All panellists wish to state that they have learnt in the course of this Inquiry that the current system of self- or co-regulation of the print and online media and by the broadcasting industry appears to be working well and to the benefit of the South African democracy.
Few commercial sectors engaged in the level of introspection and self-regulation as the Fourth Estate and the two and a half year SANEF commission of inquiry into ethical challenges facing South African journalism showed that there was no need for politically-imposed strictures here.
This opinion was expressed by retired judge Kathleen Satchwell at a SANEF-organised Zoom news conference yesterday.
In June 2019 SANEF commissioned Judge Satchwell and two panelists, Rich Mkhondo and Nikiwe Bikitsha, to investigate ethical standards at South African media houses in the aftermath of reporting by the Sunday Times investigative unit between 2011 and 2016, which was recently described by three judges in the North Gauteng High Court as ‘fake news propaganda fiction’.
Between July 2019 and March 2020, the panel interacted with 167 individuals and entities and perused almost 200 submissions. Judge Satchwell said the panel’s interviews usually lasted for two hours.
She said that the experience had taught her just how vital the media’s role is in promoting democracy.
Judge Satchwell said a major difficulty the panel experienced was that many of the submissions were made by people who requested anonymity.
This, said Mkhondo, was a frightening manifestation of the degree to which “fear, loathing and factionalism” dominated newsroom life in this country. Much of this could be attributed to editorial interference by people with commercial or political motives, he said.
The panel’s 313-page report can be found here and it provides 69 recommendations on how media credibility can be improved.
The report says that the Sunday Times apology acknowledged that it’s reporting had been manipulated by unnamed outside entities.
However in point ES 51 on page 8 of its report the commission writes:
The Panel has no information to enable it to determine that any one or more of the persons associated with the Sunday Times investigative unit was complicit in the unnamed manipulation.
I would disagree having read the following passages in Anton Harber’s recently published book, So, for the record – Behind the Headlines in an Era of State Capture, in which he provides an example of the collusion between reporter Piet Rampedi and the disgraced deployed cadre Tom Moyane to further the aims of the state capture faction of the African National Congress.
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.
I asked Harber if there had been any reaction from Rampedi to this evidence and he said there had not.
The commission’s reports says: Everyone to whom the Panel spoke, within and outside the community of journalism, deplored the ‘cronyism’ of the Independent Group. Regrettably, despite requests for meetings, the Panel received no response from the group chairman, Dr Iqbal Survé.
Throughout its report, the panel stresses the valuable role played by the SA Press Council and its Code of Conduct but acknowledged that Iqbal Survé had withdrawn his Sekunjalo Independent Media company from this system:
However, as detailed in this Report, the Independent Media Group withdrew from the Press Council in 2016 due to a fracas over reportage on the financial affairs of the group. Thus, all titles within the group, including the Star, Pretoria News, and Cape Argus do not subscribe to the Press Code, and are not subject to the complaints and adjudication system thereof. Independent Media previously had its own internal complaints system, including an internal ombud, but the ombud has resigned and at the time of concluding this Report there is no indication of the existence of any functioning internal ombud process at all.
Despite all its efforts, the panel was unable to make contact with Phylicia Oppelt, the editor of the Sunday Times at the relevant time.
The panel issued the following edicts to the Sunday Times which must:
Issue a full and unreserved apology to those persons incorrectly implicated in any wrongdoing in any of the Rendition, Cato Manor or SARS series of stories in which the paper acknowledges that they failed in the most basic tenets of journalistic practice including failing to give any or adequate opportunity to the affected parties to respond to the stories to be published pre-publication and failing to seek credible and sourced validation of the allegations made against individuals; and that such failures caused great emotional and financial harm to the individuals concerned, their families and their careers. Full and complete retraction of incorrect or false or malicious allegations or commentary is to be made. G54. Make full disclosure of the nature and extent of the ‘parallel political project’ which the Sunday Times avers took place and that led to the ‘abuse’, providing details of the persons involved and their actions as well as the wrongdoings or failures of all journalists, editors, editorial and administrative staff involved. G55. Establish a Chair in Ethics in Journalism at one of South Africa’s formerly black universities, making payment for the full foundation thereof to the relevant university. The Chair should not be named after the Sunday Times or any holding company but after an investigative journalist of high moral and professional calibre whose media work has contributed to the development and/or maintenance of constitutional democracy in South Africa. G56. Submit the work and culture of its newsroom to scrutiny and assessment by an independent panel every five years from date of the apology of October 2018. Such review should be made public to all other media bodies.
In the question session at the conclusion of the media conference, Harber asked what could be done about ‘rogue’ reporters who simply ignored ethical protocols and Ferial Haffajee raised a similar point, saying that the conduct of Sekunjalo Independent Media was in some instances as egregious as the Sunday Times reporting had been.
Satchwell said that the ethical abuses at Independent Media had been comprehensively covered in the book Paper Tiger by two former employees of Iqbal Survé, Alide Dasnois and Chris Whitfield.
Censorship by omission is a hallmark of the propagandist and, of the two morning newspapers in Cape Town, Die Burger carries an article on the SANEF media conference this morning but the Cape Times does not. There is also no mention of the commission’s findings on the IOL website.
Pointing out that the SANEF commission lacked the powers of its Zondo counterpart she said it was incumbent on the media profession to make its opprobrium felt about such reporting.
There is, however, no central body of newspaper owners with which such concerns could be raised.
The commission says that in the past decade, the number of newsroom personnel has almost halved as a result of the loss of advertising revenue to companies such as Facebook, Google, Netflix and Amazon and suggests that the local divisions of these companies could be taxed to fund media sustainability and development and that consideration be given by government to media funding and tax breaks.
One of the concerns expressed by the panel was the absence of an entity to which journalists could turn for protection or redress:
All individuals and entities with which the Panel engaged concurred that journalists and media practitioners needed an organisation to represent them and the interests of the media.
SANEF told the Panel it believes one key structural problem in the media sector to be that media unions are weak and divided across the industry therefore able to provide little or no support for labour matters, including retrenchments.
SANEF will now hold a series of regional workshops on how best to implement the Commission’s findings culminating in a media ethics conference in March.
Watch SANEF’s video of the press conference here: