/ 9 January 2014

Cape Times row elicits Dasnois response

Alide Dasnois was removed as Cape Times editor
Alide Dasnois was removed as Cape Times editor

Transformation in the media will only occur once journalists and readers have a sufficient stake in newspapers, to protect them against damage from politicians and corporate interests, whose focus on profits robs newsrooms of quality content.

This is according to Alide Dasnois – who was controversially removed as editor of the Cape Times in December last year – in her response to a letter by the ANC provincial secretary in the Western Cape, Songezo Mjongile.

Dasnois was removed as Cape Times editor, apparently by Independent Newspapers owner Iqbal Survé, for publishing a front page story on the day after Nelson Mandela's death, which alleged that Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson was guilty of maladministration, as well as improper and unethical conduct in the irregular awarding of an R800-million tender to a Sekunjalo subsidiary to manage the state's fishery vessels.

In a letter published in the Cape Times on December 23, Mjongile accused the publication of being anti-transformation in the media.

Unsurprisingly, the proposed redeployment of the [then] Cape Times editor, Alide Dasnois, by the management of the Independent group, to another position in the group, was met with suspicion, scorn and even attempts to create a scandal where clearly none exists.

"There was no doubt that some inside and outside the Independent group would object to the acquisition of the group by a black consortium and the subsequent transformation that needs to take place," he wrote.

"In particular, the Cape Times, which has traditionally been a mouthpiece for neo-liberal fascists, would find this transformation particularly difficult."

Dasnois's letter to Mjongile
Four days after Mjongile's letter was published in the Cape Times, Trevor Manuel, the minister in the presidency for planning, responded saying Mjongile's accusations against the Cape Times were devoid of the truth.

On Wednesday, Dasnois also wrote back to Mjongile. She agreed that transformation in the media needed to occur, said this would only happen once readers and journalists had a say in how newspapers were run.

"I will not reply at length to Mr Mjongile's claims, in this and other newspapers, that the Cape Times 'has been a mouthpiece for neo-liberal fascists', or 'a mouthpiece of the English white interests' or reflected 'the views of the dominant classes'.

"Our detailed and careful coverage of the struggle for social justice in the Western Cape, the debates on our opinion pages about more equitable political and economic systems for South Africa, and the editorial positions we have taken on issues such as white privilege and the need for transformation are there for anyone who takes the trouble to read them.

"As for his allegation that as editor of the Cape Times I appointed 'only white journalists', that is nonsense, as any visit to that newsroom will show," Dasnois said.

While she agreed that transformation was necessary, she said this did not mean simply replacing white journalists with black journalists.

Rather, transformation means "transforming ownership of media so that profits are no longer the only, or even the most important, driving force".

'Relentless search for profits'
"The history of the Independent Group among others shows clearly how the relentless search for profits – and profit growth – strips newspapers of the resources needed to cover the news as it should be covered.

"News editors have to make impossible choices about which stories to cover; overburdened reporters resort to telephone journalism; and the voices of those who are the hardest to reach are no longer heard.

"The interests of shareholders and those of readers often do not coincide. Shareholders look for dividends, but readers – like journalists – want good quality journalism," she said.

Dasnois said Independent Newspapers had tried to acquire a stake in their company once the company was sold to Survé, but the staff "failed".

"The real transformation to which Mr Mjongile refers will take place when journalists and readers have a sufficient stake in our newspapers to protect them against damage not only from politicians, but from corporate interests whose focus on profits threatens to empty newspapers of content and to muffle the voices of the poor and vulnerable."

'Not in my name'
Meanwhile, in Manuel's response to Mjongile, the minister questioned why Mjongile, as the ANC's provincial secretary, was dragging the ANC into the dispute at Independent, "in so unseemly a manner", and declared that it was "not in my name".

Manuel said he was completely comfortable with a statement by the South African National Editors' Forum (Sanef) on December 9 that read: "Sanef condemns any interference with the independence of editors and journalists when carrying out their duties. We call on Sekunjalo Holdings to clarify the issues relating to Dasnois's sudden dismissal without delay and to desist from making threats against staffers."

"I believe that the executive chairman of Sekunjalo Holdings has an obligation to the national editors' forum that he has yet to discharge," Manuel wrote.

Manuel also seemed to question Mjongile's knowledge of the history of the Cape Times.

Manuel wrote: "I really don't know where Mr Mjongile was when Mr Tony Weaver broke remarkable stories that exposed the barbarism of the apartheid regime against our MK cadres. Mr Weaver was criminally charged for his part in breaking the story of the Gugulethu 7, but he stood his ground. I also do not know where Mr Mjongile was when the then-editor of the Cape Times, Mr Tony Heard, published a lengthy interview with ANC president Oliver Tambo while the ANC was a banned organisation.

"This brave journalism, in the face of the repressive laws of the time and angry media owners, is what some of us still refer to as high-quality, informative and transformational journalism. But, seemingly these are the efforts of 'neo-liberal fascists' according to Mr Mjongile."

Mjongile on January 3 penned a response to Manuel, which he sent to the Mail & Guardian, accusing Manuel of misleading the public. He insists that transformation in the media is urgently needed and ends the letter with the question: "So, Minister Manuel what is it that must be done in your name?" – Additional reporting by Andisiwe Makinana