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LONDON — When Iqbal Survé bought Independent Newspapers with the help of the Public Investment Corporation, questions were asked on how independent the newspaper could be with that kind of help. It is this investment by PIC and a subscription for R4.3bn of shares in Survé’s IT company Ayo Technologies that are under scrutiny at the Mpati Commission. The PIC has vowed to recover the money which was allegedly invested without following due process. Also under scrutiny is how much independence the editors of Independent Media enjoy from Survé. He told the Mpati Commission that his editors were autonomous and that he did not take sides. But… his newspapers often carry reports defending him, including this Cape Times front page in which he rubbishes claims that he interferes with the editorial decisions at Independent Media. Ed Herbst says Survé may have perjured himself with his statement at the Mpati Commission as there is ample evidence in the public domain about his editor’s lack of independence… – Linda van Tilburg
By Ed Herbst*
The orchestrated way in which all the group’s newspapers published this defamatory piece today shows something else at play, which purpose cannot be to serve the public. SANEF will urgently engage our members at Independent Media to convey our deep concern about this unfair episode and gain a better understanding of the issues at play that are seemingly not serving journalism.
The PIC invests money on behalf of government employees in projects to grow and strengthen democracy. We believe that labelling bona fide journalists “Stratcom” agents for investigating a private sector transaction fundamentally undermines this purpose.
SANEF stands in solidarity with editors and journalists within the Independent Group who value editorial independence but are seemingly powerless to stop these stories. – SANEF Politicsweb 20/4/2018
He described Independent Media’s newspapers as the most credible and objective in the country and said its titles repeatedly resisted pressure to take political sides.
Survé has on multiple occasions been accused of editorial interference. Independent’s titles have put Survé’s vast claims to personal achievements on a pedestal and given prominent and uncritical coverage to his business ventures, such as the proposed listing of Sagarmatha. Such coverage has been criticised as attempts to win support for dubious deals. – Greg Nicolson Daily Maverick 3/4/2019
On 4 April the front page lead in the Cape Times was headlined I don’t do news, says Survé
This related to Iqbal Survé’s under-oath evidence the previous day when he had been questioned about the autonomy of the editors of his newspapers during the proceedings of the Mpati commission of inquiry into the Public Investment Corporation (PIC).
My subjective perception is that there is overwhelming factual evidence – which is a matter of repeated public record – to prove that he perjured himself in this regard.
In this regard I ask the commission, in particular, to take into account the extract below from a Daily Maverick article by Ferial Hafajee who provides, I believe, compelling proof that Survé communicates his diktats to the people who are vulnerable because they are dependent on him for an income, through his CEO, Howard Plaatjies.
“My editors have full editorial autonomy. Please ask them,” said Survé in response to a Daily Maverick query about whether he had instructed his editors to lead their titles in his defence. Daily Maverick sent queries to editors of The Star, the Cape Times, the Business Report and The Mercury. 19
The Star’s editor, Japhet Ncube, did not want to comment. The rest did not respond to detailed requests for comment on how they chose their lead articles; on whether they believed that Bezos’s hands-off approach to editorial freedom is the right one, or whether they prefer an activist and omnipresent owner like Survé, and on whether they believe they enjoy editorial autonomy.
While the editors did not respond, former staff shed some light.
They said Survé sent diktats to editors about the kind of personalised blanket coverage readers and audiences witnessed on Monday through his executive henchman, Howard Plaatjies, who is the chief operating officer.
“It comes with a note saying ‘Run on Page 1’,” revealed a staff member who did not want to be named. Plaatjies did not respond to requests for comment, although his WhatsApp revealed the messages had been read.
Survé’s editors are only too aware of the punitive consequences should they not heed these commands – particularly those which demanded of them that they publish appalling and synchronised attacks on their fellow journalists – one of the worst examples of gutter journalism this country has ever experienced.
These attacks sometimes appear under the disguised-provenance by-line of ‘Staff Writers’ and are assumed to have been written by Survé himself.
One example of the punishment Survé metes out to people on his payroll that he considers recalcitrant was the dismissal of the Sunday Independent editor, Wally Mbhele. This, after the ANC complained about a well-researched and factual article published in the Sunday Independent that showed how it had gerrymandered its own policies to make the ethically-compromised Brian Molefe a member of parliament.
The SA Press Council dismissed Survé’s complaint in this regard.
A more recent example was the termination of a weekly column by Al Jazeera reporter Azad Essa after Survé’s Chinese financiers communicated their displeasure about an Essa article on the persecution of more than a million Uighur Muslims in China’s Xinjiang province.
Survé sent a very clear message to his editors prior to the Nasrec ANC elective conference and that message was that he had thrown his weight behind the presidential campaign of Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma , in substantial measure because she shares his views.
Then, according to an unchallenged allegation by Dougie Oakes, the former political editor of the Cape Times, Survé ordered all his editors to attend a meeting with her – just in case they didn’t get the hint.
So much for the editorial autonomy about which Survé testified under oath at the Mpati commission.
Another undisputed allegation in the Oakes article is that Survé constantly pressured him to give coverage to Zuma–faction supporters:
In the first few weeks in my new position, Survé called me virtually every day with “suggestions” of who to interview: Brian Molefe, Kebby Maphatsoe and Carl Niehaus were among the political glitterati he thought should appear in Indy newspapers. With most of the people he suggested being soaked in scandal, I said: “Thanks, I’ll think about it,” and never did.
What then, is one to make of the following claim by Survé, quoted in the above-mentioned Cape Times front page article?
‘People want me to take sides, they want Independent Media to take sides and I make the point repeatedly that I don’t do the news. The day we no longer have objectivity, the business is gone’, he said of his technically insolvent media company which, since the Sekunjalo takeover, has lost the majority of its most accomplished staff.
As Jan Cronje put it in a Fin 24 article:
Independent Media now owes the state-run asset manager an outstanding balance of about R1.5bn, given the interest that has accrued on the initial investment.
Might you not be forgiven for concluding that the Sekunjalo Independent Media is already ‘gone’?
From the beginning of the PIC-funded Sekunjalo takeover of the former Argus Group newspapers, Iqbal Survé made it clear that anyone who crossed him, or did not toe his dictatorial line, would have their careers terminated or would be persecuted.
As Donwald Pressly, one of the country’s most experienced reporters observed, his investigation into the Sekunjalo tender to take over maintenance of our coastal patrol and research vessels led to him being attacked even before Survé took over.
He was dismissed shortly thereafter as was Cape Times editor Alide Dasnois because she allowed an article to be printed on this eminently-newsworthy matter which formed the basis of Thuli Madonsela’s ‘Docked Vessels’ report.
The author of the article, Melanie Gosling – an esteemed environmental reporter who asked for early retirement two years later after suffering relentless persecution – received a threatening letter from Survé’s lawyers, something without precedent in South African media history.
Survé’s minions, Karima Brown and Vukani Mde (who have since left his employ) wrote an article in which white staff were overtly threatened, an article in which they made the self-evident point – that the new company owner, like themselves, ‘wears his ANC heart on his sleeve’.
Survé then wrote a letter to staff in which he guaranteed editorial independence – a promise which had as little veracity as did his recent testimony on this subject at the Mpati commission.
“I want to be clear and categorical. I want to assure all staff of my sincere commitment to the editorial independence of this group and the right of its journalist to do their work without fear or favour.
“This means no journalist has to fear when writing a story if one or more of the companies in Sekunjalo Group is involved. I do not expect special favours or puff pieces to be written by any journalists. All our stories must adhere to the highest standards required.
“This means they have to be balanced, fair and accurate. What they can’t be is one sided, inaccurate and prejudicial. I have always valued the principles of transparency, fairness and independence. More importantly, in our quest for fairness, we should give everyone an opportunity of the right of reply.
“As executive chair, I will uphold these values and expect all of our journalists and editors to do the same regardless of which story it is they cover.
Thereafter, his editors were forced to promote him and his business interests by publishing one hagiographic puff piece after another after another after another after another after another after another after another after another, the most recent having a nauseatingly obsequious headline.
‘News manipulation on steroids’
As the anchor quote on this article by SANEF indicates, Survé’s remaining editors, many of them in acting positions, were ordered to publish synchronised front page articles accusing some of the most distinguished journalists in the country of having collaborated with the apartheid era security police – without producing a shred of evidence in support of the charge. (Helen Zille has aptly described Iqbal Survé as ‘the man who put news manipulation on steroids when he bought Independent newspapers’ and there is ample proof of that contention.)
This, too, is proof of the fact that Survé’s under-oath claim at the Mpati commission that his editors are autonomous and can make their own independent choices based on news value and no other criteria, was devoid of truth – like the claim that he treated Nelson Mandela ‘on and off the island.’
The real truth is contained in the undisputed Dougie Oakes article headlined It’s time to go, Iqbal Survé and the uncontested Daily Maverick article by Ferial Haffajee. My request is that the evidence leader at the Mpati commission, advocate Jannie Lubbe, make those articles part of the record in the context of Survé’s manifestly-false and under-oath claim about the autonomy of his editors.
Hopefully, in this context, commission chairperson Judge Lex Mpati and his assistants Gill Marcus and Emmanuel Lediga will also take cognisance of the never-ending exodus of editors from Independent Media – no less than three within the space of a few weeks last year – and ask why this is happening.
That’s a lot of votes, Mr President.
They will have noted the saturation coverage given in the Indy newspapers to Iqbal Survé around at parliament, photo-bombing ANC but not opposition MP’s while punting his Survé philanthropies and living in the cloistered luxury of his R140m, high-security Silo District apartments – talkng all the while about his ‘simple life’.
Paid a pittance
They will, furthermore, have noted that there has been no refutation of the allegation by Dougie Oakes that Iqbal Survé’s ‘philanthropy’ also does not extend to the Indy interns who, Oakes avers, are paid a pittance and sometimes not paid for months on end.
They will also have noted the patterns:
- When James Myburgh of Politicsweb revealed three years ago that Survé was making no effort to repay the R1bn PIC loan, this was attributed by Survé to ‘racism’.
- When the PIC would not grant the Sagarmatha loan, this was attributed by Survé to ‘racism’.
- When the highly-suspect Sekunjalo/DAFF tender to maintain the ships that protect our marine resources was withdrawn, he blamed the media.
- When his attempt to list Sagarmatha on the JSE failed, this was blamed on ‘smear campaigns’ – not that he had failed to comply with the regulations.
They will have noted that, while the PIC is becoming ever-more threatened, there are some who are growing wealthy at their expense – this to the detriment of media freedom in this country and our international reputation.
They will be hoping, Mr President, for an outcome in keeping with your recent promises.
- Ed Herbst is a veteran journalist who these days writes in his own capacity.