“A critical, independent and investigative press is the lifeblood of any democracy. The press must be free from state interference. It must have the economic strength to stand up to the blandishments of government officials. It must have sufficient independence from vested interests to be bold and inquiring without fear or favour. It must enjoy the protection of the constitution, so that it can protect our rights as citizens.” – Nelson Mandela’s address to the International Press Institute Congress – 14 February 1994 – Cape Town.
“The summary sacking by a new proprietor of an editor greatly respected in the community of the Cape and further afield is a profoundly disturbing exercise of proprietorial power which takes no account of the interests of the readers and the newspaper itself.” – Gerald Shaw, former assistant editor of the Cape Times, in a letter to the newspaper on 10 December 2013
When the Right2Know campaign was last week granted permission by the Cape Town Municipality to hold yesterday’s picket outside Newspaper House, little did the NGO realise that it would be disrupted in a very disturbing way by people claiming to be members of a recently-formed grouping, the Movement for Transformation of Media in SA.
Among the speakers present to protest against the recent removal of Cape Times editor, Alide Dasnois, were Zackie Achmat, Mary Burton and trade unionist Terry Bell. They, along with several children, stood silently holding placards until MTMSA arrived with a minstrel band to add dignity to the occasion and lustre to Dr Iqbal Survé’s cause.
A video clip by Die Burger gives visual impact to the protest.
The rowdy rabble, who loudly celebrated the removal of Dasnois as editor, left reluctantly after being warned by the police to disperse or face arrest in terms of the Illegal Gatherings Act. R2K then handed over a memorandum calling for an editorial charter and an editorial advisory board at Independent Newspapers.
One of the targets of the verbal abuse by MTMA was Tony Weaver – a “racist reporter” apparently – because Weaver had written a column which described how the Cape Times Nelson Mandela obituary cover on 6 December had been put together, a cover which TIME magazine described as one of the 15 best Mandela obituary front covers in the world.
I felt a surge of patriotic pride when I read that TIME had ranked a newspaper from my home city alongside such iconic titles as the Guardian, the Daily Telegraph and the New York Times in this regard.
The leader of the disruptive group which tried to hijack the R2K picket was Wesley Douglas, a former member it would seem of the now bankrupt ANC Youth League and the current secretary general of the South African-Chinese People’s Friendship Association. It is common cause that the Independent Group now has significant backing from state-owned Chinese companies as well as the ANC-controlled Public Investment Corporation (PIC) using Government Employee Pension Fund money.
Had Douglas contributed a fraction towards the struggle which Weaver has in his career as a newspaper and television journalist – which he has not – it would not justify calling Weaver a racist.
The 13 December column that so irked the Wesley Douglas rent-a-mob was a beautiful, riveting account which gave the background to this achievement, a column which deserves a place in the annals of our evolving media history. Weaver’s column told of how, a week earlier, his erstwhile colleague, the former editor Alide Dasnois had, as conductor and with skill, talent and the fervent support of a hugely-committed team, orchestrated an astonishing, race-against-the-clock effort to produce this wrap-around cover.
The front cover of a newspaper, unless you are seriously deluded or have a nefarious agenda is, by any standards, the front page lead – it is what you read first when the newspaper is delivered. Yet it was on the risible charge that Dasnois had not led with the death of Nelson Mandela on 6 December that the new proprietor of the INMSA company, Iqbal Survé, attempted to justify his removal of Dasnois as editor. Let me sincerely assure him that his manifest contempt for our intelligence is exceeded by our profound contempt for his.
Her removal happened on what should have been a day of journalistic triumph for her, her team and for South African journalism. It happened on a day when the world’s media attention was focused on South Africa, the day after the announcement of Nelson’ Mandela’s death, a day when we should have been fervently committing ourselves to the ideals of press freedom as articulated in the quote by him which anchors this article.
Both Dasnois’ removal and the earlier charge laid by Survé against the Sunday Times related to published extracts of a provisional report by Public Protector Thuli Madonsela about the questionable award of a tender to Survé’s company, Sekunjalo.
This was the first charge ever laid under the Public Protector Act. It was, with the wisdom of hindsight and in the face of increasing public outrage and adverse publicity, subsequently withdrawn. It’s clear intent, however, like the litigation threats by President Jacob Zuma against Zapiro – which were also withdrawn – was naked, unalloyed intimidation.
Friday the 13th has traditionally been a day of ill omen and I wondered if Weaver’s column was not an epitaph for the Cape Times I have known and loved, a newspaper that has been part of the daily fabric of my life for more than three decades.
Nothing is impossible – but to me the very idea was absurd and the only equally bizarre instance that I can think of is an article, Playing in a ‘no man’s land’, by Christine Qunta. It was published in The Star on 10 April 2007 and in it she claimed that opposition to Snuki Zikalala’s manifestly corrupt news practices at the SABC was orchestrated by “a small group of angry white males (numbering no more than five), and their surrogates”. In fact, the entire Zuma faction at all levels of government, the ANC’s tripartite alliance and all their supporters numbering tens of millions were opposed to the abuse of the SABC – through Thabo Mbeki proxies such as herself, Thami Mazwai, Eddie Funde, Dali Mpofu and Zikalala – to promote his faction and demonise Jacob Zuma.
What was striking in the removal of Dasnois as editor was the way in which Cape Times readers and advertisers were largely kept in the dark by the omission of facts and information that did not suit the Sekunjalo narrative.
By Monday 9 December, three days after her meeting with Survé, the newspaper had yet to mention Dasnois’ dismissal even though it had, by then, already been widely reported in all media, both local and international. This shows the extraordinary contempt that the new management of the Independent Group has for those who have supported the Cape Times by subscribing, buying or advertising in it. It also shows that in future it will not hesitate, through censorship by omission, to continue to keep them in the dark and one worries that the company’s name will soon prove to be ironically archaic.
On the same day, the Times newspaper carried the following statement issued at the weekend by the editorial staff in Newspaper House in Cape Town and the editorial staff of the Star . To nobody’s surprise, the letter was not published in the Cape Times.
“We, the overwhelming majority of editorial staff of the Cape Times, wish to register our deep anger and protest at the dismissal of our esteemed editor Alide Dasnois.
“Although Dasnois was told three days ago not to return to work, staff have still not been officially informed of the reason for her sudden dismissal.
“The staff’s concern, from the sequence of events, is that the new owners of the newspaper, Sekunjalo Independent Media, are attempting to compromise the editorial independence of the Cape Times.
“If this is so, this is a direct threat to the standing and independence of this proud newspaper.”
In a disturbing re-run of Dali Mpofu’s routine raging against the country’s print media when he was turning the SABC into a politicised, looted, dysfunctional and utterly discredited shell, Survé lashed out in the Cape Times on Tuesday 10 December against the suggestion that Dasnois had been dismissed. His denial came despite Newspaper House editorial staff being united in their angry belief that he had dismissed Dasnois, despite the fact that she been told not to return to Newspaper House and despite the fact that she had issued a statement which was an implicit rebuke: “I believe my dismissal was unfair and I will be taking the dispute to either the CCMA or the Labour Court.” Survé suggested in the above-mentioned article, that Dasnois was removed from her post because of declining sales of the newspaper.
He clearly thinks that newspaper readers in South Africa are stupid.
If that were the criterion for the continued employment of newspaper editors, locally and worldwide, then the majority would by now have been dismissed.
In an ironically prescient article in City Press on 29 May this year – headlined ‘The public right to know is being sabotaged by the relentless pursuit of returns to shareholders’ – Dasnois warned of the very danger the public and the editorial staff at the Independent Group now face.
“That our print journalism is still as good as it is a tribute to a handful of dedicated and competent people who are battling tremendous odds.
The fact is that the interests of readers and those of shareholders do not necessarily coincide.
Shareholders in today’s financial world are capricious, demanding and focused on the short term.
Quality and ethics do not necessarily interest them until sales are affected.”
Dasnois should however feel comforted by the fact that one of her distinguished predecessors suffered a similar fate.
Tony Heard was dismissed in August 1987 because he, too, was not prepared to accept or practice self-censorship.
Is there also not an analogous situation between Dasnois being removed from her position and the similar situation which saw SABC news head Phil Molefe being sidelined more than a year ago?
In Molefe’s case he was removed from his position by a dubiously-appointed ANC minion for disobeying a public instruction from Blade Nzimande to stop giving TV coverage to Julius Malema.
In the case of Dasnois, she was removed by someone who boasts about his close ties with the ANC. She was removed for giving justifiable coverage to a story about Sekunjalo Investments Limited’s involvement in a controversial R800m tender and for refusing to publish a front-page apology for so doing. This is a story which is vital to Cape Town as a maritime port, to the fishing communities along the Western Cape coast and, in a broader context, to the preservation of our marine environment as a whole; Dasnois would have grievously abrogated her bounden duty as editor had she not given the story the prominence she did.
One of the most outrageous manifestations of Survé’s vengefulness was his threat to sue Cape Times environment reporter Melanie Gosling. The Western Cape is one of the most environmentally diverse and yet most environmentally threatened areas in the world and in Gosling and her Cape Argus colleague John Yeld the province probably has the strongest team of environment reporters in the country. Between them they probably have half a century of reporting in this field. She would have been acting on instructions in writing the Sekunjalo story and the ultimate responsibility for the story was vested in the subeditors who proofread her article. That this quiet, principled woman was, nevertheless, threatened in this way says everything one needs to know about the man who claims to not be an ANC lackey.
Will the removal of Dasnois who I praised in a recent article, signal the advent of a local version of the New Age?
The Public Protector, one of the few symbols of integrity we have left in our country, is adamant that she will not embroil herself in a fight to death with South Africa’s newspapers over the coverage of leaked provisional reports but should one not see Survé’s attempts to intimidate the Sunday Times in a bigger context? The ANC, just like the National Party it hypocritically reviles, bitterly resents criticism and constantly calls for “patriotic, developmental news coverage.”
Just like the National Party, it uses draconian legislation to discourage investigative journalism. It gets, in spades, the ‘patriotic, developmental’ news coverage it demands from the SABC and its private sector equivalent, ANN7. But it also wants a servile newspaper sector and while it already has that in the New Age this, clearly, is not enough. It wants all print media to be as obsequious as the state broadcaster which it has suborned and now controls and the removal of Dasnois seems to indicate that the ANC now effectively controls one of the most powerful newspaper groups on the continent as well.
I have the greatest personal respect and professional esteem for the editorial staff at Newspaper House in Cape Town. I know that my empathy with them is widely shared – working there now must be almost as bad as working at the SABC.
I would like to close this article with an apposite quote from an article, headlined ‘The long walk is not over – the freedom that Mandela fought for is under siege, and we must not surrender it’ by Justice Malala in The Times on 9 December 2013.
“We love the past in this country. We love gnawing at it. We celebrate heroes and ignore their works and words. We deify Mandela but we shut down the voices in society that try to navigate close to what he might have wished for.”