Independent Media is embroiled in a number of legal challenges, some launched by the company itself and others by those suing it for damages over stories published in it various titles.
Webber Wentzel, lawyers for Independent Media (IM), its holding company Sekunjalo Investment Holdings and its owner, Dr Iqbal Survé, dashed off a number of letters to Biznews and the Times Media Group this week. The challenge to Times Media relates to a story published in the Financial Mail and on BusinessLIVE, both TMG titles, written by business journalist, Ann Crotty. The story, Breaking the News: Is Iqbal stripping Independent’s Assets, reported on the alleged sale of the profitable Community Newspapers arm of Independent to a group called African Media Development, or AMD.
But Independent Media has denied the existence of AMD and accused Crotty, TMG, editor of the FM, Rob Rose, and editor of BusinessLIVE, Ray Hartley, of publishing fake news. “Independent Media has no knowledge of the existence of this entity. It is clear that the intention of the article was to spread fake news about Independent Media, portray a picture of underhandedness and to create suspicion and discomfort among shareholders, readers and advertisers,” it said in a story published on IOL.
Independent Media demanded that TMG retract the story, which the company refused to do. Now IM has launched a R300 million defamation lawsuit against its rivals. TMG has denied all charges, and in response, instructed its lawyers to accept any legal challenges coming its way. “Our clients do not, in the circumstances, intend acceding to your clients’ demands as detailed in your letters,” Werksman’s Attorneys told Webber Wentzel.
Sticks and stones
And, they added, “Finally, we have been instructed to caution you, in the spirit of ‘stones’ and ‘glass houses’ to be mindful of your clients’ own conduct and publications. As your clients will be plainly aware from the Press Code – ‘The press 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 press’s independence and professionalism’.”.
Following IM’s challenge to TMG, another of its companies, this time the African News Agency, also launched legal proceedings against the company, this time suing for the amount of R500 million.
“On instructions of African News Agency (ANA), our attorneys, Webber Wentzel, sent letters of demand to Times Media Group, Ann Crotty, Ray Hartley, Business Day and Business Live on 8th of March 2017 demanding that they retract defamatory statements made about ANA in an article, ‘Breaking the News’, published on 23 February 2017,” said Grant Fredericks, chief executive officer of ANA. The respondents were given three days to retract the defamatory article, but had instead “released a further statement repeating the original defamatory article”.
In another story published on IOL, Fredericks was quoted as saying, “The defamatory article published by Ann Crotty and the Financial Mail has resulted in significant reputational damage to ANA, its international investors and partners, including its 40-plus media partners globally. Should Ann Crotty, the Financial Mail, Business Live, Business Day or any other reporter of Times Media Group have contacted ANA, we would gladly have provided them with the correct information.” And, he added, “ANA has set aside a substantial sum to litigate against Times Media Group and Tiso Blackstar, to claim an amount of R500 million in damages suffered.” He said ANA would take action in both South African and London courts.
Fake news and queen bees
As a result of the Crotty story, IM’s head of its business unit, Adri Senekal de Wet, wrote a blog on IOL titled ‘SA deserves better than a set of fake news’ in which she said, “Is it not ironic that in the same week that our competitor, TMG, advertised that readers now have to pay for business news on its fledgling business live unit, Crotty published fake news about Independent and its relationship to Sekunjalo?
“Are TMG now expecting consumers to pay for fake news? Well, the loyal readers of Business Report can rest assured: You can find factual and truthful news in Business Report, and IOL, for free!” She accused Crotty of being “a disgruntled former Independent and Business Report employee (and wane-be [sic] independent purchaser [sic]) who wrote a bizarre, laughable and factually incorrect article that I, as the executive editor of Independent Business, could not ignore; since this is one of various attempts to slander Independent Media and the Sekunjalo Group”.
That was too much for Donwald Pressly, also a former IM employee, whose reply ‘Why did Iqbal Survé Queen Bee treat SA to a bizarre fake news rant?’ was published by the Cape Messenger and Alec Hogg’s BizNews. It is also the subject of a legal challenge by Independent Media. But Hogg, in response to the demand to retract the story, was unrepentant. In fact, he reiterated his stance that Survé had paid double the value of IM when his consortium bought it from the Irish owners and that the government pensions were at risk because of the Public Investment Corporation’s holding.
“Since then, Survé’s ignorance of the media business has weighed against him, with his successive misjudgements attracting considerable criticism. And as the savings of pensioners is at risk through the PIC’s unserviced billion rand loan, digging by other media outlets is very clearly in the public interest,” he wrote, adding that as long as the FM kept the Crotty story up on its websites so would BizNews.
Independent have also demanded the retraction of an Ed Herbst story, ‘Cape Times’ political gymnastics knocks it off the balance beam’. Again, Hogg would not back down. “The way we see it, the Cape Times newspaper’s falling circulation is a reflection of the way it has itself alienated its core audience. Trying to blame the consequences on a messenger so obviously acting in the public interest, is ridiculous. We await the Cape Times’s detailed response to what its lawyer terms “each and every untrue and defamatory statement” and will publish them with equal prominence,” he wrote.
Sanctity of PIC relationship
In one last challenge to Crotty’s story, IM is also suing BizNews for “disturbing the sanctity” of Survé’s relationship with the PIC, a move Hogg labels “bizarre”. “The FM’s article asks a very direct question: ‘Is Iqbal now stripping Independent’s assets?’ It is this question Survé and his lawyers should be addressing. Not some cock and bull about BizNews stuffing up his relationship with funders, which is an insult to the professionals serving at the PIC. Our reporting on the issue has been in the public interest. Survé should be applying his mind to giving the answers,” said Hogg.
Independent Media has demanded the stories be removed by Friday.
In the meantime, a suit launched against Independent Media by a group of journalists is ongoing. Commentator and activist Rhoda Kadalie and journalists Ed Herbst, Terry Bell and Chris Whitfield (himself a former executive editor at the media house), are suing IM, several of its editors and its so-called ‘Journalism Intern Investigative Unit’, for defamation in the amount of R2 million. The action is the result of a story published by the group claiming they – and six others, one of whom was the late Allister Sparks (disclaimer: editor of The Media Online Glenda Nevill was also included) – were “propaganda journalists” involved in a campaign of “collusion, misinformation, defamation and sabotage” against the group and its owner.
In an update, Whitfield told The Media Online IM had “pleaded and are defending, mostly on the basis of ‘fair comment’ which they claim was drawn from verifiable facts. No court date set yet – I think he [Iqbal Survé] is going to delay as much as possible. He won’t want to go into the dock so I think there will be last-minute settlement offers,” Whitfield said, adding that a threat by IM to sue the journalists who are suing the group hadn’t materialised.
Former Cape Times editor, Alide Dasnois, could not comment on whether IM had paid the settlement offered to her, but said the group had published apologies for accusing her of being racist. Although Independent settled out of court just hours before the case began, in a statement after the settlement, Survé made incendiary remarks about Dasnois, her editorship of the newspaper and the events that took place in the two years after she was sacked.
Asked at the time for her reaction to the media statement, Dasnois said she was “surprised” by its content. “Yes, I was surprised at the content and the tone of the press release. I am taking legal advice on that,” she told The Media Online.
The Media Online approached Independent Media with questions on the various court cases and if it had in fact made any repayments to the PIC and its Chinese investors, but the group failed to respond.