File picture: Nicholas Rama
"Black journalists you are on your own."

This was the chilling message from a group of black journalists at Tiso Blackstar, the owners of the Sunday Times, Sowetan and Business Day, who leaked an internal memorandum sent to senior management after the group's decision to freeze salary increases as it battles to stay afloat financially.

In the unsigned memorandum, dubbed as a collective response to the company's internal communication sent to staff in mid-January, the journalists allege they have been left financially devastated by the company's unfair zero percent salary increase decision.

According to some members of staff, the decision could have also been influenced by the rumoured sale of the company to new owners, which is expected to be finalised by June.

“The pain has been felt more by black journalists who are paid less than their white counterparts,” reads the letter.

In the memo, the journalists claim that staff are being subjected to dwindling salaries while medical aid, food and petrol prices are increasing at an alarming rate.

“For the past few years, employees have put up with pathetic salary increments and the lack of bonuses.

"This is despite the fact that we work hard to ensure that this company functions well and produces some of the country's most respected publications.

"The freezing of salaries will only add to the unjust treatment we have had to endure over the years,” say the journalists.

The journalists are demanding access to financial records in order to have a clear view of the company's financial performance and proof that it had not made sufficient profits.

Workers also demand to know why management had waited till the last minute to inform staff about the freezing of salary increases, which meant that they could not take proper cost-cutting measures, such as downgrading on their medical aid options.

It was not unclear if the salary freeze also applied to senior management.

Staff also demanded to know whether managers had received their bonuses in the past financial year.

When pressed for comment, Andrew Gill, the managing director of media at Tiso Blackstar, said he would not respond in detail to a company that did not subscribe to the press code.

However, upon speaking to some journalists at Tiso Blackstar, Independent Media understands that racially based salary disparities are the source of the discontent.

It was recently revealed that white people in the company continue to occupy senior positions while blacks continue to “linger at the bottom of the food chain”.

A Tiso Blackstar journalist who spoke on condition of anonymity explained: “Whites who have close links with top management are entrusted more as the group's opinion makers over capable black talent within the group.

"Also, on one occasion, there was even an altercation in the newsroom that almost resulted in a fist fight between a white manager and a black senior journalist who has since left the group to join a competitor.”

Others who spoke to Independent Media said some white senior managers in the group spoke to black journalists “as if it was during the apartheid era”.

“White managers shout at us and they tell us they will fire us. We tried fighting this issue last year, and those who were at the forefront have since been sacked and some had their awards taken away. It’s not something that started now. This has been going on for a long time,” said the source.

Tuwani Gumani, general secretary of the Media Workers’ Association of SA (Mwasa), said as the letter from staff at Tiso was a “grievance/petition”, it would be against the law to dismiss any journalist for exercising their rights. He said Tiso Blackstar had denied Mwasa access to staff.

“As we speak, I am persona non grata and my emails to any of their servers and accounts are blocked. Mwasa has been wiped out across the group, so we are not surprised at the litany of violations of provisions of the constitution and labour legislation.”

Gumani called on journalists to organise themselves.