South Africa

Cape Times Settlement: Dasnois takes paper to Press Ombud after legal breach

By Marianne Thamm 12 May 2016

Photo: Iqbal Surve, by WEF

The ink had hardly dried on a last-minute settlement on Monday by Independent News and Media SA and its executive chairman Iqbal Survé in a Labour Court matter involving former editor Alide Dasnois, who was unfairly dismissed in December 2013, when tensions flared again on Wednesday after The Cape Times breached aspects of the agreement in a series of articles it published about the matter. Now Dasnois is taking Survé and Independent News and Media to the Press Ombudsman. By MARIANNE THAMM.

The saga dragged on for more than two years before Survé and Independent News and Media offered to settle the matter on Friday, two days before it was set to be heard in the Labour Court in Cape Town on 9 May. The last-minute settlement deprived us of witnessing Survé testify in the matter, but we’ll get over it.

We still have the 27-page affidavit by Dasnois, setting out Survé’s behaviour and threats in the aftermath of Nelson Mandela’s death and Dasnois’ decision to run with a commemorative wraparound of The Cape Times rather than remaking the front page. The lead story that day happened to be about one of Survé’s companies that had been implicated in a dodgy fishing tender. Survé had recently bought Independent Media and was clearly planning on moulding it to his vision – which he is entitled to do, of course – without needing or having to bully, threaten or intimidate anyone.

On Monday Survé and Independent News and Media South Africa in the public part of the agreement stated the following: “Independent Newspapers acknowledges the following: (a) that her [Dasnois’] decision was not intended by her in any way to show disrespect for Nelson Mandela or his legacy, or to embarrass Independent Newspapers, its owners or management, and was a decision, in respect of which Alide Dasnois was exercising her prerogative as editor; (b) Independent Newspapers further acknowledges that Alide Dasnois’ conduct was not motivated by racism and it retracts all allegations of racism made against her in the course of the proceedings that preceded the termination of her employment.”

In a letter to Survé by Dasnois’ attorney Jason Whyte of Cheadle Thompson & Haysom, it is stated that while the agreement bore Independent Media’s owner’s signature “after agreeing to say this in the face of an imminent court hearing Independent unfortunately almost immediately proceeded to publish an article which sought to reassert that her [Dasnois] conduct was ‘an affront to the dignity and legacy’ of South Africa’s founder [Mandela] .. and that as an editor she was guilty of racism.”

These claims, as set out in articles carried in the Cape Times under the anonymous “staff writer” byline, go to the heart of Dasnois’ reasons for filing a dispute in the first place.

She sought to use a court process to reclaim her dignity. Independent then purported before court to have settled that very dispute by inter alia withdrawing these allegations. It then turned around and repeated these insults in a very prominent and public fashion in the very newspaper about which the case had been concerned – as if what had just been said by them in a court process had never taken place,” said Whyte.

There were other aspects of the Cape Times reportage on Tuesday that bore all the hallmarks of the ongoing attempt at shamelessly bullying and vilifying Dasnois, suggesting she sued her former employer for financial gain.

What the article fails to explain is that an unfair dismissal case of this nature brought by an employee cannot be settled in this fashion unless the employer offers the employee (i.e. the one seeking ‘a substantial financial payout’) terms that can persuade her and her lawyers that she may be better off by not proceeding with case. That is what happened here. What those exact terms indeed were are agreed to be confidential. But the manner in which settlements like this usually come about is important. The employer makes an offer, and the employee must decide whether she wants to accept what has been offered or she takes her chances that she may one day end up with something better through long, unpredictable and expensive court proceedings against wealthy opponents. That is what happened here,” wrote Whyte.

He added that there was nothing whatsoever preventing Independent from making no settlement offer if the company truly believed (as they now suggest) that Dasnois’ claim had little or no merit and for this very reason Independent wanted a trial in open court.

If they wanted this, why did they instruct their lawyers to settle this case to stop a trial in open court in which our client was seeking a payout for injury to her dignity? Our client also sought compensation because of false allegations of racism and disrespect for Mandela which had been made by her employer.”

Whyte said the lack of respect for the court process by Independent “is manifest” and, in addition, after “fully and finally settling a dispute about whether a dismissal was fair or not they sought to reopen the debate about the main issues – the very dispute that had apparently been resolved on agreed terms. In other words, after informing a court that they agreed to end the dispute with Dasnois, they immediately recanted with a view to painting a picture of themselves as being vigorously opposed to any settlement and then being ‘vindicated’ in court – when no such thing had happened. Who was vindicated? The claimant who is satisfied with the amends the defendant offered to avoid a trial in open court – or the person making the amends?” asked Whyte.

The complaint has now been lodged with the Press Ombudsman. We look forward to reading how Independent spins this one. DM

Photo: Iqbal Surve, Executive Chairman, Sekunjalo Investments, South Africa is captured during the session ‘Sustainability Champions’ at the Annual Meeting 2012 of the World Economic Forum at the congress center in Davos, Switzerland, January 28, 2012. Copyright by World Economic Forum; swiss-image.ch/Photo by Monika Flueckiger

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South Africa is in a very real battle. A political fight where terms such as truth and democracy can seem more of a suggestion as opposed to a necessity.

On one side of the battle are those openly willing to undermine the sovereignty of a democratic society, completely disregarding the weight and power of the oaths declared when they took office. If their mission was to decrease society’s trust in government - mission accomplished.

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However, it would be an offensive oversight not to acknowledge that right there on the front lines, alongside whistleblowers and civil society, stand the journalists. Armed with only their determination to inform society and defend the truth, caught in the crossfire of shots fired from both sides.

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