DESPITE the Western Cape Equality Court interdicting Nedbank from shutting down banking facilities of companies belonging to the Sekunjalo Group, Standard Bank has become the latest bank to target the group – this time Independent Media – in what has been described as a direct attack on media freedom.
The move has been slammed by media organisations including the South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef), who criticised the banks’ move to “unbank” the Sekunjalo group of companies, including Independent Media, without evidence that would stand in a court of law.
Independent Media’s Executive Chairman, Dr Iqbal Survé, has indicated that the media group was preparing for yet another legal battle, this time to challenge Standard Bank, saying the bank’s decision not only threatened the livelihood of more than 1 400 employees but would ostensibly shut down a critical voice in the country’s media.
Sanef said the action by the banks would impact negatively the country’s media freedom and media diversity.
Two Sanef senior leaders made their voices heard, following confirmation by Standard Bank yesterday, that it intends to join its counterparts in the banking sector who have already tried or succeeded in unbanking some companies related to Sekunjalo.
Sekunjalo has so far succeeded in obtaining an interim order in the Equality Court against Nedbank, blocking the financial institution from going ahead with its decisions to unbank the group until the matter is ventilated in court.
Sanef’s Media Freedom Committee chairperson, Makhudu Sefara, described the banks’ move as dangerous to the country’s media freedom. “Shutting down a bank account of a media organisation is something that would go against media freedom, it is something that would destroy a media company. I think a decision like that should not be taken lightly,” said Sefara.
All major banks have based their decision to unbank Sekunjalo and its entities on “reputational risk” resulting from negative publicity by Independent Media’s competitors.
Sefara has rejected that notion, saying banks or financial service institutions should provide facts surrounding a media organisation that they intend to unbank. “That decision must not just be based on what has been written but must be based on facts and evidence that can be supported in a court of law.”
He said the banks’ move is adding to many other things that had impacted media freedom around the world. “In our country, we have our own challenges that kind of inhibit the free flow of information and news and that also limits the flourishing of the multiplicity of voices we need in any democracy.
“Anyone in any position, whether it is the presiding officers in court or is the head of financial services organisation like banks, must not take a decision of that nature lightly,” said Sefara.
Describing the importance of the media in a democratic society such as South Africa, Sefara said: “The media is the key pillar of a democracy.” He said that there had been several important voices, including Nelson Mandela’s, that have expressed the importance of the media.
“The reason we are calling it the fourth estate is that it is the life and blood of democracy because if there is no probing journalism and there is no journalism that holds the people who are in power to account, obviously a lot of malfeasances will go unnoticed or unexposed.
“And a lot of people who should be held accountable will operate with impunity and the people who lose the most are the poor and vulnerable and a lot of us who contribute to the country’s taxes will just have our taxes misused because the media is not able to play its role,” said Sefara.
He said Sanef would always encourage and defend the free flow of ideas in a society of conflicting views. “Sanef would encourage whoever is in a leadership position to not take decisions that affect the media in general in any negative way.
“Where a bank or presiding officer in court is called upon to make a decision that would impact media freedom negatively, they need to apply themselves to the facts and evidence.”
When asked what Sanef had been doing to protect Independent Media from being unbanked, Sefara said: “I need to take counsel (advice) from other people who have been in the leadership of Sanef because as you might know I was only elected media freedom committee chairperson less than a month ago.”
He said before intervening in the matter, Sanef would need to get facts from Independent Media about what was happening. He said Independent Media would have to share information with Sanef.
“You will understand that you guys within Independent Media would have access to information about what is happening to your own company more than people who are outside. Therefore, before Sanef puts out statements that are not based on facts or true information, Sanef would always be cautious about putting (out) statements,” he said,
Sanef’s executive director Reggy Moalusi expressed concerns about journalists losing their jobs. Moalusi was also concerned about the possible erosion of media diversity “because if Independent (Media) cannot operate as a news organisation then we have one less news voice in our media space, which is worrying”.
“We as Sanef have always called for Independent (Media) editors to come back and join Sanef, but mostly to say Independent Media is the key media institution in South Africa and it plays a vital role and is a voice that needs to be recognised.
“So, one less in the media, we are obviously not happy as an organisation,” said Moalusi.
When reached, Durban University of Technology’s former journalism associate director, Advocate Robin Sewlal, said if there is no media, there is no freedom.