Independent News becomes an oxymoron in South Africa

Photo illustration: Shutterstock

Photo illustration: Shutterstock

In what seems like a purge, South Africa’s Independent News and Media (INM) group is shedding many of its foremost journalists and commentators. Simultaneously, the company’s newspapers have stepped up coverage of the personal ruminations of its new chairperson, Dr Iqbal Survé.

The current turmoil started with the summary dismissal of respected Cape Times editor Alide Dasnois on 6 Dec last year. It coincided with the publication on that date of a lead article on page one on corruption in which Survé’s company Sekunjalo Holdings was implicated. The Cape Times is part of the INM stable which includes 18 daily and weekend titles.

Dasnois was at first threatened with a lawsuit in a letter from Survé’s lawyers. Dismissal followed, for which the reasons changed over time. One “reason” is the use of a wraparound around the 6 Dec edition to commemorate South African icon Nelson Mandela’s death. The conflict escalated to the op-ed and letters pages. The paper’s op-ed editor, Tony Weaver, on Dec 13 justified the wraparound as forced by limited time. It still contained the latest news and reflections.

Aneez Salie, appointed as Cape Times deputy editor after Dasnois was fired, opposed Weaver’s assertions, saying “we could’ve and should’ve changed page one”. He ended with a declaration of “no surrender”.

Salie’s intervention was met with a counter-position from assistant editor Janet Heard, arguing that the debate about the wraparound is a distraction from the real reason for Dasnois’ dismissal, which is the page one article on Sekunjalo’s implication in corruption.

In response to Heard’s article, newly appointed group executive editor Karima Brown and group op-ed editor Vukani Mde threw down the gauntlet, sparking the current spate of dismissals and departures from the company. By that time, long-standing group executive editor Chris Whitfield had decided to take early retirement.

Mde and Brown’s article cast the questioning of Dasnois’s dismissal as being part of “skewed patterns of power (economic, political, and discursive) in South Africa 20 years into democracy. A small but very privileged and racially definable minority still controls the tools of public discourse… This group has resisted and fought against transformation of the media, be it in ownership, management, or in newsrooms. They’ve grown adept at paying lip service to the goals of transformation and media diversity, but in truth remain against them, as their joint and individual actions demonstrate… Survé… wears his ANC [ruling party] heart on his sleeve… Anyone who cannot bring themselves to accept [INM’s] new owner or its direction under him, must as a matter of principle leave”.

An unedited version of the article apparently appeared in the Cape Argus with claims that prompted both Weaver and Heard to lodge grievances with the company’s human resources department.

The first head to roll was that of labour specialist Terry Bell. His column of 18 years’ standing was “suspended”. Bell is respected as a leftist analyst of trade union matters. His column was canned a few days after he penned the following:

Transformation of the media in South Africa is essential… [It] is not merely a matter of ownership, but of control of subject matter and the manner in which it is reported. This, obviously, has a bearing on ownership, because those who own often try — and all too often succeed — in manipulating media output… [T]ransformation has to do with training and professionalism and little, if anything, to do with the pigmentation of the practitioners, let alone the owners.”

In response to a call from the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) to reinstate Bell, group editor Brown responded that the newspapers will “not take instruction from Cosatu”. Cosatu is the largest trade union federation in the country and is aligned to the ruling African National Congress. Weaver and Bell have since been the target of further disinformation, rebutted by Weaver.

Shortly afterwards, Business Report Cape bureau chief Donwald Pressly was suspended for putting his name forward for the parliamentary lists of the Democratic Alliance, the official opposition party. Next followed the resignation of Business Report editor-at-large Ann Crotty, an award-winning writer on issues such as executive pay, citing the following reason:

The decision was the result of a troubling sequence of events. While I acknowledge the rights of owners, I think the balance between the rights of the owners, the rights of readers and the rights of journalists has slipped out of kilter at the Independent Group. If you look at what [has] been happening at Independent, there is a sense that we – the journalists – might be too concerned with the views of the Chairman. My decision to leave is largely motivated by the fact that we shouldn’t be writing for the Chairman and the owners. We should be writing for our current readers as well as readers we hope to attract.”

Indeed, a marked surge in articles on Survé can be noted as the newspapers shed more and more senior journalists. An interview published on 23 Jan featured his “Davos agenda” during his attendance of the World Economic Forum. Headlined “building a media legacy”, another Q&A with Survé conducted by Cape Times editor Gasant Abarder was published on 31 Jan. This was followed by another interview on 13 Feb, headlined “The man who wants to change the world”. The latter contained insights such as: “Every day he affords himself a few minutes of meditation – early in the morning and late in the evening. He then asks himself the following: ‘What good will I do today?’ and then in the evening: ‘What could I have done differently?’”

In another article, published 17 Feb, Survé ruminated on “what I got out of Davos”.

Some would argue that the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos is no more than a cosy club for the elite… But Davos is so much more than that. Two weeks after my return from this annual event, I find myself returning constantly to the conversations, the engagements and the sharing of thinking. I do this as I return to the day-to-day business of my life and find that I am richer for that week…”

Both Bell and Crotty are known as stringent critics of the annual Davos get-together of capitalists. Meanwhile, the use of the Independent papers to attack Sekunjalo’s competitors has continued.

The exodus continues with the resignation of Moshoeshoe Monare as editor of the Sunday Independent. Shortly after Dasnois’ sacking, he wrote a column asserting:

Editorial independence to me means that the decision regarding the content of The Sunday Independent – whether wrong or right – lies with me. It means my bosses trust that I will exercise my duties without any interference. It means Dr Survé and his companies – including Independent Newspapers – will also be subjected to our editorial scrutiny.”

This article was published on 25 February 2014 at

South Africa: Cape Times in crisis as editor fired after corruption story

(Photo illustration: Shutterstock)

(Photo illustration: Shutterstock)

Even as South Africans commemorate their global icon Nelson Mandela’s life-long struggle for human rights, shock waves have hit the media after the sudden dismissal of well-respected Cape Times editor Alide Dasnois. This follows a front-page lead article on 6 December on a report on corruption in which the new owners of the paper are implicated.

The Cape Times is part of the Independent Media stable which includes 18 daily and weekend titles. Sekunjalo Holdings, a company perceived to have close ties with the ruling African National Congress, bought it in the middle of 2013 from the Irish-based Independent News and Media (INM).

The corruption report, by the country’s statutory Office of the Public Protector, found that the fisheries department’s award of an R800 million (GBP £47 million) tender for the provision of marine patrol vehicles to a Sekunjalo subsidiary was biased, improper and amounted to maladministration.

Social media have been abuzz with criticism against the removal of Sorbonne-educated Dasnois. She is known as an ink-in-the-veins journalist who is dedicated to fair and accurate news coverage with integrity. In response to the outcry, Sekunjalo executive chairperson Dr Iqbal Survé claimed in a public statement on 9 December that Dasnois was “not fired” but offered other positions. He also suggested that the decision to “move” Dasnois was in response to the “wholly unsatisfactory sales performance of that title over the last few years”. In regard to this claim, it is worth noting that declining circulation besets the whole of South Africa’s newspaper industry and is not limited to the Cape Times.

Survé added that “a concerted public campaign of lies and distortions” is responsible for “some stat(ing)… as fact – without a shred of proof offered in evidence – that Alide Dasnois’s replacement was the result of the story published as the lead in the paper last Friday (6 December), regarding adverse findings by the Public Protector against a government minister in the award of a tender to one of the companies in the Sekunjalo Group… I and Independent deny this version of events categorically.”

However, contradicting this claim, Sekunjalo’s lawyers had sent a letter dated 7 Dec to the Cape Times demanding a prominently published apology from Dasnois and reporter Melanie Gosling who wrote the article on the Public Protector findings. Sekunjalo threatened to sue them for damages. His lawyers wrote:

“Our instructions are that you have reported extensively over the past two years on the allegations by the disappointed bidder SMIT Amandla [Marine] and Mr Pieter van Dalen of the Democratic Alliance regarding Sekunjalo’s role in the award of the tender for management of the research and patrol vessels of the department of agriculture, forestry and fisheries [DAFF].

Our client has instructed us to record the following:

1. It has been alleged that Sekunjalo Investments Ltd is guilty of corruption; that it had misled and/or defrauded DAFF; that it lacked the experience and expertise to undertake the management of the research and patrol vessels of DAFF; etc.

2. These allegations have been thoroughly debunked.

3. The report by the public protector clears Sekunjalo of all wrongdoing.

4. It would have been appropriate, after months and months of sustained attacks on the integrity of Sekunjalo, if the Cape Times had published on its front page the more accurate articles which were buried on page 18 of (Cape Times) Business Report of December 6 2013, that Sekunjalo had been vindicated, and that the company demanded an apology.”

The lead-up to this moment can be traced further back than the offensive front-page article. On 5 December, in anticipation of the release of the Public Protector’s findings, an article by Survé occupied the main space on the op-ed page in the Cape Times. He wrote about a “dirty tricks campaign” against himself and Sekunjalo – specifically an article published in the Sunday Times on 1 December containing leaked findings of the then still-to-be-launched Public Protector report on Sekunjalo and the fisheries deal. Survé accused the Sunday Times, owned by the Times Media Group, of collaborating with the opposition political party the Democratic Alliance.

It was not the first time that Sekunjalo’s newly acquired newspapers have been used as platform to defend the company against adverse reporting from competitors. The Mail and Guardian in August published Survé’s response to questions about the ownership structure of Independent Media after the acquisition. In an apparent retaliation, a front page article in the newspapers’ daily insert Business Report accused the Mail and Guardian of sour grapes after Survé rejected its offer to purchase some of the Independent Media titles. It mentioned that Survé had accused the Mail and Guardian of being funded by the CIA.

The Cape Times letters page on 6 December featured three letters from readers expressing concern about Survé’s abuse of his position to print an attack on the Sunday Times for exposing irregularities that his company is implicated in. On the same day the editorial acknowledged concerns by readers about whether the publication of Survé’s article heralds a change in the newspaper’s policy of editorial independence. It assured readers that the Cape Times will continue to publish all views, including from those criticised by Survé.

It ended with the assurance that “we believe readers have nothing to fear”, and quoted the concluding paragraph in Survé’s article: the Independent Newspapers should “remain what it has always been, a place where all worldviews, ideas and political schools are welcome”. Dasnois was fired on the same day.

Sekunjalo’s demanded apology in the 9 December edition did not transpire, suggesting that Dasnois had refused to apologise, leading to her removal. She has meanwhile indicated that she is investigating her legal options, while Cape Times staff and the SA National Editors Forum have demanded answers. A petition is circulating for her reinstatement. The Cape Times omitted any mention of Dasnois’s dismissal on 9 December – only that Sekunjalo would lay a complaint with the press ombud with regards the lead article. On 10 December the paper published Sekunjalo’s reason for removing Dasnois as “falling circulation”, with no response from her.

On 12 December presented the “real reason” why Dasnois was removed. In a public letter to staff he claimed she had refused to run with the death of Mandela as the lead in the paper on Dec 6, even though this was agreed at a meeting between editors and management (which, if it is the case, would be tantamount to interference in editorial decisions). However, his claim that Dasnois as experienced journalist would miss the news story of the year makes little sense. Indeed, the Cape Times featured a four-page wraparound with Mandela on the front cover on 6 December. The paper’s op-ed editor, Tony Weaver, devoted his weekly column on 13 December to the process of producing the Mandela edition of the paper on Dec 6, refuting Survé’s allegations.

The new owners have moved swiftly to replace Dasnois, with Gasant Abarder taking her place. He has yet again assured readers of the independence of the paper.

South Africa’s ruling ANC gunning for “censorship lite”

Jacob Zuma (Photo: Jordi Matas / Demotix)

Jacob Zuma (Photo: Jordi Matas / Demotix)

South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) has changed tack in its campaign to curtail the media. In a turn to what could be called “censorship lite”, the iron fist of state security intervention is being augmented by the velvet glove of calls for “patriotic” journalism.

After President Jacob Zuma’s ascendancy to the highest position in the ANC in 2007, various attacks have been launched on the private and public media. While factional battles for political control were being fought at the public broadcaster, an investigative journalist was illegally arrested after exposing corruption involving the newly appointed police commissioner. Despite concerted resistance across the social spectrum, the Protection of State Information Bill (dubbed the “Secrecy Bill”) was adopted, which will all but stop whistle blowing and investigate journalism into state corruption. And a media appeals tribunal has been mooted that could mete out punishments ranging from fines to jail time to media houses and individual journalists who offend politicians. While Zuma has referred the Secrecy Bill back to parliament for minor adjustments before signing it into law, the establishment of the tribunal is due to be considered by the country’s parliament, as per a policy decision of the ANC.

In recent times, individuals known to be close to Zuma and the ANC have gained greater influence in the media. This development seems to have precipitated a new softly-softly approach of edging the private media towards news reporting that is more amenable to dominant political interests. Zuma recently made a call for “patriotic journalism” which dovetails with a number of other initiatives by his allies in the media. The public broadcaster and two private media companies have all vowed to shift the media away from reporting on the “opposite of the positive”, as Zuma put it.

Zuma’s call was made in an off-the-cuff address at parliament. He told journalism students that, “When I go out, people envy South Africans, they wish they were South Africans because they say we are doing so well, we are succeeding… they love it. But when I am in South Africa, every morning you feel like you must leave this country because the reporting concentrates on the opposite of the positive.”

He asked the students: “Who do you think in reality you serve when reporting: the interest of the public that you claim, as the media you stand for, or the interest of the owners and managers of the paper? What is it that you think is happening, particularly in a country that is supposed to be an example with vibrant democracy, transparency, high morals, everything. How do we handle this?” Zuma expressed the hope that the South African media would learn from Mexico’s “patriotic journalism” which avoids reporting on crime and rather “markets” the country to foreigners.

His utterances follow a call by the acting chief operating officer of the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), Hlaudi Motsoeneng, that 70% of the public broadcaster’s news reports should be positive. He told the Mail and Guardian that, “we want to concentrate more on positive stories, rather than to put everything in a negative way. Before you become a manager at the SABC, you first have to be a citizen of this country. You should love this country… The message I put out very strongly at the SABC is to think about the positive when people go out and do stories. The difference is our own citizens are tired of crime and tired of people talking about negative things.” Motsoeneng is a known Zuma acolyte who has controversially  held onto his post after being dismissed by the previous SABC board.

Meanwhile, businessman Iqbal Survé, who enjoys close ties with the ANC, became the new owner of Independent News & Media, which comprises the largest collection of English-language daily and weekly newspaper titles in the country. He explained part of the rationale for the purchase as being: “We felt the media was not representing the positive aspects of South Africa. What we are reading about is not what we see in South Africa.”

During this same period, Indian business associates and friends of the Zuma family launched ANN7, a new satellite news service. The Gupta family recently provoked outrage for using a military air base near South Africa’s capital Pretoria to fly in guests from India for a private wedding function. The former head of government communications, Jimmy Manyi, hosts a talk show on the channel. Manyi is no stranger to controversy, having spearheaded attacks against the media during his time as government spokesperson, such as using state advertising spending to put pressure on media outlets. In an interview about his new job as talk show host, he declared South Africans to be tired of negative press and that ANN7 will provide an alternative.

ANN7’s broadcasts have been riddled with more than the usual share of start-up problems, leading to much ridicule. The company also had to withdraw a billboard advertisement describing competitors as “old farts”, after a complaint from the South African Older Persons Forum. Postings of “ANN7 bloopers” on YouTube led to a copyright complaint from ANN7 and the removal of the clips, but they can still be viewed elsewhere.

The mirth that greeted ANN7 was also evident in responses to Zuma’s call, both in articles and tweets. More serious critiques included an article from Media Monitoring Africa, while others pointed out that Mexico has one of the worst press freedom records in the world.

Thus far, velvet glove of censorship lite has not succeeded in massaging the established private media into a more “patriotic” stance. This may change when the iron fist of criminalisation of critical journalism finally comes crashing down.

This article was originally posted on 23 Sept 2013 at

South Africa: Confronting choices about free expression

(Photo illustration: Shutterstock)

(Photo illustration: Shutterstock)

Though the shackles of apartheid and the public role of Nelson Mandela have faded, South Africa is confronting questions about government surveillance in the digital era, media regulation and artistic censorship.

Apartheid in South Africa (1948-1994) was partially kept in place with restrictions on the flow of information. The state attempted to draw a veil of secrecy over the intensification of repression through detention without trial, house arrests and the torture and killing of opponents from the 1960s onwards. Music and literature were among the modes of anti-apartheid resistance from the 1960s onwards. Literature and music supportive of political opposition or that was deemed sexually permissive was banned. Some journalists, authors and musicians left the country to escape prosecution while many who stayed were persecuted. Television was only allowed in the country in the mid-1970s and only when the then ruling National Party was convinced it could control the medium.

The transition to democracy in the 1990s under Mandela marked a radical departure, with openness and transparency declared primary aims. Clause 16 of the Bill of Rights in the South African Constitution of 1996 guarantees that “everyone has the right to freedom of expression, which includes freedom of the press and other media; freedom to receive or impart information or ideas; freedom of artistic creativity; and academic freedom and freedom of scientific research.” However, this right is not absolute. The same clause warns that it “does not extend to propaganda for war, incitement of imminent violence; or advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion, and that constitutes incitement to cause harm.” Clause 14 (d) of the Bill of Rights safeguards the right to privacy, including the right not to have the privacy of communications infringed.

South Africa’s adoption of the right to freedom of expression in its Constitution is reflected in a lively national debate as democracy takes root. However, as pundits claim the space to hold to account the government and, less frequently, business, the past five years have seen worrying moves against free expression. These range from verbal threats to legislative measures to the irregular arrest of a journalist. Protesters have also targeted journalists at community-level demonstrations about socio-economic rights.

Media Freedom

Four large corporations dominate South Africa’s print media sector, which limits diversity in opinion. While the sector has been battling plunging circulation figures, as elsewhere in the world, it has still managed to invest in investigative journalism, which remains vibrant. Art and related types of journalism have however suffered from a lack of resources. The media stand at the centre of vehement political debates in the country, with newspaper leaks common in the infighting between factions of the ruling African National Congress (ANC). The combination of political and investigative exposures has led to ANC threats of appointing a “media tribunal” to replace the system of self-regulation. In response, the media funded a public consultation process, and a new system has been instituted which remains self-regulatory but includes more mechanisms to allow greater accountability of the press to the public. However, the ANC has decided that the country’s parliament should still investigate the creation of a media tribunal “that is empowered to impose sanctions without the loss of any constitutional rights”.

The Protection of State Information Bill was adopted by parliament this year, despite concerted resistance from a wide range of organisations and individuals. The bill, driven by state security agencies, is expected to undermine access to state information and inhibit investigative journalism. Revisions did not address its draconian penalties of up to 25 years or the overly narrow scope of its belatedly included public interest clause. In a significant improvement, however, the bill no longer overrides the Protection of Access to Information Act or the Protected Disclosures Act, both passed in 2000.

Recent changes in print media ownership have seen the Independent Newspapers (former Argus) group returned by the Irish company Independent News and Media (INM) to South African control. While INM is generally regarded as having “harvested” the Independent Newspapers and thereby stunting its growth in South Africa, the acquisition by Sekunjalo has raised concerns about political control as business allies of the ruling party are involved in the deal.

Most South Africans remain dependent on television and especially radio for information. The state-owned South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) remains the dominant TV and radio outlet with its programming in all 11 languages. However, the SABC has been riddled with management battles and repeated allegations of political interference, which included the blacklisting of commentators critical of the government.

Digital Freedom

After a good start in the 1990s when Internet use was commercialised in South Africa, tardy and expensive broadband has slowed connectivity. Recent research suggests that 39 percent of adults, or 14 million people, access the Internet at least once a week. Another study found that a relatively high percentage of South Africans use mobile phone services (66 percent). According to the 2011 government census, half of those who use the Internet use their mobiles to do so, as only about 23 percent of households have a computer at home. Internet service providers believe this number would be higher if mobile broadband prices were more competitive. While mobile broadband is more affordable and faster than fixed-line services, prepaid mobile customers pay more than contract customers, which means poorer people have less access.

Regarding government measures, the Regulation of Interception of Communications and Provision of Communication-Related Information Act of 2002 (RICA) requires service providers to record and keep customer information, which can be requested by government agencies. The act disallows interception of communication, subject to judicial approval. Similarly, a judge has to grant permission before government agencies can access mobile phone records.

The Right2Know (R2K) civil society campaign in 2012 mobilised against the General Intelligence Laws Amendment Bill, which would have empowered state-security operatives to monitor e-mails and social media communication without permission from a judge. While this expansion of powers was avoided, R2K pointed out that the final version of the bill still did not provide clarity regarding the monitoring of electronic communication passing through a foreign server. The Mail and Guardian newspaper has reported on the illegal bugging of private citizens’ communication. Security agencies’ illegal monitoring of communications has become a weapon between factions in the ruling party. In the most notorious case, the ascendancy of the current president, Jacob Zuma, to the highest office was clinched with the withdrawal of corruption charges against him on the basis of “spy tapes”. These recordings, seemingly illegally made, allegedly showed a political plot against Zuma that involved the National Prosecuting Authority. Interceptions by the police’s crime intelligence divisions rose sharply between 2009 and 2010, including illegal bugging that led to the recent resignation of the head of the South African Revenue Services for attempting to recruit someone in return for sexual favours. Meanwhile, the implications are unclear of the National Cyber Security Policy that the ANC wants the government to adopt by 2014 to prevent the distribution of “harmful and anti-social” content.

Artistic Freedom

Artists have enjoyed unprecedented freedom to be creative in South Africa since the transition to democracy. However, political tensions have risen about art seen as ridiculing Zuma. In 2012, Brett Murray’s painting called “The Spear” was exhibited at a Johannesburg art gallery, depicting Zuma in a well-known pose of Communist leader Vladimir Lenin but with his genitals exposed. ANC leaders pressurised the gallery by leading a march of ANC supporters to its doors. Two men defaced the painting while on display.

An amendment in 2009 to the Film and Publications Act of 1996 that every unregistered print and online publication that contains sexual content be submitted for classification by the Film and Publications Board has since been declared unconstitutional by the High Court. The Constitutional Court still has to confirm the High Court’s decision. The board has been skittish about films depicting teenagers in sexual situations, whether consensual or forced. In 2008 it banned the Argentinian film “XXY” and this year it banned the South African film “Of Good Report” on the basis of being “child pornography”. Both bans have since been overturned.

This article was originally published on 7 Aug, 2013 at Index on Censorship: The voice of free expression