The suspension, and then resignation, of e.tv boss Marcel Golding and the reasons he has given for his drastic move, are of major concern to stakeholders in the free-to-air broadcasting space.
The SOS Coalition, with Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) have weighed in on the matter not because of shareholding issues, but because “the public’s right to freedom of expression, including its right to receive information, is being undermined, in particular by organisations that are close to the state or officers thereof”, the NGOs said in a joint statement. “We are also particularly concerned about freedom of expression issues in the free-to-air broadcasting space, a space where the majority of viewers and listeners get their news and information.”
The comment followed news on Monday that Golding had resigned. The embattled head of e.tv, who is chairman of Hosken Consolidated Investments and CEO of Sabido Investments, which own the broadcaster, on Monday lost a labour court challenge to overturn his suspension. HCI suspended him last week accusing him of buying R24-million worth of shares in Ellies Holdings without consultation.
But Golding believes his suspension had more to do with resisting political interference in terms of editorial content on e.tv and eNews Channel (eNCA).
In a letter to staff on Monday, seen by The Media Online, Golding says, “You are aware of the reports in the newspapers over the past few days and the fact that I was suspended and expected to face certain charges brought against me by HCI. I deny these charges,” he wrote.
“I am of the view that the manner in which HCI intended to conduct my hearing as well as the circumstances which led to the decision to bring charges against me has rendered my employment relationship with HCI intolerable.
“The relationship of confidence and trust between myself and the board of HCI has broken down due to the manner in which the HCI board has conducted itself. In the circumstances, I have been forced to resign and I will in due course be bringing a claim of unfair dismissal on the grounds that I have been constructively dismissed,” Golding said in his email.
Golding’s actions have impacted on staff at the broadcaster. Patrick Conroy, managing director of e.SAT TV (e.tv, eNews Channel Africa, eNCA.com) has urged employees to “stay focused on the job at hand”.
In a rallying email to staff, Conroy said he realised they would be “quite shocked at recent developments” but that they had “a great business, a brilliant newsroom”.
“We could ruin our wellbeing speculating and worrying about the future. The road ahead is unclear but for now nothing has actually changed. So keep going,” he said.
“The satellites carrying our signal are still in space. Mr and Mrs South Africa will watch our news tonight and tomorrow and the day after. Oscar is going back to court and as sure as nuts someone will complain about the font size of our crawlers… So please, keep going. It is the most important thing you can do.”
The drama started late last week when Golding said HCI had launched a disciplinary hearing against him as a means of getting him to resign his positions. He said the reason was his refusal to allow e.tv to be used “for political purposes” by the trade union the South African Clothing and Textile Workers Union, (Sactwu).
In an annexure to the court papers challenging his suspension, Golding’s lawyers, Herold Gie, said a possible pullout by HCI as shareholder was being discussed by stakeholders. The proposal was that HCI remain in control of non-media assets while a “new consortium”, under Golding, take over media assets. This required Sactwu to approve an “exit strategy”. But Sactwu was “not interested in an outcome where our client would remain as the CEO of Sabido”.
The lawyers said it was Golding’s “understanding of the situation that Sactwu’s stance is directly related to the pursuance of a certain political agenda – namely a desire by Sactwu, and certain individuals closely associated with Sactwu, to exert greater control over news content at e.tv and eNCA by ensuring a CEO less independent than our client assume control over Sabido”.
In his labour court judgment on Monday, Judge Anton Steenkamp said Golding’s fears were “serious and on the face of it, not without substance” but that the charges against him did not relate to this, but rather to a disciplinary hearing about the Ellies shares.
SOS and MMA believe the contents of Golding’s founding affidavit are “nothing short of explosive”.
They refer specifically to Golding’s assertion that approximately a year ago HCI began to interfere with editorial decisions as a result of pressure it was coming under through Sactwu, its major shareholder. Yunis Shaik (brother of Schabir and a former high level Sactwu official) is alleged to have emailed a senior executive at e.tv “stating that minister of economic development, Ebrahim Patel, had called him and asked that a supplied news feed of President Zuma opening a dam might be aired on the e-tv news. Mr Shaik suggested that this ‘might be a good lead story”.
In another example, Shaik “contacted the senior executive asked that a video clip of a particular Reserve Bank meeting be aired during the course of a debate (which was to be broadcast live) between Mr Patel and opposition party representatives”.
It said while shareholders “may have a right to shape the overall editorial character of a mass communication platform at a broad policy level as we see with The New Age and ANN7, we strongly oppose the view that shareholders should be entitled to interfere with and seek to influence content directly at an operational level”.
Information is currency, and South Africans only have one free to air source of news apart from the SABC, and that’s e.tv. “If e.tv’s editorial independence is being compromised, albeit by its own shareholder, for political or economic ends, our right of access to robust and accurate news and information about the country we live in is not just compromised, it is violated,” the media NGOs believe.
In the meantime, HCI reported that Barbara Hogan had also resigned as a director of HCI and its audit committee. “We note the resignation of Barbara Hogan from our board and express our somewhat surprise at the hostile manner in which it is couched and publicly distributed. We thank Barbara for her services to HCI and assure the public that, perhaps other than Marcel himself, no other board members of HCI see this matter similarly”, the company said in a SENS announcement.
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