Executives of companies in the Sekunjalo Investment Holdings group have expressed their shock and outrage following the discovery their phones had been tapped.
Also tapped were the phones of some of Sekunjalo executive chairperson Dr Iqbal Survé’s family members. Charles Abrahams, a Cape Town lawyer rendering services to the group which includes companies such as AYO Technology Solutions, Independent Media and African Equity Empowerment Investments Limited, also suspects his phone has been illegally intercepted.
At the same time, a listening device was discovered in Survé’s office. AYO chief executive Howard Plaatjes said he had suspected that something was amiss after some of his calls started to sound scratchy, fell silent or began echoing.
“The last thing on my mind was espionage. You always hear about these things, but as a technology company CEO, I should have been more aware of these things.
“It made me feel very distraught. I just felt completely devastated that people would go to such a degree. Nobody gave them permission to listen to my conversations with other individuals; I feel quite distressed by it. I don’t know what conversations are private any more. It is grossly unfair,” Plaatjes said as he related his immediate thoughts upon hearing his phone had been tapped.
Independent Media chief operating officer Takudzwa Hove said: “I think it’s probably to interfere with the actions of Independent Media. It doesn’t make sense. It seems to be part of a co-ordinated effort to bring down Independent Media. My relationship with the group (Sekunjalo) is around Independent Media, and so it can only be related to Independent Media.”
Other senior people in the group whose phones were also tapped include head of group corporate affairs Vanessa Govender, AYO executive deputy chairperson Khalid Abdulla and an executive assistant to Survé. Three of his relatives also had their phones tapped.
Abrahams said: “I routinely engage a security specialist to undertake IT security checks given the confidential nature of my work. Provisional indications are that my phone might be tapped. The investigation is ongoing. If it is confirmed, it is highly regrettable as it undermines the very foundation of privacy and attorney-client confidentiality.” The listening device at Survé’s office was found after a number of comprehensive searches.
“The information that we were getting was that there was somebody accessing information and giving it to other people,” Survé said. The search was conducted by a company specialising in “countersurveillance”, he said.
“There were indications that information at the corporate level was leaked to some of the rival media companies. It appeared that private information of the various companies was made public in various forms. There was a strong sense in the group that there was some kind of intelligence going on against the group. It was for this reason that the group enlisted the support of professionals.
“They were able to analyse the devices of the group’s employees and, in particular, the senior executives and were able to work out that they were under surveillance. More importantly, the new group (of professionals) had also been tasked with checking all of the group’s offices, and that is when they discovered the bug in my office. The bug was sophisticated with a radius of 50 metres and the ability to download on to a server, and was able to listen to conversations,” said Survé.
He said the company would pursue criminal charges against those behind the interceptions. “I know that the media space is highly contested not just in our country but in the world, but the extent to which these people have gone to undermine, shut down, destroy Independent Media, the Sekunjalo group and myself is truly disgraceful.
“It is against all tenets of democracy, our Constitution and so sad that more than 25 years after our democracy, we should be dealing with these issues. I had thought all of this was behind me when one had to live under constant surveillance by the security police during apartheid,” he said.
The latest developments come at a time when a team of top police detectives has been assigned to probe a complaint of intimidation that Survé had lodged.
A white substance was found smeared on the headrest of Survé’s car last month after he received information that someone had been sent to tamper with his vehicle’s brakes. The substance has since been sent to the police’s forensic labs to be analysed.
Two weeks before this incident, two unidentified men entered Survé’s apartment building at 2am under the guise of disinfecting the premises. He had finished working when he saw a light through the door’s keyhole. When he looked through the peephole, the men who were not wearing personal protective equipment walked towards the lift and were never seen again. No one knew how the two, earlier captured in a surveillance video footage, left the building.