Media Capture – Helen Zille vindicated

‘Conducted in parallel with the extremely dangerous phenomenon of ‘state capture’, the process of consolidating our democracy is endangered by ‘media capture’ and the incremental obliteration of critical voices.’

Helen Zille in an open letter to Dr Iqbal Survé, owner of the Sekunjalo Independent Media newspapers 18/1/2015

When Iqbal Surve bought the Independent newspaper group a few years ago, he did it with a large contribution from the Chinese. Last week an Independent journalist lost his column after criticising China’s treatment of its Muslim population in the northwest.

Peter Bruce Sunday Times  17/9/2018

On July 2015, through a Daily Maverick article, the country was alerted by Marianne Thamm to the fact that the new owner of the Independent group of newspapers, Iqbal Survé, was sending journalists to China for training in their propaganda methods. This was unsurprising because the Independent company purchase by the former confidante and business associate of the late Brett Kebble, was part-funded by Chinese companies with the bulk of the funding coming from an increasingly controversial Public Investment Corporation loan.

On 16 September, Sunday Times columnist Peter Bruce exposed the inevitable and ineluctable consequence of this dubious PIC ‘investment’ and vindicated the media capture concerns of Helen Zille and Martin Plaut when he alerted the country to an article ‘China is buying Africa’s media silence’ by Azad Essa.

The second headline of Essa’s article read I wrote about Chinese oppression in a South African paper. Hours later, they cancelled my column.’

Essa is an Al Jazeera journalist  and author who started the Daily Vox news website in Johannesburg. The local papers he was referring to are those now owned by Iqbal Survé. And you can read some of Azad Essa’s previous columns in Iqbal Survé’s newspapers  here and here and here and here. That his articles will no longer be appearing in Sekunjalo newspapers is a direct result of Survé’s craven and unethical submission to the dictates of his Chinese funders.

Here is the text of Azad Essa’s Facebook post when he was notified of his banning a fortnight ago:

I have been writing a foreign affairs column for Independent Media for the past 2 years. I have focussed on neglected issues around the globe, zooming in on race, immigration, poverty, and prejudice.

 This week l wrote about how Chinese authorities are holding more than 1 million Uyghur Muslims in internment camps in the Xinjiang province.

I was fully aware that China international Television Corporation (CITVC ) and China-Africa Development Fund (CADFUND) have a stake in independent Media and that the column might ruffle feathers.

But the piece was published in print in newspapers around the country on Wednesday. When l enquired when the piece would go up online, l received a mail saying “a decision has been made not to publish it online“.

When l asked for clarity from online editors, l received no response.

This morning my weekly column was cancelled. I was told the following:

“With the redesign of our papers and the new system, there are changes regarding the columnists being used.”

Is this the future of corporate censorship in SA? And is this where the continent’s future relationship with China is headed?  

In a follow- up article, headlined ‘China is secretly attacking African Freedom of Expression’, Tatenda Gwaambuka writes:

How does this mess point back to China? Good question. On the 7th of August in 2013, the South African Competition Commission gave the green-light for dilution of shareholding in the Sekunjalo Independent Media consortium in favour of two Chinese firms – China International Television and the China Africa Development Fund through Interacom Investment Holdings, incorporated in Mauritius. The buy-in was not an anomaly. It was a carefully strategised move, part of the greater “going out” policy by Beijing. The point is while the continent was snoozing and thinking China’s biggest investments were roads, buildings and China-shops, the country was stealthily making inroads into African media. The goal, according to The Globe and Mail, is “to promote its (China’s) own media agenda in Africa”. The Chinese government has never been a champion of press freedoms and the most recent Freedom House report again branded the Chinese press freedom status as not free. No one is surprised. No one should also pretend to be surprised when Azad Essa says his column has been cancelled.

The disheartening fact is China is acting in cahoots with African governments to curtail citizens’ freedoms. It is as pathetic as it is depraved. Surely after recovering from the great political molestation of the colonial era, Africa deserves better friends

The instruction by Iqbal Survé to the editors of the newspapers he owns to now stop carrying Essa’s articles after an article critical of China’s human rights record written by him was published, is a clear sign of Chinese intervention through Survé to the detriment of our Constitutionally-enshrined commitment to media freedom.

There is nothing surprising in Survé’s censorship of a journalist who has authored an article critical of China. This happens throughout Africa and all the time.

This has justifiably earned international opprobrium and significantly damaged foreign perception of media ethics in South Africa

In a media release dated 9 December 2103 shortly after the Sekunjalo takeover of the Indy newspapers, Iqbal Survé stated on the record and for the record that … ‘In conclusion I want to state for the record that I together with the leadership of this group remain fully committed to the editorial independence of all our journalists and editors. To suggest otherwise is patently false and devoid of truth. ’

Devoid of truth

As subsequent events – such as the censoring of Azad Essa – have proved beyond any doubt, that statement by Survé was, to use his own words,  patently false and devoid of truth.

As proof, read this damning paragraph in Azad Essa’s Foreign Policy article:

In South Africa, Independent Media—partly owned by the China International Television Corporation and China-Africa Development Fund—is replete with sycophantic praise for Chinese investment, lacks critical engagement with the much-ballyhooed BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) project, and fails to ask basic questions on Chinese motives in Africa. Instead of holding power to account, it has become its most ardent cheerleader.

There is overwhelming evidence to prove Essa’s contention about the fawning coverage of China in Iqbal Survé’s newspapers and, if you doubt that, just Google IOL + China.

Then there are the pro-Chinese articles written by Survé himself – see here and here and here.

The dwindling number of Cape Times readers know only too well about this obeisance to China and Survé’s Chinese funders because events in that country which have no relevance whatsoever to their lives, regularly feature as front page lead articles.

On 1 June 2015, a cruise ship capsized on the Yangste River, thousands of kms from Cape Town and 452 lives were lost, half the number that were lost in a similar disaster in China a few decades earlier.

It is unlikely that any Cape Times readers were bereaved by this and, if so, the numbers would have been minuscule.

But the world is full of plague and pestilence, disease and disaster, war, famine,  crime, corruption, inter-religious strife, loss of life and human suffering in general, most of which, elsewhere in the world, does not impact on the life of the average Capetonian or the average reader of the Cape Times.

So why did the Cape Times – a week after this tragedy – have as its front page lead an article headlined ‘China mourning as one’?

The Cape Times front page lead on 8 June 2015 – one week after the tragedy in far-away China.

From the start of the Sekunjalo takeover, Survé’s editors found themselves obligated to publish one hagiographic puff piece  after another after another after another after another after another after another after another after another  which portrayed him as a courageous financial visionary, an international business icon, one of Africa’s leading patriots and one of the world’s most generous philanthropists and the man who treated Nelson Mandela ‘on and off the island’.

The way in which Survé has abused his control of the Indy newspapers for such self-aggrandisement and to promote his business interests from the very beginning of the Sekunjalo takeover in 2013 was contrary to section 2.1 of the code of ethical journalistic conduct of the Press Council of South Africa to which his newly-acquired newspapers were then beholden and which states:

2.1. The media shall not allow commercial, political, personal or other non-professional considerations to influence or slant reporting. Conflicts of interest must be avoided, as well as arrangements or practices that could lead audiences to doubt the media’s independence and professionalism.

Survé’s response  to dozens of public complaints about his company’s dishonest and damaging journalism was to follow the lead of the Guptas, withdraw from Press Council jurisdiction and create his own watered-down press code – 1000 words compared to the 4000 words of the PCSA press code – which did not contain the above-mentioned provision.

Not the first time

China demands absolute compliance with its goals of global hegemony as Apple is now discovering but this was not the first time that Survé had bowed to political pressure  and terminated the services of a journalist if an article on the Africa News 24/7 website in late February which was headlined Steve Motale may have been ‘forced to resign’ is correct.

Another example was the dismissal of Sunday Independent editor Wally Mbhele because he had angered the ANC when this newspaper published an article about how Brian Molefe – widely perceived to be a Gupta stooge and utterly corrupt – had been parachuted into parliament. Survé complained to the Press Council about the Sunday Times coverage of this treatment of Mbhele and the complaint was dismissed.

Does this not indicate that Survé’s employees lack journalistic autonomy and can be dismissed at the whim of his political overlords?

The most egregious example of this lack of autonomy was when his editors were forced to carry articles, most on the front pages of his newspapers, defaming distinguished journalists like Ann Crotty, Tim Cohen and Sam Sole as the moral equivalents of the reporters who are alleged to have collaborated with the ‘Stratcom’ unit during the apartheid era. For obvious reasons nobody claimed authorship of these mendacious articles which carried a ‘Staff writers’ by-line.

The South African National Editor’s Forum (SANEF) justifiably described this as ‘a sad day for South African journalism’ adding:

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’s statement in this regard must be seen in the context of a letter which Iqbal Survé wrote to his newly-acquired staff December 2013:

“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 journalists 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.

“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.”

Does the termination of Azad Essa’s contract and the dismissal of Sunday Independent editor Wally Mbhele not indicate that Iqbal Survé never had the slightest intention in 2013 of sticking to the above-mentioned commitment to the editorial independence of his journalists? And, if that is the case, what does this say about his integrity, his commitment to the truth and about his commitment to media freedom?

Probably as result of such factors, the Indy newspapers   – no longer profitable – have been eviscerated of their finest talents with more than a hundred loyal and long-term employees having been dismissed, retrenched or resigned. This tore the intellectual heart out of the company.  After Cape Times editor Alide Dasnois and political writer Donwald Pressly were dismissed because of the coverage they had given to the ‘Docked Vessels’  Sekunjalo tender scandal on the watch of Tina Joemat-Pettersson, four editors – Chris Whitfield  and Makhudu Sefara and  Moshoeshoe Monare and Philani Mgwaga subsequently  resigned. Then Karima Brown resigned and, a few months ago, Chiara Carter and Yunus Kemp and Gasant Abarder – all editors employed at Newspaper House, home in Cape Town’s CBD to the Cape Times and the Cape Argusresigned within a few weeks of each other. Such en masse resignations are without precedent in the century-old history of these newspapers.

The consequences of this for media freedom and the watchdog role of South Africa’s Fourth Estate have been significant.  Evidence of that can be found in the 2018 Standard Bank Sikuvile Journalism Awards where the investigative journalism section was won by the Guptaleaks team. This was the media story of the decade and Survé’s newspapers played no role in this investigation just as they played no role in the Bosasa scandal recently exposed by City Press which showed that leading ANC parliamentarians have been on the take for years. In fact, Independent newspapers ceased to feature in the annual Taco Kuiper investigative journalism competition after the Sekunjalo takeover in 2013 and that competition has been dominated by reporters from Naspers  a company which Iqbal Survé regularly attacks and denigrates.

This would seem to indicate that Sekunjalo Independent Media no longer possesses the political will or the staff to investigate the pervasive and systemic ANC-linked corruption which the Zondo, Moerane and Nugent commissions of inquiry have revealed. The other side of this coin is that ethical journalism also  ceased to exist at the Indy newspapers – and at the Cape Times in particular – after the Public Investment Corporation effectively handed control of the largest group of English newspapers to a Zuma–faction supporter. This was done for political and ethnically-based reasons and not in expectation of a safe and high return on this investment which is supposed to improve the quality of life of civil servants in the twilight of their lives.

The decision by the justifiably beleaguered Dr Dan Matjila, CEO of the Public Investment Corporation, to fund the takeover by Iqbal Survé of the former Argus Group newspapers in 2013 has been catastrophic for the PIC, for media integrity within the company and for media freedom in this country.

Just look at the facts:

  • Two of the country’s finest journalists Alide Dasnois and Donwald Pressly were dismissed for their coverage of the Sekunjalo ‘Docked Vessels’ scandal which left our marine fishing stocks vulnerable to foreign plunder for years.
  • As a prelude to the termination of Asad Essa’s articles, Iqbal Survé terminated the weekly column of the doyen of South Africa’s labour reporters, Terry Bell, despite the outrage of Cosatu.
  • Bowing to ANC pressure, Iqbal Survé dismissed Sunday Independent editor Wally Mbhele and replaced him with the pro-Zuma faction Steve Motale who left, apparently under duress, after publishing his sordid Fake News front page lead about Cyril Ramaphosa being a blesser.
  • Bowing to pressure from China, Iqbal Survé has ordered his newspapers to no longer carry articles by an esteemed Al Jazeera journalist, Azad Essa.
  • In a Daily Maverick article Anton Harber has described Iqbal Survé as a ‘charlatan and a fantasist’. Survé has not sought legal redress but he does have a by-rote response to those who express concerns about his activities and behaviour and the routine censorship-by omission of his newspapers – they are all racists.

An historic newspaper company’s soul has been sold to a country where media freedom does not exist and Helen Zille’s prediction of media capture has now been shown to be prescient – ask Azad Essa, he’ll tell you.

This is a matter of profound public interest – as Magda Wierzycka trenchantly asks in a Business Day article ‘When is the JSE going to scream at Survé or Jooste?

For more context read the articles by Terry Bell and Peter Flack and Ivo Vegter.

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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