doing any further harm.”

I can never justify what I did

With these words in mind, the M&G contacted Roxanne Joseph via WhatsApp. We were not sure if she would reply, and unsure what to do if she did not. Could this story be told without her input? We made it clear that we were trying our best to cover the story as sensitively as possible, and promised to represent her comments fairly and comprehensively.

Roxanne responded. She asked for questions to be sent in advance, and requested a couple of days to consider her replies. She added that she understood the need for this story to be written. “I also appreciate your non(stance) and willingness to allow me to tell my story … I completely accept that this is of public interest, I’m just not rushing to answer anything given the personal and professional impact on my family.”

On Saturday evening, Roxanne emailed her responses.

“I am so sorry and filled with remorse for the hurt and mistrust I have caused people, both personally and professionally. I have and would never try and defend or justify what I did, and I am under no pretence that anything I say or do going forward will change how people feel. I have, for the past few years, tried my best to give the people I hurt space to feel anger, hurt and disdain; this is absolutely their right, and I will continue to respect that.

“I accept that my apology is long overdue, but it comes after years of the correct treatment and trying to understand what happened more clearly. I respect any decisions made about me professionally. Personally, I will continue to only respond to [those] who wish to engage with me, out of a respect I should have had for them before any of this happened. I am entirely open to any form of dialogue and discussion. Once again, I express my deepest remorse at the hurt and pain I have caused.”

Roxanne accepts the decision to remove her as a speaker from the investigative journalism conferences in Johannesburg and Hamburg. “The work that is showcased at these conferences is tremendously important, and I do not want to tarnish or jeopardise that. I regret my shortsightedness in accepting these speaking invitations.”

On the tensions between her untruths and her career as a journalist, she said: “I can only speak to my own (extremely biased) experiences. I am a journalist, and I am aware that as a result the ethical expectations placed on my shoulders are necessarily extremely high. In all of my work, both before and after my diagnosis, I have applied the principles that drive good journalism. Fairness, honesty, transparency. Every piece of journalistic work that I have undertaken for Oxpeckers (with whom I have been working closely for the past 18 months) will stand up to scrutiny through an ethical lens.”

“The work this organisation does is tremendously important. I do not believe that my history of mental illness nor my subsequent efforts to heal and to give others space to feel anger, hurt and disdain as is absolutely their right, interferes with this work.

“In 2016, I was diagnosed with a serious mental illness, which had gone incorrectly and untreated for a long time. It was irresponsible of me to allow this to happen and something I am aware and careful of all the time now. I do not, under any circumstances, see this as justification or a defence for what I did; it would be unfair to say that everyone who suffers from mental illness lies and deceives people (this is obviously not the case). I only say all of this because of how it impacted my mental state at the time. I made lots of extremely bad, irresponsible, unethical and immoral decisions, and I will respect any decisions made about me professionally.”

Roxanne’s responses to the M&G echoed a public statement that she released on Medium this weekend. In it, she added that she was hired at Code for South Africa on her own merits, “but I have always acknowledged that I am privileged to have family members in the same industry as me”, and rejects any suggestions that she benefited financially from her lies. “I did not do this for financial gain, it was entirely for attention and sympathy.”

“I would like to end by emphasising how extremely sorry and remorseful I am for what I did, as it was intentionally and knowingly cruel and unethical. I will abide by any decisions the organisation and anyone I have worked with makes with regards to our relationship and future engagement.”

Public scrutiny

This was a difficult story to investigate, and it is a difficult story to tell. It is intensely personal and deeply sensitive — and it may affect the mental health of both Roxanne and her former friends who have had to suffer the consequences of her deception.

Nonetheless, we decided, as a news publisher, that it is a story that needs to be told. We are not the only ones. Both Wits Vuvuzela and News24 published stories on the subject over the weekend.

The first and most clear-cut reason for our decision is the allegation that a senior South African journalist threatened other journalists in order to suppress information. If journalists are to be trusted to hold the powerful to account, we must hold our own profession to the same standards (if any politician were alleged to have made similar threats, these would be reported without question).

The second reason is that all journalists need to strive to adhere to the highest ethical standards — and never more so than now when the credibility of the profession is under attack from all sides. This is not about being perfect, because none of us are. But it is about being open and transparent about our faults, and doing what we can to rectify them. When we get things badly wrong, there needs to be a public record, so that both readers and employers can make decisions with all necessary information at their disposal. Whether it is fair, Roxanne’s history of making up cancer will always cast a shadow on her work — just as a journalist who plagiarises even once will face harsher scrutiny.

At least now the incident is no longer in the realms of gossip and rumour, but has been properly reported. That is, after all, what journalists do best. As Harber noted, these are conversations that the profession needs to have. Let this be the beginning of those conversations.