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South African Media Outlet Files Complaint Over Op-Ed

The homepage of South African news website News 24, which has filed a complaint against another media company it accuses of trying to discredit reporters who investigated its owner's business practices.
The homepage of South African news website News 24, which has filed a complaint against another media company it accuses of trying to discredit reporters who investigated its owner's business practices.

One of South Africa’s leading news websites has filed a complaint with the country’s Press Council, alleging that another media company is trying to discredit reporters who investigated the owner's business practices.

News24 and industry analysts claim that the Independent Media group is failing to respect the usual “firewall” that exists between owners and editorial departments.

Independent Media is a multi-platform company with numerous newspapers and websites. News24 claims that it uses those publications to put out hit pieces on its critics, including op-eds that News24 claims are written under fake bylines, and which try to discredit other reporters.

The dispute comes after an Independent Media website, IOL, published an op-ed comparing News24 legal reporter Karyn Maughan to a Nazi propagandist.

Maughan regularly reports on court cases involving Iqbal Survé, the chair of Sekunjalo, a South African private equity company. Survé is in court fighting the decisions by several major banks to close his companies' accounts on the basis that they pose "reputational risks."

An op-ed, published under the byline Edmond Phiri on March 3, accused Maughan of unfairly reporting on Survé’s legal woes.

The graphic that went with the article depicted Maughan, who is white, in front of an apartheid flag and accused her of racism in her reporting on Sekunjalo, a Black-owned company.

Maughan’s colleagues deplored the op-ed as a hit piece.

Pieter du Toit, assistant editor for investigations at News24, told VOA they have sought legal advice and filed a complaint to the Press Council.

The complaint, he says, will be “one of the first times, if not the first time, that one media house has lodged a complaint against another media house.”

“The interests of Independent’s owner Iqbal Survé have become so intertwined with the interests of the media company that they have become completely inseparable,” he added.

A News24 investigation published in March claimed that Survé was “waging a public-relations war, using a team of pliant journalists, PR staffers, and seemingly fictitious opinion writers to polish his image and attack journalists critical of him.”

The investigation found no evidence of a writer named Edmond Phiri living in South Africa. When News24 contacted Independent Media’s editor in chief to ask for the op-ed writer’s contact details, they were given an address at an encrypted email service.

When they wrote to Phiri asking for an interview, they received a bizarrely worded response that a digital analyst said appeared to be partially AI-written.

“It’s pretty clear to us, based on the evidence that we were able to gather … that this writer, and other writers, simply do not exist as human beings,” said du Toit.

“The only conclusion that we can reach is that these are all bots and/or AI-generated opinion pieces, or opinion pieces written under pseudonyms, purely designed to denigrate and attack another media house.”

News24 is not the first to allege that Independent Media uses fake writers. Journalist Ferial Haffajee wrote a similar article in The Daily Maverick in 2022 citing a report by nonprofit data journalism lab Code for Africa.

That report found no evidence that an Independent Media writer named “Jamie Roz,” who had also been publishing pieces defending Sekunjalo’s business interests, existed.

Independent’s response

Asked for her response to the News24 investigation, Independent Media editor in chief Adri Senekal De Wet, referred VOA to a statement by Sekunjalo.

“The article is yet another attempt to smear and undermine Sekunjalo, Independent Media and its chairman, Dr Iqbal Survé. The allegations, relying on innuendo and lacking any concrete evidence, are dismissed outright by Sekunjalo,” the statement said.

“We categorically reject the baseless and preposterous claims made by News24 that Independent Media opinion writers are part of a ‘PR’ campaign for Sekunjalo or our chairman,” it continued. “Any suggestion that a chairman of a media conglomerate controls and runs the editorial process, as the article implies, is both laughable and without basis.”

Separate to this statement, Independent Media published a follow-up op-ed by Phiri that dismissed News24’s claim that he was not real.

“This is an outright lie, and they back it up with no credible evidence. The claim by News24 is an attempt to reduce my opinion pieces to some PR-controlled efforts,” the op-ed ran.

The op-ed again criticized News24 along racial lines, saying: “Deploying an army of journalists and cyber investigators to trace me, rather than engaging with the substance of my arguments, is a brute force intimidation tactic reminiscent of apartheid-era suppression of dissenting views.”

Women journalists targeted

Media analysts say the op-ed on Maughan reflects a wider trend of female journalists being harassed or discredited.

“It’s unacceptable that such abuse and disappointing piece should even be allowed to be published. Media owners are always discouraged to use their publications for such nefarious intentions,” Reggy Moalusi, director of the South African National Editors Forum, or SANEF, told VOA.

The SANEF earlier this month noted that South Africa’s female journalists are often targets of bullying.

In the op-ed on Maughan, the SANEF noted, “The piece went beyond a publication giving a platform to someone to air their views,” adding that the “accompanying picture/graphic on the article had a gun pointed at her image, which was a clear indication of its intention to incite violence against her.”

The editor’s forum acknowledged the harassment female journalists confront, including cyberbullying.

Anton Harber, a former journalism professor at Johannesburg University of the Witwatersrand, says that women journalists in South Africa are more often targeted then their male counterparts.

Such attacks, he said, are “harmful to journalism as a whole because we all know journalism is in a global credibility crisis.”

Speaking about the Survé case, Harber said the case shows “an absolute breakdown of the wall that’s supposed to exist, or the barriers that are meant to exist between owners, publishers, and journalism.”

Du Toit at News24 says the media group is waiting for the Press Council to respond to the complaint filed Monday. The council can forward complaints to an ombudsman who rules on the case and has power to request retractions or apologies.