Home South African Existential threat faced by Independent Media to impact media freedom

Existential threat faced by Independent Media to impact media freedom

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In fewer than 20 days from now, the Independent Media Group may cease to exist if things go according to Standard Bank’s notice to shut down the company’s bank accounts.

The interim judgment, which was granted in September last year, was due to come to an end in March this year but was extended by six months. Picture: Mike Hutchings, Reuters

IN FEWER than 20 days from now, the Independent Media Group may cease to exist if things go according to Standard Bank’s notice to shut down the company’s bank accounts.

The bank issued the notice on July 21, following a judgment by the Competition Appeal Court in favour of the bank’s appeal against the previous Tribunal’s interim relief, which had forced the bank to keep the company’s much-needed accounts running prior to the final judgment.

The interim judgment, which was granted in September last year, was due to come to an end in March this year but was extended by six months.

An Independent Media spokesperson described Standard Bank’s decision as very disturbing. “The shocker is that the very next day (after the Tribunal’s main judgment), Standard Bank sent to all 26 companies within Sekunjalo group that bank with Standard Bank and they have given us 30 days before they really finally close our accounts and we don’t have any recourse,” said the spokesperson.

There are, however, discussions within the group to take the matter to the Constitutional Court but that is a long, long issue.

“In fact all possibilities, and this is a pattern of the Constitutional Court, what they do is to say that they have looked at the papers and this matter cannot be heard in the Constitutional Court without actually going all out in hearing it,” said the spokesperson.

The group was only left with two and a half weeks before Standard Bank presses the shutdown button.

“Unlike in other cases where bank accounts are closed for real reasons, for example you are a bad client, you owe us money, you have done something criminally, Independent Media has not done any of those other than that we are Independent Media and the narrative is not the normal narrative that goes out there.”

Independent Media’s editor in chief Aziz Hartley said: “Standard Bank’s decision is ill-considered and reminiscent of the kragdadigheid we’ve witnessed during the height of apartheid. The decision to close the banking accounts could potentially destroy Independent Media and shut down media freedom in the country.

“It amounts to an abuse of power at a time when ordinary South Africans are experiencing hardships akin to what the previous regime had unleashed on them. Apartheid had shut down the media space and in doing so, curtailed people’s right to know.

“For something similar to be happening during democracy is unheard of. It is shocking to say the least and one can but wonder why the bank’s board members would allow something like this to happen on their watch.”

In a statement, Standard Bank welcomed the Competition Appeal Court (CAC)’s ruling.

“Last year, the Competition Tribunal found that, in refusing to deal with the Sekunjalo entities, Standard Bank, among other banks, had acted in co-ordination with one another, and acted unilaterally as dominant firms, to abuse a dominant position in terms of the Competition Act.

“Standard Bank is pleased with the judgment which confirms Standard Bank’s position since inception, that we have not been involved in any anti-competitive behaviour as alleged.

“Following the favourable judgment, Standard Bank is engaging with the Sekunjalo Group on the next steps,” the bank said.

The move by the banks is in contrast to President Cyril Ramaphosa’s plea for media freedom as a fruit of democracy and one that must be jealously safeguarded and strived to uphold.

Delivering a speech on October 17, 2022, Ramaphosa said: “The media plays an unparalleled role in ensuring there is accountability in our democratic order, so we must all stand firm against any attempts to intimidate or silence journalists.”

However, banks have not been so kind in protecting media freedom and this is evident elsewhere in the world, in particular in the United Kingdom where banks have been told last month by the Treasury that they must protect free speech.

A number of high-profile figures have had their accounts closed, including the prominent Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage whose account was closed because he had “different political views”. Chancellor Jeremy Hunt expressed his deep concern and has asked the City Minister, Andrew Griffith, to investigate.

Basically, by Standard Bank closing accounts they are going to be shutting down Independent Media. This would mean that 1,600 employees of Independent Media, which is the group’s biggest employer and the country’s largest media conglomerate, would lose their much-need jobs.

– SUNDAY INDEPENDENT

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