Independent Newspapers’ boss Iqbal Surve on Thursday accused rival Times Media Group of a “dirty tricks” campaign to rob his group of revenue and readers, after laying criminal charges against one of its editors and a reporter.
Sekunjalo Investments, which Surve chairs, brought the charges against Sunday Times editor Phylicia Oppelt and reporter Bobby Jordan.
The newspaper quoted on Sunday from the Public Protector’s preliminary findings on Sekunjalo Marine Services Consortium (SMSC) securing a contract worth R800 million to run the country’s fisheries patrol fleet.
In an editorial Surve said it was hypocritical for a newspaper to break the law — in this case the Public Protector Act which states that draft reports are confidential — while expecting politicians to uphold it.
“It appears as if the media are keen for politicians to obey the law, but even keener to define themselves as above it.”
He accused Times Media Group of having tried in vain to wrest control of Independent Newspapers and trying to portray him as a “crooked businessman” and ANC lackey who wanted to counter negative reporting on the ruling party.
“I now have it on impeccable authority that the executives of TMG have crafted and funded an orchestrated campaign against me, whose ultimate aim is to undermine public and advertising confidence,” he said.
Surve said Oppelt and Jordan “have availed themselves as the chief hatchet men in the group executives’ personalised campaign against me.”
He said Sunday Times columnist Chris Barron and Business Day editor Peter Bruce, “a man who holds the unique position of being South Africa’s only editor/publisher (so much for editorial integrity) are the standout character assassins”.
Surve went on to say it was ironic that he was seen as being too close to President Jacob Zuma by a media group “whose titles increasingly read like a manifesto for the Democratic Alliance”.
“The Times Group’s recent history of collaboration with the official opposition is just too rich and undeniable to be ignored.”
Times Media Group declined to comment. Oppelt and Bruce could not be reached for comment.
The SA National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) urged Surve to withdraw the charges against Oppelt and Jordan. Sanef said any such attempt to criminalise reporting would undermine the fight to maintain a free press in South Africa, in the face of legislation like the Protection of State Information Bill, and send the wrong message to staff at Independent Newspapers’ titles.
“Criminalising leaks must never be tolerated in an open, democratic society, especially when whistle-blowing is the only or alternative way of exposing maladministration and corruption.”
In its latest edition, the Sunday Times reported that Madonsela had found collusion by the Sekunjalo consortium.
But in her final report released on Thursday, she referred a decision on whether this was the case to the Competition Commission while finding that the contract created a conflict of interest.
The contract was cancelled because it was irregular in terms of the procurement rules of the department of agriculture, forestry and fisheries (DAFF).
“I was unable to find improper conduct or maladministration on DAFF’s role with regard to collusive tendering and have decided to refer the decision on whether SMSC’s conduct constituted collusive tendering to the Competition Commission,” Madonsela said.