Cape Town - Standard Bank's planned closure of the accounts of South Africa’s largest newspaper company, Independent Media, will deal a devastating blow to the media industry, press freedom and sector jobs.
“Indy” publishes 15 titles nationwide, including the Cape Argus, The Mercury and The Star. Together, the titles account for one third of the total number of daily and weekly newspapers (45) in circulation in the country today.
Its sister company, Africa Community Media (ACM), prints 18 free community newspapers in three provinces, including titles such as the CapeTowner, Athlone News, Diamond Fields Advertiser and Isolezwe lesiXhosa.
Combined with online platform IOL and the GQ and Glamour magazines in partnership with Condé Nast International, the media stable reaches more than 17 million users locally and abroad.
Around 1 600 media workers are employed across these brands.
Indy, ACM and IOL are among 31 companies in the Sekunjalo Group which could be unbanked on September 15 by Standard Bank, a move, that would significantly limit their ability to operate and trade.
An urgent interdict by Sekunjalo to join Standard Bank to its main Equality Court case and prevent the closure of its accounts will be heard in court on Tuesday.
Standard Bank has cited “reputational risk” as the reason for its decision to stop doing business with Sekunjalo, following unfavourable reports by rival media houses.
The bank had threatened to shut the group’s accounts last month after the Competition Appeal Court overturned a previous Competition Tribunal ruling and handed down a judgment in favour of Standard Bank, Mercantile Bank and Access Bank, effectively allowing these banks to “unbank” the Sekunjalo Group companies involved.
Sekunjalo, however, filed an application to appeal this ruling in the Constitutional Court, which caused the banks to reconsider and revert to the earlier Competition Tribunal ruling, whose D-Day was set at September 15, or until such time as the Competition Commission concludes its investigation into Sekunjalo’s claims.
Despite the direct threat to the media companies, jobs and diversity in the sector, Standard Bank, which sponsors the Sikuvile Journalism Awards, denies that the move constitutes an attack on media freedom.
In a statement to Independent Media, the bank said: “Standard Bank has noted the negative media sentiment advanced in certain media publications in response and strongly refutes the claims that Standard Bank does not support media freedom or has been motivated by political or other interests.
“Standard Bank fully supports and has always upheld the freedom of the press and the important role that media plays in society.”
Sekunjalo chairman Dr Iqbal Survé called Standard Bank’s debanking decision “cruel” and “heartless”.
“In this interdict, it’s all about the threat and the harm suffered. There’s absolutely no harm suffered by the bank if the accounts are kept open,” he said.
“There’s more harm to Sekunjalo and Independent Media because thousands of people will lose their jobs. The real harm is to the employees of our group.”
Survé maintains that there has been no wrongdoing on the part of Sekunjalo.
“They have banked corrupt people, money launderers ... yet they continue to try and unbank Sekunjalo without any reason whatsoever. The judges in the high court, Equality Court, the Competition Tribunal were unequivocal that the banks had colluded, and there has been no wrongdoing on the part of Sekunjalo,” he added.
“This is a political decision from the top to destroy Sekunjalo and reinforce the new apartheid system.”