Cape Town - A high-level operation in which powerful politicians are using state organs in an attempt to harm Independent Media SA and its major shareholder, Sekunjalo Investment Holdings, has been uncovered, putting the country’s media freedom under threat.
Information Independent Media investigations has obtained points to the existence of a plan to carry out illegal surveillance and bug the phones of executives of companies under Sekunjalo, as well as those of its executive chairperson, Dr Iqbal Survé, and his family.
According to the information, the pressure from a current minister and a former minister, whose names are known to Independent, is being applied to include state agencies – such as the SA Revenue Service (Sars), the Financial Services Conduct Authority (FSCA), the Financial Intelligence Centre (FIC) and the commercial wing of the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation (Hawks) – to conduct raids on Sekunjalo and its related companies.
When approached, Sars would not confirm or deny that it was involved in going after these companies. Sars said: “In terms of Chapter Six of the Tax Administration Act, Sars is not permitted to discuss or disclose confidential information regarding any taxpayer.”
Sars Commissioner Edward Keiswetter was also approached directly, but failed to respond.
Alex Pascoe, the head of the directorate of the market abuse investigation team at the FSCA, denied that there was a high-level operation. The FSCA and Sekunjalo are currently embroiled in a court matter involving a raid by the authority on Sekunjalo’s offices in October 2019.
In response to our query, Pascoe would only refer to an FSCA statement issued months before the 2019 raid that stated: “The FSCA is mandated to investigate, and … take enforcement action in cases of market abuse on the financial markets… Our investigation procedures include interviews under oath, acquiring documentary evidence and obtaining assistance from foreign regulators.”
The FIC said its role was to assist in identifying the proceeds of crime, combating money laundering and terrorist financing, and did not extend to conducting investigations.
“For this reason, the FIC is unable to answer your questions as they relate to investigations, which is outside its mandate,” the FIC said in its emailed reply.
Hawks spokesperson, Katlego Mogale, initially said: “I am waiting for a response from the investigators.”
Further feedback from Mogale had not been received by publication deadline.
In July 2020, evidence of espionage against Sekunjalo, Independent Media and Survé led to a criminal complaint being filed with the police.
A team of top Western Cape police detectives was assembled to probe a complaint of intimidation after a white substance as found on the headrest of Surve’s vehicle.
Approached this week, police spokesperson André Traut said: “The investigation you are referring to is still under way, and at this stage there are no developments to report on.”
The incident was preceded by the discovery of a listening device in Sekunjalo’s offices, and the tapping of phones belonging to company executives.
Sekunjalo and Independent Media had issued a strong request for swift investigation and support to protect the integrity of the companies, their employees and the safety of Survé and his family. A Sekunjalo spokesperson said the company would release a statement later.
Independent Media’s Takudzwa Hove said yesterday that the company had neither received any feedback nor had it been contacted by the police.
Hove said the failure by state security agencies to act swiftly in a matter involving threats to a media entity was “a threat to media freedom and the right for an alternative narrative to be presented”.
Asked for comment, Survé said he was shocked by these disclosures, “which undermine our hard-fought constitutional freedoms, which include freedom of the media”.
In October 2019, the Constitutional Court ruled that mass surveillance was illegal for the government to participate in.