Paid-for news saga deepens

The ANC firmly kept the lid on the findings of an internal inquiry that investigated allegations that the office of former Western Cape premier Ebrahim Rasool laundered provincial government money to Cape Town journalists to write and influence stories for political ends.

And, in an apparently related development, a Cape Argus executive editor, Joe Aranes, resigned this week.

The inquiry is understood to have heard substantial evidence that journalists were being bribed. It was quietly launched in 2006 after allegations of impropriety surfaced against Aranes and another senior Cape Argus staffer, Ashley Smith.

But some of those who participated in the inquiry were not informed about its findings.

“We never heard anything back from them after we gave our submissions,” said a source who took part. “They should come clean with the findings of the inquiry.”

Rasool, now an ANC MP, and the ANC chief whip in the province, Max Ozinsky, were both recently “temporarily suspended” from the party for becoming involved in “public spats” in the pages of the Mail & Guardian.

Ozinsky claimed in his article that Rasool had become “intimately involved in briefing journalists” and alleged that at least one senior editorial staffer at the Cape Argus, but he believed more, had benefited financially from their proximity to a web of companies contracted by the province.
“I don’t make these allegations lightly: there is proof,” he wrote.

Rasool was fired as premier of the Western Cape by the ANC last July and was replaced by Lynne Brown. But his name was seen on a list put forward by the ANC for the appointment of deputy ministers in May this year. He was recently quoted as saying he no longer had aspirations in Western Cape politics. Rasool could not be reached for comment this week.

The M&G has learned that provincial government officials, the ANC’s provincial leadership and certain private companies were asked to testify at or provide affidavits for the ANC inquiry.

Multimedia agency Oryx, which had a contract with Rasool’s office in 2005, refused to say whether it had participated in the probe. The agency’s founders, former Argus journalist Roger Friedman and former Cape Times chief photographer Benny Gool, declined to answer the M&G‘s questions.

“Oryx Media can confirm that it has never been involved in any form of unethical or illegal media activity, despite being approached on occasion to do so,” the agency responded. “We value our relationships with the ANC, Western Cape provincial government and Independent Newspapers too highly to comment on the matters you have raised.”

Oryx’s apparent role in bringing to light the allegations against Cape Argus journalists has caused many at the newspaper to question their veracity. Argus staffers point out that the company was a commercial rival of Hip-Hop and Inkwenkwezi, which benefitted from ANC and provincial work in the wake of Rasool’s ouster.

The current deputy minister of justice, Andries Nel, headed the ANC internal inquiry. Nel referred the M&G to the office of the ANC secretary general, Gwede Mantashe, who could not be reached for comment.

But ANC national spokesperson Jackson Mthembu said ANC members knew where to go if they had questions about the probe. “It was an internal inquiry and it will be a matter privy to the ANC and its structures,” he said.

The ANC inquiry took place shortly after the Cape Argus suspended journalists Aranes and Smith while it investigated their links with another media company contracted to the provincial government, Inkwenkwezi.

Friedman was asked by a lawyer representing the Cape Argus to help in the disciplinary hearings by revealing disclosures made to him and to confirm what he knew about an invoice for R100 000 from Inkwenkwezi for consultancy services rendered to the premier’s office.

Smith’s wife, Joy van der Heyde, was one of Inkwenkwezi’s two directors, and the other was Zain Orrie, who now owns Hip-Hop Media. Inkwenkwezi has since closed.

On March 27 2006 the Cape Argus ran an editorial comment declaring that it had found itself on the receiving end of allegations of impropriety by members of its political staff. “In the event, the newspaper’s political reporter resigned and its political editor, suspended with the reporter at the time the allegations surfaced, has been reinstated,” it said.

The matter might have ended there if a shareholder in Hip-Hop had not been recorded on tape unburdening himself to former Western Cape premier Lynne Brown, eight days before this year’s April elections.

On the tape Hip-Hop’s former accounts director, Vukile Pokwana, alleged to Brown that Cape Town journalists were being paid cash “in brown envelopes” to manipulate stories for political ends.

He claimed that Aranes was among those still being paid through provincial contracts to manipulate the news. Pokwana later told the M&G he was shocked to hear his meeting with Brown was recorded.

A week after the M&G‘s report on the tape, Aranes resigned with immediate effect.

This week PetroSA’s spokesperson, Thabo Mabaso, a former senior Cape Argus journalist, explained his presence at the taped meeting between Brown and Pokwana.

Mabaso said his friend, Pokwana, had asked him to set up a meeting with Brown, as he wanted to discuss issues with her.

“I had worked with her as her spokesman and so I set up the appointment,” said Mabaso. “I was asked to stay at the meeting.”

Hip-Hop’s owner, Orrie, declined to answer the M&G‘s questions.

Hip-Hop recently came under the spotlight after it was confirmed in the Western Cape legislature that five provincial departments spent R44-million in 30 months with the company during Rasool’s tenure as premier.

Brown tried to cancel Hip-Hop’s contract after she took over as premier, an ANC source claimed, but faced legal problems.

Robin Carlisle, the DA’s provincial minister for transport and public works, is auditing the Western Cape’s expenditure on Hip-Hop and plans to reveal his findings.

Chris Whitfield, editor-in-chief of Independent Newspapers Cape, confirmed Aranes’s resignation, but declined to give reasons for it.

Aranes is understood to have declined an offer by the newspaper to assist him in taking legal action against the M&G.

Whitfield told the M&G this week that the newspaper is taking steps to obtain the recording. “We are investigating all aspects, including how the tape was made and how it got out.”

The Cape Argus is considering legal action and has vowed to take the M&G to the press ombud.

Glynnis Underhill

Glynnis Underhill

Glynnis Underhill has been in journalism for more years than she cares to remember. She loves a good story as much now as she did when she first started. The only difference is today she hopes she is giving something back to the country.
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