Ethical Journalism: Significant Moments in SA Media History

“To publish such a story about a sister company required rare courage, professionalism and principle from News24 editor Adriaan Basson and his team. They had informed their boss, Media24 CEO Esmaré Weideman, that this bombshell was coming and no attempt was made to dissuade them from doing so.”
Anton Harber Daily Maverick 24/11/2017

“There has been a gradual but systemic assault on journalism at Independent since Survé took over the group. There are good journalists and editors who are left quite helpless as their proprietor rides roughshod over any semblance of editorial independence. And there are good journalists and editors who have aided and abetted Survé. And although some of those editors and journalists have been able to reconstruct themselves outside of Indy, it is the staff of the Independent’s newsrooms right now that emerge worst off.

Because it’s not just about the credibility of Independent titles. It is about the credibility of the news media as an institution. And such wanton disregard for editorial independence severely damages the practice of journalism in South Africa.”
Editorial Mail & Guardian 26/4/2018

In September 1996, Naspers faced a significant ethical and generational crisis.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission had announced its intention to investigate the role of the media in supporting apartheid.

Matters came to a head on Friday 25 July 1997 when Ton Vosloo, the Executive Chairman of Naspers, formally declined an invitation from Denzil Potgieter, Chairman of the TRC’s Media and Communication Committee, to make a submission in this regard.

In his letter to Potgieter, Vosloo said that he saw no reason for Naspers to participate in the TRC media investigation because the company had never been guilty of any contravention of human rights or other abuses and therefore had no reason to confess or apologise.

In his letter he also said that Naspers, as a company, could not respond on behalf of its newspapers and their editors because they were independent and, should they respond, they would need to do so individually.

Enormous tension

This created enormous tension within the company’s publications which culminated in 127 Naspers journalists – in their individual capacity – from both newspapers and magazines, making a submission to the TRC in which they retrospectively apologised for the supportive role that Naspers publications in the past had played in the evolution of apartheid.

Their submission was welcomed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu on behalf of the TRC.

Tim du Plessis was one of the Naspers journalists who signed a submission to the TRC and both he and Vosloo have contributed chapters to the definitive book on modern Naspers history ‘n Konstante Revolusie: Naspers, Media 24 en Oorgange (Tafelberg, 2015) which was collated by Professor Lizette Rabe, head of the Department of Journalism at the University of Stellenbosch.

In his chapter, Du Plessis strongly emphasises that Naspers never retaliated in the slightest way against the signatories and, from then on and as always, their upward progression within the company depended purely and entirely on merit.

This is my translation from Afrikaans of what du Plessis wrote:

“A very important point to be made, is that these ‘rebels’ never suffered any retribution. In fact, no one has any knowledge of signatories who were victimised. Three years later, Kruger and Rossouw became editors of Beeld and Die Burger respectively. Four years later I was appointed as editor of Rapport, and later also became editor of Beeld. Esmaré Weideman, then co-editor of Drum, not only became chief editor of Media24 family magazines, but is the chief executive of Media24 now. Michelle van Breda became editor of Sarie. Many of the rest were promoted to important positions, such as deputy editor, assistant editor and news editor. Landman was later appointed as a director of Media24.”

That commitment to ethical journalism is further emphasised in one of the anchor quotes to this article where Anton Harber points out that this approach encompasses  even those who, as both whistle-blower and journalist, broke a story which caused their employer significant embarrassment. He was referring to the article which revealed, for the first time, details about the alleged collusion between Naspers and the Gupta-owned ANN7.

The fact that they could do this without fear of retribution, tells you everything about the Naspers commitment to ethical journalism.

Without government funding

Naspers was started without government funding in 1915 and in the ensuing 103 years no editor was dismissed.

Tony Heard‘s departure from the Cape Times in 1987 was widely perceived to be because his political views were at odds with those of his employer’s management team.

Sekunjalo Independent Media started in 2013 when, with the help of initially-clandestine and widely-questioned Public Investment Corporation funding, a self-acknowledged Zuma-faction acolyte and confidante of the late Brett Kebble, Iqbal Survé, was given control of the largest group of English newspapers in the country.  In the following five years, two editors, Alide Dasnois (Cape Times) and Wally Mbhele (Sunday Independent) were dismissed. In each case the dismissals were devoid of ethical merit.

Furthermore, in that time another ten senior news executives have terminated their association with Survé: Janet Heard, Martine Barker, Chris Whitfield, Moshoeshoe Monare, Makhudu Sefara, Philani Mgwaba, Karima Brown, Vukani Mde, Steve Motale and Kevin Ritchie.

The exodus continues unabated.

Gasant Abarder, who absconded from his post at Primedia at the invitation of Iqbal Survé to become the replacement editor for the dismissed Alide Dasnois, is working out his notice in his current position as executive editor: new media at ANA Publishing, a magazine division of Independent Media. He will then join the communications department at the University of the Western Cape

The editor of the Sunday edition of Weekend Argus, Yunus Kemp, has already left to join a public relations company in Cape Town.

The editor of the Saturday edition of Weekend Argus, Chiara Carter, has also tendered her resignation and will be joining the Daily Dispatch in East London as deputy editor.

That’s three senior news executives based at Newspaper House in Cape Town’s CBD, severing their ties with Iqbal Survé within a matter of weeks, and two are leaving their primary vocation – journalism.

Nothing remotely like this is happening or has happened a kilometre away at Die Burger.

Seminal moment

A seminal moment in South African journalism was reached when, in strong contrast to the ethical approach towards editor independence adopted by Ton Vosloo during the TRC hearings, Iqbal Survé’s editors were recently forced to publish articles attacking Sam Sole, Tim Cohen and Ann Crotty as ‘Stratcom journalists’. All three are esteemed journalists with impeccable career records stretching over decades yet they were reprehensibly equated with journalists who betrayed their colleagues during the apartheid era by working with the security police.

Inevitably, because the African National Congress plays off a 52-race card deck, the headline on the Cape Times front page lead on 23 April read:

“Sekunjalo, Indy, Survé subjected to racism

STRATCOM-ESQUE DISINFORMATION CAMPAIGN CONTINUES

LAST week, Independent Media journalists reported on an apartheid-era-style dirty tricks operation aimed at Independent Media, Sekunjalo Investment Holdings, Sagarmatha Technologies, AYO Technology Solutions (AYO) and Dr Iqbal Survé.

This disinformation campaign, originating from journalists at competitor media houses (Ann Crotty of Tiso Blackstar, publisher of the Sunday Times, Business Day, Financial Mail, etc and Sam Sole, from amaBhungane) has similar patterns to Stratcom.

Stratcom was a media strategy run by apartheid securocrats using journalists in mainstream media to discredit prominent individuals and organisations that fought against apartheid, thereby undermining the legitimate fight for freedom and democracy.”

What is unsurprising with such propaganda attacks is that the article carried no byline – not even the anodyne ‘Staff Reporter’.

Defamatory and disgusting

SANEF, the South African National Editor’s Forum, condemned these attacks on Sole, Cohen and Crotty:

“SANEF believes to equate this unlawful and corrupt institution with the work of critical journalists, playing their watchdog role in investigating private sector irregularities, is not only defamatory, but disgusting. This is a sad day for South African journalism.”

In Surve’s defence, Adri Senekal de Wet risibly called for fake news to be ‘criminalised’.

Nothing remotely like this has happened in the 103-year history of Naspers.

In summary, the supposedly independent editors of the SIM newspapers were side-lined and the company owner took control, abusing his media influence and authority in order to defend and promote himself. Is this not ironic given the statement made by Survé in December 2013 that he guaranteed the independence of his editors.

In a letter to his staff he wrote:

“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.”

Do least harm

One of the basic tenets of ethical journalism is ‘do least harm’ and, with the clear approval of Iqbal Survé, the editor of the Cape Times Aneez Salie has used his editorial influence to target white South Africans, particularly the farming community and has weaponised the newspaper in this cause.

I call them ‘Headlines of Hate’, the routine Cape Times front page leads which seek to create the impression that white South Africans are innately racist and I have photographed many examples.

Salie’s former co-workers say this is in reprisal for the way he and his former wife, Shirley Gunn, were treated when they were arrested as MK operatives on the watch of National Party police minister, Adrian Vlok.

Let me give you an example of two white South Africans, entirely innocent of any crime, whose lives were shattered when they were falsely accused of racism by Sekunjalo Independent Media’s answer to the New Age.

I broke the news of Chad de Matos who was incarcerated in one of the world’s most dangerous prisons, Pollsmoor, without ever having spoken to or touched his lying accuser. De Matos was targeted by reporter Carlo Petersen not only because he is white but because he was studying at  the University of Cape Town which became the target of a venomous campaign by Petersen and his editor Aneez Salie – a campaign that carried the imprimatur of Iqbal Survé. That nefarious campaign has been made a matter of record by Jonathan Jansen, Rhoda Kadalie and UCT honours student Ricky Stoch.

More than a dozen fake news articles about the alleged racist assault by De Matos remain on the IOL website and they will be the first thing that any prospective employer will pick up in a due diligence Google search about him.

The second person to suffer as a result of the white-baiting campaign by the Cape Times to ratchet up ethnic hatred was a dentist in the Defence Force, Dr Jan van Tonder. As always the article was by Carlo Petersen and the intro read:

“The case of a vicious assault on a gardener with a sjambok is but one of 10 recent “race related” attacks in Cape Town suburbs, district prosecutor Nathan Johnson told the Wynberg Magistrate’s Court yesterday.”

After these initial articles, nothing further was heard, either from Petersen, the SANDF which would have taken the matter further had Petersen’s articles been true or the Chief Public Prosecutor in the Western Cape.

Weeks and then months went by without any further news of this shock/horror ‘racist attack’ and, when enquiries were made, the truth emerged.  These articles by Petersen about Dr Van Tonder were as devoid of truth as his articles about Chad de Matos.

What is relevant however, in the basic tenet of ethic journalism – Do least harm – is that the falsehoods about Dr van Tonder, like the falsehoods about De Matos, remain a permanent record on the IOL website. Iqbal Survé subsequently promoted Carlo Petersen from reporter to senior editor for his sterling contribution to ethical journalism in this country.

What is ironic is that the people who abused their power and influence to persecute De Matos and Van Tonder and to demonise institutions like UCT also claim to be admirers of Nelson Mandela while undermining one of his goals and ideals – nation building through reconciliation.

Nothing like this has ever happened at Naspers and does the difference not come down to the leadership of the two companies? In the afore-mentioned book compiled by Professor Lizette Rabe, two stalwarts of ethical journalism, Raymond Louw and Tony Heard, praise the role that the Naspers newspapers played in bringing universal franchise democracy to this country. In his chapter, Heard writes:

“Finally, Naspers’s evolving actions and attitudes in that era helped to lead to that rarest of things in history: It nudged an important section of the public, in the spirit of Mandela, to rise above perceived immediate interests, and to go for real long term goals.

‘May we all build on that as Naspers passes its century mark.’”

Survé routinely lashes out at Naspers despite the fact that Sekunjalo is less transformed than the Afrikaans company but I leave you with two telling sentences in the current debate about the attempts to get the PIC to invest civil servant pension money in the Sagarmatha African Intergalactic Unicorn Highway and associated business ventures:

Sam Sole – amaBhungane

“That does not alter the fact that the PIC investment was going to increase Ayo’s net asset value by more than 8000% and its projected earnings by more than 800%”.

Dewald van RensburgCity Press

“Ayo shares this week crashed 40% to R25 each, meaning the PIC has lost R1.8 billion on the deal, unless the share price recovers.”

Iqbal Survé would no doubt categorise both Sole and van Rensburg using the pejorative ‘Stratcom’ but, in the end, it all comes down to how you define ‘ethical journalism’ doesn’t it?

In closing: As I write this article on 3 May – World Press Freedom Day – I am reminded of the nefarious and sordid fake news front page lead in the Sunday Independent with which Sekunjalo Independent Media sought to undermine Cyril Ramaphosa’s presidential campaign by portraying him as a serial adulterer who preyed on financially-vulnerable woman students.

The process I have seen evolving at the Cape Times is the same process I watched evolve at the SABC under the likes of people like Snuki Zikalala, Jeffrey Twala, Hlaudi Motsoeneng and Jimi (the door or the window) Matthews – incumbent staff are persecuted and ethical news gathering and dissemination is abandoned as is investigative reporting. Since Iqbal Survé took control of the Indy newspapers, reporters from this company have not featured in the annual Taco Kuiper awards, a competition now dominated by Naspers reporters.

I am also reminded, on World Press Freedom Day, of how Iqbal Survé articulated his inviolate principles of ethical journalism in a letter to his newly acquired staff who, in December 2013, numbered a lot more than they do now:

“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.”

“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.”

And, in an interview with Mandy de Waal for Daily Maverick shortly after the news broke that, with the assistance of civil servant pension money, he had as an overt supporter of the ANC bought the largest group of English newspapers in the country, he memorably said:

“If you know anything about me you know that I operate with incredible integrity.”

Ed Herbst

Ed Herbst started his news career as a photographer with the Natal Witness in 1968 but quickly switched to reporting while retaining an interest in photography. He joined the SABC in its Pretoria news office as a camera reporter in 1977, one year after television was introduced in South Africa. In 1978 he was seconded to the SABC’s Windhoek office for six months to cover the run-up to the country’s UN-monitored election and was then posted to the SABC’s Sea Point news office. He asked for early retirement in 2005 because of pervasive SABC corruption, news censorship and unaddressed abusive treatment of staff. From 2007 to 2009 he was employed as a consultant in the media department of the Cape Town municipality but became a pensioner when personal circumstances forced him to retire. He now writes without remuneration for local websites about the interface between media and politics. He is writing a book on media capture after 1994.

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