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Apartheid-style tricks laid bare

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News that Tiso Blackstar had actively attempted to scupper the listing sketched a pattern reminiscent of Stratcom’s tactics

Independent Media executive chairman Dr Iqbal Survé

INDEPENDENT MEDIA has evidence that senior executives of its competitor Tiso Blackstar had plotted to torpedo Sagarmatha Technologies’ listing on the JSE.

The evidence specifically alludes to attempts to influence critical stakeholders to stop the listing due to Independent Media’s involvement in Sagarmatha.

The evidence points to a dirty tricks campaign akin to Stratcom which the apartheid regime’s security apparatus used to demonise Struggle icon Winnie Madikizela-Mandela – but in this instance, the campaign was aimed at Independent Media and its executive chairman Dr Iqbal Surve.

The JSE approved the Pre-Listing Statement of Sagarmatha on March 28. On April 3, and for the next few weeks, Tiso Blackstar launched a series of articles to deliberately misrepresent the financial position of Independent Media as “technically insolvent”, the company said in statements.

Tiso Blackstar, formerly Times Media Group (TMG), is a direct competitor of Independent Media and publishes Sunday Times, Business Day, Sowetan and the online news platform TimesLive.

Business Day outgoing editor Tim Cohen revealed Tiso Blackstar’s motive in his column written after the JSE stopped the listing, by suggesting that the Public Investment Corporation (PIC) should force a merger between Tiso Blackstar and Independent Media.

Ahead of the listing, Independent Media said the PIC was unduly pressured by journalists from Tiso Blackstar, Daily Maverick and AmaBhungane. The PIC eventually succumbed to pressure and declined to invest in Sagarmatha.

Sagarmatha Technologies said in a statement that despite the PIC’s withdrawal, it managed to raise R4.2 billion – easily satisfying the onerous listing requirements by the JSE. The normal listing requirement is R500 million, but the JSE insisted on a R3bn requirement.

Cohen’s opinion piece followed a slew of correspondence by journalists in Tiso Blackstar employ directed to advisors, regulators and the PIC. The PIC has revealed it wasn’t investing in Sagarmatha shortly after the listing was withdrawn.

On April 13, the day Sagarmatha Technologies was supposed to list, Cohen wrote: “The PIC needs to start thinking about forcing a merger, otherwise a whole bunch of SA’s long-loved newspapers are going to disappear pretty soon.”

Tiso Blackstar’s financial woes are well-documented. It’s share price has fallen from R25 to R4 recently. This week it de-listed from the London Stock Exchange.

Tiso Blackstar’s campaign included articles by Ann Crotty and Sam Sole, writing under the investigation unit of AmaBhungane.

Independent Media has highlighted 29 misleading inaccuracies about Crotty and Sole’s reporting on the listing – the most damaging being that Independent Media was “technically insolvent”.

Independent Media has shareholder loans – all of whom have a residual interest in the business. Tiso Backstar has bank debt of more than R1.5bn.

Yesterday Surve said it was eerie how this Tiso Blackstar campaign has been revealed in the week that Struggle legend Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was buried.

“Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, in one of the last appearances, spoke about Stratcom and the head of Stratcom, Vic McPherson, indicated that at least 40 journalists were on the payroll of the apartheid state. Winnie was their principal target. The aim was to vilify Winnie so that her credibility would be destroyed and she would have no influence in the course of the country’s future,” said Surve

News that Tiso Blackstar had actively attempted to scupper the listing sketched a pattern reminiscent of Stratcom’s tactics, he said.

Surve said the dirty tricks campaigns extended to the professionals and regulators involved in the listing, including advisors and auditors.

“The patterns that are emerging on the attacks on Independent Media and the Sekunjalo Group and myself reeks of Stratcom. It has all the hallmarks of Stratcom and dirty tricks. Firstly, in the words of McPherson, it was important to mix the truth with disinformation and lies so that the story is believed by the reader. Winnie mentioned this was done in the ratio of 70% truth to 30% lies,” said Surve.

He said there were commercial reasons but also political reasons Tiso Blackstar wanted to stop Independent Media. Independent Media offered a space to tell an alternative narrative that otherwise wouldn’t exist, Surve said.

Commenting on the Stratcom similarities, he said: “The past becomes the present to determine the future.”

Approached, Bonamour denied he asked his executives to stop Sagarmatha.

“No, not at all. Why would we do that? We share distribution. Why would we want to harm the business? We have no contact with the PIC and we have no contact with the JSE. Our journalists are totally independent. We have a strict policy. I have no interaction with the PIC. I can promise you now it is nothing.”

Asked to explain what he meant, Cohen said: “It’s my view that the newspaper industry needs consolidation. The industry is not in a good shape.”

About the multiple misleading inaccuracies in the articles, including that Independent Media is “technically insolvent”, Ann Crotty said: “I wrote based on the 212 pre-listing statement. It was an amazing amount of information.”

She denied harassing advisors and auditors.

“How could I harass regulators? I think I did ask them (Vunani) about their involvement about a week ago,” she said.

Said Sole: “It is not for me to respond now … Independent has already won. As far as I am aware a point was made that Sekunjalo/Independent Media was technically insolvent. Whether or not the position is the same with Independent Media, which Sekunjalo is 55% shareholder, we do not know because we haven’t seen Independent Media figures. All I can say is there is not a great deal of detail that has been supplied in relation to what is allegedly incorrect in the article.”