Stratcom Journalism in the State Capture Era?

In terms of the court order, we unconditionally retract and apologize for the allegations made against Mrs. Thandeka Gqubule-Mbeki and Mr. Anton Harber. EFF media statement  25/1/2020 JOHANNESBURG – The word ‘Stratcom’ has re-entered South Africa’s political vocabulary and some politicians and their followers are...

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In terms of the court order, we unconditionally retract and apologize for the allegations made against Mrs. Thandeka Gqubule-Mbeki and Mr. Anton Harber.

EFF media statement  25/1/2020

JOHANNESBURG – The word ‘Stratcom’ has re-entered South Africa’s political vocabulary and some politicians and their followers are using it comfortably. They exploit it, particularly on social media, in an attempt to discredit journalists whose work they disagree with. The word initially emerged in the 1990s, in the years leading up to the end of apartheid.

Mpho Lakaje Eye Witness News 27/4/2020

On 20 April 2018, Iqbal Survé’s Sekunjalo Independent Media newspapers sought to smear some of the country’s leading journalist’s with the ‘Stratcom’ epithet.

The coordinated campaign across all titles was driven by Adri Senekal de Wet, executive editor of the company’s financial supplement, Business Report, possibly under the instructions of company owner, Iqbal Survé.

This synchronized attack, carried simultaneously in all Sekunjalo Independent Media newspapers in major cities, was without precedent in South African newspaper history. All the company’s editors were clearly compelled to use this as the front page lead regardless of other newsworthy happenings on the day. What this seems to indicate is that Iqbal Survé’s editors and reporters have no autonomy whatsoever – that, they are, in effect, simply puppets.

According to the sworn testimony of former AYO executive, Siphiwe Nodwele before the Mpati commission of inquiry into malfeasance at the Public Investment Corporation, news content of the Sekunjalo Independent Media newspapers and the IOL website is dictated by Survé.

Confirmed under oath

This was confirmed, also under oath, by another former AYO executive, Kevin Hardy, and Adri Senekal de Wet was mentioned in his testimony.

Survé, also testifying under oath before the Mpati commission, denied this claim.

SANEF, the South African National Editors Forum described Sekunjalo’s ‘Stratcom’ character assassination – ‘without any proof being provided’ – as ‘disgusting’.

‘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. The Independent Media group has been a critical part of the media landscape for decades. Some of the finest journalism to come out of this country has been produced by journalists working on titles like The Star, Cape Times and The Mercury.

‘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.’

Less than a year later, on 19 February 2019, Adri Senekal de Wet doubled down, alleging that Sam Sole of amaBhungane had collaborated with the security forces of the apartheid era.

She provided no dates, documentary evidence or sworn witness testimony to sustain her assertion, only these three sentences:

‘Dr Survé challenged Sam Sole from amaBhungane to publicly state his involvement in apartheid journalism as a young reporter. He did that, with a “long and short answer”. To summarise, he was making all sorts of excuses for being a trooper in the army, and during, or after, that he wrote some articles that I think he is ashamed of.’

This clearly failed the main defenses against defamation – truth, public interest and fair comment.

After Adri Senekal det Wet published her unsubstantiated accusation about Sam Sole having been a Stratcom collaborator, Sole himself and Brendan Seery of The Citizen responded.

Defamation is defined as ‘the oral or written communication of a false statement about another that unjustly harms their reputation’ and Adri Senekal de Wet clearly and maliciously wanted to diminish the standing of Sole in the South African community without just cause. There was never any chance of her succeeding in this regard and Sole remains one of the country’s most respected investigative journalists.

Context in this regard is provided by the Gauteng High Court judgment in the case ‘Gqubule-Mbeki and Another v Economic Freedom Fighters and Another’ in January this year in which the EFF was ordered to apologise to Thandeka Gqubule-Mbeki  and Anton Harber for similarly alleging without proof that they had collaborated with the apartheid-era security police. The EFF was also ordered to pay each of them R40 000 in defamation damages.

What this makes clear is that had Sam Sole sought legal redress for the way in which Iqbal Survé and Adri Senekal deliberately defamed him without providing an iota of proof, he would have succeeded.

Ethical journalism

Given the above, and the claims by Iqbal Survé and Adri Senekal de Wet to be proponents of ethical journalism, what is one to make over their silence about the recent claim by Anton Harber in his  recently-published book ‘So, For the Record – Behind the Headlines in an Era of State Capture’?

The cover of the book contains a quote from Jacques Pauw: ‘The most important book about the fourth estate since apartheid … Harber cuts with a surgeon’s precision to expose the media’s complicity in state capture’.

Harber’s unchallenged claim is that reporter Piet Rampedi – now employed at Sekunjalo Independent Media – was leaked a watermarked and confidential copy of the discredited interim KPMG report belonging exclusively to the now-disgraced Tom Moyane – one of only eight such copies.

Harber makes this claim on two pages and here, for the edification of Iqbal Survé and Adri Senekal de Wet, are the two quotes which in my opinion indicate that Rampedi was heavily implicated in the State Capture project now unfolding before the Zondo commission:

Page 256: He (new Sunday Times editor Bongani Siqoko) knew that something was wrong with the SARS story and he would have to deal with it and the embarrassing Press Council findings, but he’d barely settled in when Piet Rampedi came with the latest leak from tax boss Tom Moyane’s office. Moyane, locked in a power battle with Pravin Gordhan over his restructuring of SARS, had commissioned a legal opinion to prevent the Finance Minister from interfering in SARS, and a copy had gone straight to Rampedi.

Page 235: And whose name was on Rampedi’s copy? Who was the origin of the abbreviated version he received? It was Tom Moyane himself. That was confirmed for me by someone who saw Rampedi’s photo of it, with the watermark. It indicated that `Zuma’s appointee as the news SARS Commissioner, who was systematically attacking the ‘rogue unit’ and using the Sunday Times reporting to dismantle SAR’s investigative capability, was working hand in glove with members of the Sunday Times investigative unit.

Validation for the claim by Harber was subsequently provided in SA Press Council’s ombud, Pippa Green’s recent address at the 10th Annual Percy Qoboza Memorial Lecture. She said that when the Press Council asked the Sunday Times reporters to confidentially reveal the sources of the information in their controversial SARS articles, they refused:

‘This case came before my predecessor, then Ombud Johan Retief, and a panel for adjudication.

‘When highly contested stories are based on anonymous sources, the Ombud usually asks for those sources — in confidence — to check whether, in terms of the Press Code, the newspapers had reasonable grounds to believe that their stories were truthful and accurate.

‘Mostly, newspapers comply with this request.

‘In this case they didn’t. The reporters refused to divulge their sources and refused even to hand the Ombud and his panel of adjudicators a copy of the contested KPMG report that formed an important basis for their story.

‘Again, the reasons for this became clear later. The KPMG report — an interim, not a final report in any event, was distributed to only eight people and all the copies were watermarked. As Harber reveals, the copy that the reporter (Piet Rampedi) relied on belonged to Tom Moyane, the SARS commissioner appointed by Jacob Zuma.’

If these claims ae not true then they are clearly defamatory – but there has been no indication that Rampedi or Moyane are intending to seek redress through the courts, neither have they disputed these claims.

Stratcom journalism

If they are true then how, in principle, does this type of journalism differ from the Stratcom journalism of the apartheid era when newsroom reporters also collaborated with agents of the state to the detriment of the common good?

The  cost to the country of State Capture project ravenously driven during the ‘nine wasted years’ of the Jacob Zuma era is estimated at more than a trillion rand.

Those most prejudiced are poor people and the majority of the victims are black.

The reputational cost to the country is incalculable.

The reporting by the Sunday Times played an integral role during that period of pervasive, endogenous Zuma-era corruption.

It was condemned by the ombudsman of the SA Press council and the Sunday Times itself apologised.

Our courts, by withdrawing charges against leading SARS executives and Johan Booysen have destroyed the basis of the hugely damaging reporting by Piet Rampedi,  Mzilikazi wa Afrika and Stephan Hofstatter.

Furthermore, as I pointed out in a previous article on this website, the founding document of the ‘SARS Rogue Unit’ fake news propaganda campaign, a 2014 report in the possession of the former inspector-general of intelligence, the late Faith Radebe, entitled ‘Report on the investigation into Media Allegations against the Special Operations Unit and/or other Branches of the State Security Agency’ ,  was set aside by court order in June this year.

On pages 288 -291 of his book Harber provides unchallenged evidence of the nefarious and clandestine role that the now utterly-discredited State Security Agency (SSA) played in disseminating false information to the media to facilitate the takeover by the Zuma faction of SARS.

Then, on page 291, this sentence:

Piet Rampedi told the Press Council that among his sources were ‘intelligence agents’.

Significantly, despite being challenged by Marianne Thamm to testify before the Zondo commission in this regard, after Piet Rampedi and Mizilikazi wa Afrika became Sekunjalo employees, neither has done so.

What are they afraid of, what do they have to hide and what must we glean from their silence?

SANEF commission

It is to be hoped that the evidence provided by Anton Harber and Pippa Green will be addressed by the SANEF commission in its forthcoming media ethics and credibility report because what they reveal seems, in principle, to be analogous to the situation which prevailed during the Stratcom era.

Given the constant and strident claims by Iqbal Survé and Adri Senekal de Wet that Sekunjalo Independent Media speaks truth to power, it is now incumbent on them to address the evidence provided by Anton Harber and Pippa Green  which seems to indicate that the Sunday Times reporters  they mention are the contemporary versions of the Stratcom newsroom collaborators of the apartheid era.

Given all of the above, it is up to you to decide for yourself whether any of the reporters involved were innocent dupes of or willing accomplices in the State Capture project.

What cannot be denied, however is that the reporting of these individuals was a significant setback for media credibility in this country. This is a matter of profound public interest because, as history has shown us, for democracy to thrive it is imperative that public trust in the fourth estate is maintained.

The credibility of Sekunjalo Independent Media was undermined in the sworn Mpati commission testimony of former employees of Iqbal Survé such as the afore-mentioned Siphiwe Nodwele and Kevin Hardy.

Furthermore, the former political editor of the Cape Times, Dougie Oakes has written an excoriating and unchallenged account of newsroom conditions when Aneez Salie was editor.

In addition, the evidence provided by three former editors, Alide Dasnois and Chris Whitfield and Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya has further damaged the reputation for journalistic integrity which the company justifiably possessed prior to the Sekunjalo takeover in 2013.

That reputation for journalistic integrity was further  eroded when Iqbal Survé followed the lead of the Guptas and removed his publications from the jurisdiction of the SA Press Council at a time when they were facing unprecedented public opprobrium.

Equally disturbing are the denied claims that the circulation figures of the Sekunjalo newspapers have been inflated.

If the concerns raised by Anton Harber and Pippa Green are justified, then would be difficult to find a more concise definition of the media capture concept.

It is therefore in the interest of Sekunjalo, its newsroom staff, its shareholders and the broader public that Iqbal Survé and Adri Senekal de Wet – having defamed some of the country’s best journalists as ‘Stratcom-type’ agents to the justifiable distress of SANEF – use their right of reply to allay the concerns raised by Anton Harber and Pippa Green.

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