Responsibility should trump reputation when it comes to its customers and the SA public at large.
Standard Bank is a prominent South African financial institution that claims to drive Africa's growth, and currently finds itself under scrutiny for its decision to close the bank account of Independent Media on what it claims are grounds of “Reputation Risk”.
While the bank emphasizes its commitment to ethical conduct and responsible business practices through its Code of Ethics and Conduct, the abrupt closure of Independent Media’s account, without apparent just cause, raises questions about the alignment between its stated values and its actions.
Standard Bank's Code of Ethics and Conduct serves as a guiding document to underscore the importance of acting with integrity, honesty, and accountability.
The Code explicitly recognises the bank's role as an integral part of the societies in which it operates, emphasizing the need to work towards a positive social, economic, and environmental impact.
The closure of Independent Media's bank account, however, seems to stand in stark contrast to these principles.
Media plays a vital role in any democratic society, providing a platform for diverse voices and critical perspectives.
The closure of South Africa's biggest print media group's bank account has the potential to severely curtail the public’s news and information offering and thus, the bank's stated commitment to supporting open dialogue and free expression. It also prompts questions about the prospective influence of financial institutions on the media landscape and the implications for a well-informed public.
Standard Bank's leadership, including its board and executive management, acknowledges their responsibility for ensuring adherence to the Code of Ethics and Conduct.
Closing Independent Media's bank account, a decision with far-reaching consequences, however, underscores the need for transparency and accountability in the decision-making process. Stakeholders rightfully expect that the bank's actions align with its professed values and commitments.
The closure of Independent Media's bank account though, extends beyond immediate financial implications. Journalists, editors, and other employees now face uncertainties with the real prospect of job losses if the company in which they work, cannot operate without a transactional banking account.
The decision also has a potential impact on the media to hold power accountable, and let’s face it, the banks have ultimate power.
So, does the closure of Independent Media’s banking accounts, align with the bank's commitment to maximizing positive impacts on societies? Probably not, particularly when the original Competition Tribunal hearing in September 2022, notes that, “there is no evidence that the Applicants [Sekunjalo Group] have been found guilty of money laundering, financing or acts of terrorism or other unlawful activities.
There is also no actual and verified evidence of criminal conduct by the Applicants. Moreover, even if one were to assume some reputational harm on the side of the Respondent Banks if the interim relief is granted, this in our view would not trump the manifest harm to the Applicants, including potential serious public interest consequences…”.
It would seem, from this, that even when a company or an individual is without wrongdoing, the banks’ seemingly fluid “ethics” can permit them license to do as they will – anyway.
The closure of Independent Media's bank account by Standard Bank thus triggers a critical examination of the institution's actions in relation to its stated values. As a financial powerhouse with a significant influence on the African continent, Standard Bank urgently needs to reconcile its role in driving growth with the broader ethical considerations that come with such influence to realise that responsibility should trump reputation when it comes to its customers and the SA public at large.
The Independent Media situation serves as a reminder that responsible business practices extend beyond profitability and encompass broader societal impacts, including media freedom, transparency, and stakeholder well-being.
Adri Senekal De Wet is the executive Editor of Business Report.