Official hit with legal costs says he did it in the best interests of the SABC

Just acting: Simon Tebele in an affidavit claims the former SABC chief exective was party to the decision to fire journalists. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

Just acting: Simon Tebele in an affidavit claims the former SABC chief exective was party to the decision to fire journalists. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

The official who sacked seven SABC journalists says he should not have to pay for the legal fees incurred as a consequence because he was acting in the best interests of the public broadcaster.

Simon Tebele, the newly appointed head of news and current affairs at the broadcaster, filed his responding papers to the Labour Court on Tuesday near midnight giving reasons why he personally should not be held liable for the legal costs.

In the affidavit, he also implicates the former acting group chief executive, Jimi Matthews, who resigned from the broadcaster about two months ago and admitted that he had been complicit in making unpopular decisions.

Two weeks ago, Labour Court Judge Andre van Niekerk ordered Tebele to give reasons that he and his colleague, Sebolelo Ditlhakanyane, should not be held liable for the legal costs incurred by four of the journalists who had to take legal action to get their jobs back.

Tebele, who was acting as the head of news at the time and fired Foeta Krige, Suna Venter, Krivani Pillay and Jacques Steenkamp, who were represented by the union Solidarity, said he had taken legal advice on the decision. The court ruled that the journalists should be reinstated. Solidarity paid their attorneys R500 000. If the costs of the SABC’s legal are included, the amount Tebele and Ditlhakanyane are liable for could be double that.

Van Niekerk said the decision to terminate the journalists’ employment contracts had been “authorised with reckless disregard for the pending Constitutional Court and Labour Court applications and with little regard of the relative costs and benefits to the SABC”.

Tebele says in his affidavit that on June 20, during the Right2Know demonstration outside SABC offices across the country, he and other editors were having a meeting about the news of the day and he announced that the broadcaster would not cover the protest outside their offices.

“I pointed out that SABC could not broadcast negative news against itself and on its platforms,” Tebele writes.

The next day, he says, he attended a meeting with Matthews and human resources managers.

“This is when the AGCEO [Matthews] issued a directive that the journalists ought to be suspended right away and I implemented the directive,” his affidavit reads.

But Solidarity’s Anton van der Bijl said Matthews is once again being used as a scapegoat for the initial suspension of the journalists.

“It is regrettable that the individuals decided not to confide in the courts and the public by giving pertinent reasons for the decision to dismiss the journalists while an investigation was pending,” Van der Bijl said.

According to Tebele, on different occasions the journalists had spoken out against decisions taken by management, including on the banning of footage of violent protests. They were eventually suspended for being outspoken.

Tebele says the journalists did not stop committing the offences they had been suspended for. As a result, the SABC sought external legal advice to issue the affected journalists with a notice for them to respond to the allegations made against them.

On the day they were to respond, Tebele received a letter from the journalists’ lawyers saying they were preparing an urgent interdict to stop the disciplinary proceedings on an interim basis.

According to Tebele’s affidavit, he sought legal advice, which was to fire the journalists, on July 18 via an email, even though the head of legal affairs was in Durban. He signed on her behalf.

Van der Bijl doesn’t believe that the explanation given by Tebele to the Labour Court is sufficient.

“Instead of putting direct and pertinent evidence before court, the sworn affidavits only contain very vague assertions. The court’s order is clear: reasons must be given as to why the decision to proceed with the dismissal of journalists in the face of pending litigation does not amount to reckless contempt of the court and its procedures,” Van der Bijl said.

Tebele maintains that he was acting in the best interests of the broadcaster when he fired the journalists who had “refused to obey and carry out reasonable and lawful instructions”.

“I acted in the belief that what I did was what was legally correct. In some instances, it was clear that, or I believed that, I was acting in the best interest of the organisation and not in my personal capacity.”

Athandiwe Saba

Athandiwe Saba

Athandiwe Saba is a multi award-winning journalist who is passionate about data, human interest issues, governance and everything that isn’t on social media. She is an author, an avid reader and trying to find the answer to the perfect balance between investigative journalism, online audiences and the decline in newspaper sales. It’s a rough world and a rewarding profession. Read more from Athandiwe Saba

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