Sad times for SA English newspapers

Posted on January 19, 2015


One of South Africa’s best known columnists, Max du Preez, has resigned from Independent News Media (INMSA) the country’s biggest English language newspaper group. This after management agreed with the presidency to apologise for a factual statement by Du Preez that a judge had found President Jacob Zuma to have had a “corrupt relationship” with his former financial adviser. The issue has raised again the whole question of media freedom in South Africa.  Terry Bell explains why he supports Du Preez.

In her response to Max de Preez, INMSA group executive editor Karima Brown, shamefully — and not for the first time — played the race card. She also indulged in some decidedly twisted logic to justify the group’s treatment of Du Preez, in the process labelling supporters of his position “malcontents and closet racists”.

This has been a fairly standard response by Brown and her cohorts to criticism as INMSA has summarily sacked, “disciplined” and seen more than 30 senior journalists leave the company. And here I must declare that I have personal experience of the high-handed and bullying tactics of the new management. As many people know, I am one of the journalists dismissed by email without notice, after nearly 18 years as a columnist.

I took the matter to arbitration and the commissioner at the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration gave me what I wanted: a finding that I had been “treated shabbily” with “callous disregard” and that the actions of INMSA could not be “construed to be fair labour practice by any standard”. This I published.

Because it was, arguably wrongly, also ruled that as I was a contractor rather than an employee — a single fact published by INMSA’s Business Report — I would have to go through a lengthy labour court process for any financial compensation. I felt I had neither the time nor the emotional energy to do so. But I continue to give support to fellow journalists — and to other workers — who fall victim to the machinations of their bosses.

So when Max du Preez resigned as an INMSA columnist I gave him immediate support. Not because I have an axe to grind, but because, journalistically and ethically, Max du Preez was in the right. He quit after the newspapers in which his column appeared published an apology claiming that he had been factually incorrect in stating that “a judge” had found that a corrupt relationship existed between President Jacob Zuma and his former financial adviser, Shabir Shaik. Shaik was sentenced to 15 years’ jail.

So the simple, single question is: did a judge in a properly constituted court of law, make such an statement? The answer is, unequivocally, yes. The precise words were not uttered at the initial trial of Shaik, but by the presiding judge in the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) that upheld Shaik’s conviction. All that matters is that the statement was made by a judge in the context of a court of law.

Brown now claims Du Preez meant the initial trial judge and not the SCA judge who delivered the unanimous finding of the five appeal court judges. Apart from this being totally irrelevant, he neither said, nor apparently meant, any such thing. He could not, therefore, be said to be “not 100 percent accurate” or to claim “the right to his own facts”. This is mind boggling effrontery on the part of Karima Brown.

Especially since Brown admits the apology followed Zuma’s spokesperson, Mac Maharaj, pointing out the supposed “factual error” to the management. She then lashes out at “malcontents” who “resent the acquisition of a significant media asset…by black owners”. The fact that many of these “malcontents” are not melanin deprived, seems to have escaped her notice. Or perhaps we are about to have a “coconut” label included in future rants?

The issue here has nothing to do with “race”. And to claim, as the new management at INMSA has, that criticism did not exist when the previous Irish owners were in charge, is a deliberate falsehood. However, the Irish, under Tony O’Reilly, never interfered with editorial content. They were too busy asset stripping and siphoning off profits to cover their losses in Europe, something many of us complained about.

For me, one of the saddest aspects of this thieving overseas cabal was the destruction of the country’s oldest newspaper clippings library. The librarians were retrenched and the clippings dumped in what I referred to as an act of “gross vandalism”.

So when Iqbal Surve emerged on the scene, there was considerable relief among most journalists associated with INMSA. And one of the first casualties of the takeover, Cape Times editor Alide Dasnois, was to the forefront of a campaign to have media workers given a direct say in the proposed new regime and for INMSA to lead the way with the adoption of a media charter.

I supported the idea of workers having a say and of a charter spelling out independence and freedom of expression. I, and others, raised these questions with Surve before the purchase went through. I also told him, in August 2013, that most journalists expected the ownership structure to be made clear. He promised me, before witnesses, that all these issues would be dealt with “within two weeks”. I am still waiting.

There are now a number of INMSA cases before the labour court and the CCMA. It also appears that morale in the company is at an all-time low. At the very least, this reveals a level of insensitivity and disregard for worker rights by executives prepared to toy with facts, distort freedom of expression and to play the race card. These are indeed sad times for South Africa’s largest English language newspaper group.

Posted in: Commentary