The Sunday Times has rejected claims by one of its former reporters, Pearlie Joubert, that the ex-husband of then editor Phylicia Oppelt, Advocate Rudolf Mastenbroek, had influenced its reporting in an explosive series of stories about a ‘rogue unit’ operating in the South African Revenue Services. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” said Times Media managing director, Andrew Gill, on Tuesday night.
Gill said the Sunday Times stood by its stories. “We do not wish to speculate on the reasons Joubert might have for exposing a source and friend, but her perceptions about the sources and genesis of our stories are as fanciful as they are vindictive,” Gill said in a statement.
Gill was responding to an affidavit by former senior investigative journalist Joubert, who resigned in January 2015. Legal representative, Mohamed Husain, read the affidavit on behalf of former senior SARS officials, Ivan Pillay and Johann van Loggerenberg, who were the joint complainants at a hearing of the Press Ombudsman on Tuesday. Pillay and Van Loggerenberg were suspended from SARS following the publication of the stories. They have lodged a complaint against the Sunday Times.
Joubert says she resigned from the newspaper in January as she was not “willing to be party to practices at the Sunday Times which I verily believed to have been unethical and immoral”.
She said she was referring in particular to “a number of media articles that emanated from the Sunday Times since August 2014 onwards, and which related to the allegations of the so-called ‘rogue unit’ which was allegedly operating at the South African Revenue Services. (First respondent)
In her affidavit, Joubert says in April 2013 she was approached by a “close personal friend Advocate Rudolf Mastenbroek”, who is Oppelt’s former husband. She said she was aware he was employed by SARS and claimed he “sought to inform me of certain instances which he sought to be published in the Sunday Times”. Mastenbroek “advanced a number of allegations which sought to implicate a Mr Johan van Loggerenberg and a Mr Ivan Pillay, the then-deputy commissioner of SARS.”
She said Mastenbroek “sought to implicate them in having been involved in protecting the African National Congress and certain of their members by treating them advantageously and in an improper manner during the course of their duties at the First Respondent and whilst they were employed there.
“I was aware that in Advocate Mastenbroek doing so he contravened his oath of secrecy as former SARS official as well as relevant confidentiality clauses contained in tax legislation,” Joubert said.
But, she added, “On the other hand receiving information not commonly available to the public that relates to wrongdoing in state agencies, the media relies heavily on sources who have access to and an understanding of such and therefore have an obligation to protect such sources”.
She said she raised her concerns with Oppelt, telling her she was aware of the former editor’s relationship to Mastenbroek. Joubert said she was concerned about “the veracity and accuracy” of the stories and was isolated as a result. She said she continued to conduct her own “discreet” investigation.
But Gill has denied Mastenbroek was a source for any of the stories. “Not only was Mastenbroek not a source for any of our stories about SARS, but the central point of our reporting – the existence of a rogue unit within SARS – has been backed up by a number of independent investigations, most recently a KPMG report,” he said.
“Previously an investigation by advocate Muzi Sikhakhane also confirmed the existence of the unit. Sikhakhane’s report was endorsed by Judge Kroon. Self-evidently we were not in a position to influence the outcome of these investigations.”
Gill said four reporters had “gathered information from their own sources within the intelligence community as well as within SARS and tested it before publication.