Reporter: I was paid to pursue Rasool agenda
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By Murray Williams
A former Cape Argus journalist has finally owned up to long-standing allegations that he secretly served as an embedded spindoctor to former ANC Western Cape Premier Ebrahim Rasool while working as a political reporter for this newspaper.
Ashley Smith, a reporter for the Cape Argus until April 2006, has come clean in an affidavit submitted to the National Prosecuting Authority yesterday. In exchange, he has requested indemnity against any possible criminal charges.
Smith's admission comes five years after the allegations were first made to the Cape Argus by members of the Western Cape ANC - specifically that two Cape Argus staffers were secretly being paid to write news articles favourable to Rasool.
Smith has now confirmed under oath that he and then political editor Joseph Aranes did indeed use their positions as full-time staff members on the Cape Argus to assist Rasool's campaign against political rivals, and that they received money from a public relations company that obtained provincial government contracts.
Aranes, however, has strenuously denied the allegations on repeated occasions, and continues to do so.
Last night, Rasool also poured cold water on Smith's confession - denying the allegations and accusing Smith of having repeatedly contradicted himself.
In his affidavit this week, Smith states that he was involved in setting up the public relations company ? Inkwenkwezi Communications - with his former wife, Aranes and Zain Orrie, a businessman "close to Rasool" - and that although he was never paid any money directly by Rasool, he believed the cash payments he received from Inkwen-kwezi were for the work he did to promote Rasool's ambitions.
"The understanding between the Inkwenkwezi group and Rasool was that we would assist Rasool with media advice and in return Inkwenkwezi would receive business from the Provincial government?
?The assistance I gave to Rasool and his allies did not relate to matters of interest to the provincial government, but to Rasool's political survival in the ANC."
Inkwenkwezi did business for about nine months between February or March 2005, until Smith and Aranes were suspended by this newspaper in November 2005 after the allegations of their role first surfaced.
After an investigation by Independent Newspapers lawyer Jacques Louw, an editor and a senior journalist from Independent Newspapers, it was decided to institute disciplinary action against the pair.
No evidence of payment was found but it was established that Smith's wife, Joy van der Heyde, and Orrie were directors of Inkwen-kwezi and this constituted a clear conflict of interest. Smith was charged but the process was aborted when he resigned after three days of the hearing.
The company charged Aranes with a lesser transgression of failing to disclose his knowledge of Smith?s conflict of interest. He was found guilty and received a final warning. He was allowed to resume work as an assistant editor but was stripped of his role as political
In his statement, Smith describes the involvement with Rasool and his colleagues as two-pronged.
The communications company would be paid to produce media strategies and statements for the then ANC government. Smith said it had been agreed between him, Aranes and Orrie that they would each have a one-third stake in the company, but that all the shares would formally be held by Orrie.
He details one contract for the Human Settlements Department, headed by MEC Marius Fransman, which was done through the closed tender system and which was worth R200 000 over five months.
Smith reveals that the second part of his role involved writing stories that would promote Rasool, thereby damaging his rivals within the Western Cape ANC, specifically Rasool's main political opponent, Mcebisi Skwatsha. This took place against the context of the long-running internecine battles for political leadership within the Western Cape ANC.
Smith reported that cash payments of between R5 000 and R10 000 from the communications company were paid to him and Aranes on "three or four" occasions, during Saturday morning meetings with Orrie at the River Club in Obervatory.
Smith alleges that his pro-Rasool news reports for the Cape Argus were often as a result of late-night strategy sessions called by Rasool at his official Premier's residence in Oranjezicht, Leeuwenhof, where Smith, Aranes and Orrie would help him plot his political battle against Skwatsha. Smith alleges some of these meetings were also attended by two of Rasool's MECs, Fransman and Leonard Ramatlakane.
Smith alleges that Rasool saw him, Aranes and Orrie as his "airforce", which Smith believed to mean his "front line of attack against the Skwatsha camp or his other political rivals".
Smith admits in his statement that he "felt that I could not write negative reports about Rasool or his allies" either.
Smith acknowledges that this relationship with Rasool "compromised" his integrity as a journalist.
In the run-up to the ANC's provincial conference in June 2005, Smith admitted that he conspired to ?stir up enough mud around the Skwatsha faction in the ANC?, in an attempt to encourage the national management of the ANC to intervene, and thus ensure Rasool's survival as provincial ANC leader and provincial premier. As it turned out, Rasool still lost the leadership of the Western Cape ANC to James Ngculu, but remained premier until he was fired in mid-2008.
Smith also admits that the slanting of his reports in the Cape Argus was specifically intended to ensure their company continued to receive government tenders from "Rasool's allies" in the provincial government.
Smith admits: "The payments (to Inkwenkwezi) clearly had an influence on the way we were reporting matters (in the Cape Argus)."
Later in his statement, Smith wrote: "Most of the work I did for Rasool was in relation to his strategy against Skwatsha."
Smith has also divulged that he and his co-conspirators produced a document for an anti-Skwatsha smear campaign, which was deliberately leaked to the Sunday Times and the Mail & Guardian.
Smith said that Inkwenkwezi stopped trading after arrangements for payment of a R100 000 invoice to the premier?s office were questioned and the role of the journalists became the subject of the inquiry by the newspaper.
This occurred after a provincial government staffer tried to pay them the R100 000 through Oryx media, a rival public relations company.
When Oryx refused and the invoice came to light, payment was halted. Rasool's office explained the incident as an error by a staffer who had acted on her own initiative to try to arrange payment but that this had been stopped when Rasool realised the invoice had been submitted, but that Orrie was not entitled to payment for the work.
Smith states that after he resigned he attended a meeting with Rasool at Leeuwenhof within two hours. The meeting was also attended by Aranes and Orrie.
Smith says: "The general discussion at the meeting was how Rasool was going to take care of me, in the light of my resignation from Independent.
"The meeting reached the conclusion that I would become employed by another company and that I would be salaried in such company and have shares in such company. The company in question would be allocated work by the provincial government."
He states that he understood provincial contracts awarded to his new employer, Hip Hop Media, were in part compensation for his earlier role.
He said Orrie, Aranes and he together took a majority shareholding in Hip Hop, which had an existing record of work done for Rasool, through another company after Inkwenkwezi stopped operating.
Smith alleges that Aranes continued to hold shares in Hip Hop after he had received his final warning at the Cape Argus and while he continued to serve as an assistant editor at the Cape Argus.
Smith has now requested indemnity against prosecution from the NPA out of concern about possible "crimes of corruption" in connection with this company's work - although he stated that he was "not certain" if he had broken any laws.
He had made the statement for the purposes of "unburdening my soul".
At the end of his statement, Smith added he was "certain that no other journalist at Independent Newspapers was involved in getting paid, directly or indirectly, for services to Rasool, his allies or any other politician" during the time he was involved with this work.
In response to Smith's admissions and allegations, Rasool wrote in an email to the Cape Argus late yesterday afternoon: "All the matters that Mr Smith is alleged to have said in his affidavit relate to things that have been dealt with in the past.
"They are matters that have been publicly aired, but also which have been investigated and dispensed with by a variety of bodies. I have put all of these matters behind me.
"In the various investigations, Mr Smith has pronounced on these matters, at least once under oath. What is consistent about his pronouncements at that time is that he strenuously denied everything he now alleges.
"I have consistently denied these allegations and continue to do so. I do not want to enter a battlefield that I have happily exited, nor do I want to be party to anything that is designed to damage the ANC in the Western Cape further," Rasool said.
Both Aranes and Orrie yesterday declined to comment on Smith's allegations, but have both repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.
Independent Newspapers Cape editor-in-chief Chris Whitfield said today of Smith's confession: "We are glad to finally have something of substance on this issue, which we have been pursuing for five years. We will continue our efforts to get to the bottom of it all."