Standard Bank closing Sekunjalo accounts is an attack on media freedom

STANDARD Bank's decision to abruptly terminate Independent Media and other Sekunjalo Group companies' accounts is a travesty of democracy. I File

STANDARD Bank's decision to abruptly terminate Independent Media and other Sekunjalo Group companies' accounts is a travesty of democracy. I File

Published Sep 9, 2023


Feroza Petersen

STANDARD Bank's decision to abruptly terminate Independent Media and other Sekunjalo Group companies' accounts, including those of the Group’s other media entities, is a travesty of democracy. According to the bank, having these companies as clients poses a reputational risk. It is evident, though, that there is a greater risk to Standard Bank’s reputation in not banking the Group, especially its media entities.

Had Standard Bank not unbanked the Group, it is doubtful that anyone would have known that any of the Sekunjalo companies banked with it in the first place.

However, now that the closure of accounts is expected on September 15 - unions have united in support of Independent Media and its affiliates, recognising the profound impact this decision could have on the livelihoods of more than 1600 workers and their families, pushing them toward unemployment.

The Information Communication Technology Union (ICTU) highlighted how this decision worsens challenges faced by print media due to evolving technology, asserting that the move by the bank is an attack on media freedom beyond Independent Media.

The Public Service and Commercial Union (PSCU) also strongly condemned Standard Bank, reflecting on the harm it would cause to more than a thousand employees and their families amidst ongoing mass job cuts.

Trade union federation, Cosatu, similarly echoed concerns, emphasising the need for immediate intervention to protect Independent Media employees' rights.

For the employees, this news has generated anxiety and uncertainty about their ability to provide for their families, or what the future holds, given the overall changing media landscape – jobs in this sector are beyond scarce. Some of Independent Media’s employees have spoken out against what is a disproportionate amount of control and power wielded by banks and the potential for discrimination, while others have described the emotional toll this situation has taken.

Standard Bank's decision, under the guise of reputational concerns, is seen by Sekunjalo and pundits, as a calculated attempt to silence independent journalism that caters to a much broader and diverse South African audience than the otherwise mainstream titles.

Unbanking any client for no apparent or just cause is contrary to the South African Constitution. Globally, the unilateral unbanking of clients is also growing and hitting the headlines, with the UK Treasury going so far as to investigate what is fast becoming an epidemic, and a blatant abuse of power by these financial institutions that are entrusted with safeguarding people’s hard-earned money.

In South Africa, there is an odd lack of noise from mainstream media, except to attack Sekunjalo. As for the government and the various regulatory bodies who have oversight over the banking sector – they have remained on the fence and largely silent on what is a civil rights matter that has far-reaching consequences for all bank account holders in this country.

Media watchdogs, who mostly represent Independent Media’s competitors are also derelict in their duty to ensure that a robust and independent media landscape is maintained. After all, the loss of Independent Media and its affiliates is a gain for them.

However, what they have failed to realise, is that they could be next, as could anyone who speaks out of turn and expresses a different viewpoint to the prevailing narrative of the day.

Standard Bank's actions highlight how banks can be weaponised and show how completely uncaring the banks really are about the people whose money keeps them in business.

It’s time for every South African who values democracy and a free press to stand together and demand accountability from those who seek to suppress the truth.