Unpacking the single-sourced accusations against Daily Maverick published in Iqbal Survé-owned media
Last week, a student called Modibe Modiba claimed that Daily Maverick paid him and other students a weekly stipend to write articles and send tweets critical of Iqbal Survé, the EFF, and other figures. We examine his claims as well as the campaign that ensued.
Modibe Modiba first contacted Daily Maverick on 17 January 2019, via an email to [email protected] with the subject line “Editorial submission”.
The body of the unsolicited email contained an opinion piece titled “Have our liberation movements let us down as African people?” and was signed off “Written by Modibe Modiba — student at UNISA”, with his address, contact number and a photograph of the author.
A Daily Maverick desk editor emailed Modiba in response on the same day, thanking him for his submission and asking him to familiarise himself with, and respond to, Daily Maverick’s editorial policy. The policy includes the stipulations that contributors must supply accurate details as to their identity, reveal any conflicts of interest, ensure there’s no plagiarism, and abide by editorial decisions regarding sub-editing and headlines.
“Thank you for considering it for publication. I’ve read and understood your editorial policy well and therefore I can state that so far there aren’t any conflicts which might arise.”
As far as can be established from our records, that was one of only two exchanges — both carried out over email — which Modiba was to have with Daily Maverick editors.
His submission was published as a column on Daily Maverick on 18 January 2019.
Over the course of the next 10 months, email records show that Modiba continued to submit unsolicited columns to Daily Maverick. In total, four were published — the previously-mentioned Africa’s liberation movements, the need for the president’s State of the Nation Address (SONA) to be delivered in languages other than English, praising Gauteng education MEC Panyaza Lesufi, and condemning xenophobia.
It appears that the sole other exchange Modiba had with Daily Maverick editorial staff came on 10 February 2019, when a desk editor emailed him with regards to his SONA submission describing the column as “an interesting piece, though a bit thin in detail”.
She suggested an additional paragraph giving the statistics of isiZulu speakers in South Africa, to which Modiba responded:
“Thank you very much, yes it’s definitely in order now”.
The column was subsequently published.
Some of his guest contributor columns were not published because they did not meet the requisite standards, and were also very short. Email records show that one such column, on women’s soccer in South Africa, was rejected in part because a desk editor objected to Modiba’s description of women soccer-players as “girls” throughout the piece.
Says editor-in-chief Branko Brkic: “Due to the high desirability of Daily Maverick as a platform, we receive dozens of [column] submissions each day, which are vetted for quality. Only a fraction are published. We stopped publishing Mr Modiba’s columns because they were simply unpublishable. If anyone would like to see his unpublished submissions, we are more than happy to provide them.”
Despite his low strike-rate, Modiba continued to make unsolicited submissions.
In June 2019, Modiba submitted a column titled “Why Zinzdi [sic] Mandela must be protected”, which was not published. Although Modiba has since expressed outrage about the decision not to publish this, records show that he continued to submit material to Daily Maverick well after, with his final column — about xenophobia — published in September 2019.
Nothing further was heard from, or communicated to, Modiba in any way thereafter.
On January 3, 2020, however, Modiba posted a tweet in which he stated:
“I took a decision to stop writing & sending my articles to the Daily Maverick. They only publish articles where you criticize black leaders/ANC, or EFF.”
(It should be noted that Modiba’s own publication record on Daily Maverick disproves this allegation.)
“Once you start writing abt anything which is seen as ‘anti white’ they have a problem. Let’s create our OWN platforms”.
This tweet received a few hundred retweets, but appears to have faded from attention quickly.
Three weeks beforehand, Modiba had his first opinion piece published on IOL, the online portal of Iqbal Survé’s Independent group. Despite his assertion that he was moving from Daily Maverick in order to publish more politically radical material, his first IOL column was in praise of Miss Universe Zozi Tunzi.
Modiba’s second IOL column, published on February 11, 2020, was headlined “Why the State of the Nation no longer excites”, and criticised President Cyril Ramaphosa for empty promises.
The publication of these two columns indicates that by March 2020, Modiba had struck up a relationship of some kind with the Independent group.
On March 3, 2020, Modiba took to Twitter once more to criticise Daily Maverick, now adding the new allegation that he would be “called to write a negative article about Iqbal Survé and [former PIC head] Dan Matjila”.
Modiba also alleged:
“I’d be told to spy on the EFF…and write negatively about them, create false stories and mobilise students and social media influencers to comment and respond negatively about anything to do with certain ANC, EFF and people like Iqbal Survé, Dan Matjila, Duduzane Zuma, and Panyaza Lesufi”.
The day after these tweets, IOL published an article airing Modiba’s allegations under the headline “Daily Maverick asked me to write and do negative tweets about Dr Iqbal Survé”.
The article, written by Ayanda Mdluli, added some surreal new details:
In a telephonic interview with Independent Media on Wednesday, Modiba accused the Daily Maverick of “propaganda” and “paid narrative”.
He said it paid him and other students R500 weekly stipends each for the job.
The students were recruited from various Gauteng universities, especially Wits University, he said.
Modiba said Daily Maverick paid him cash through its drivers, who met him at a garage on William Nicol Drive in Johannesburg.
“They were very smart about it. They would tell me to meet someone at the mall or that we should meet at the Shell garage by William Nicol. They would send drivers in Toyota Corollas to come and give me the R500 every week. They told me it’s for data. They never deposited the money into our bank accounts because it would leave a paper trail,” said Modiba.
“They asked me twice to write about Dr Survé and especially about the EFF. They also asked me about the PIC Commission and they asked me to do research and to mention Dr Survé and Dr Dan Matjila.”
The IOL article contained no evidence whatsoever to support Modiba’s claims, and made no attempt to interrogate why Modiba was making these allegations now. It contained no sources to back up the story other than Modiba. It included a vehement denial of Modiba’s claims from Brkic, and comment from an independent political analyst who did not speak to the veracity of Modiba’s claims.
The article also did not explain why Modiba’s published writing for Daily Maverick never covered any of the topics he alleged he was paid to write on. An analysis of Modiba’s tweets also shows that at no point did the student tweet negatively about Survé, Matjila, the EFF, or any other figure he alleged Daily Maverick had asked him to target.
In response to a request for clarity on this point from another Twitter user, Modiba replied:
“I’ve never written anything false mama. It was suggested to me, when i asked for proof, i was told they’ll tell me how to push it from a certain angle. When i refused to push that agenda, they stopped publishing my stuff and the promise of their radio podcast job fell through.”
Daily Maverick editorial staff have confirmed that at no point was the possibility of a “radio podcast job” discussed with Modiba, and such a podcast was not in production at the time when Modiba was submitting columns to Daily Maverick.
Since the publication of Modiba’s allegations, Daily Maverick has attempted to contact him via phone and WhatsApp on more than 10 occasions.
On three occasions, Modiba answered the calls and professed his willingness to discuss the matter, but then either ended the call suddenly or asked to postpone the discussion to a later date.
Modiba has also been asked by at least two other media platforms — Newzroom Afrika and PowerFM — to discuss his allegations on air, but has not done so.
A tweet posted by an individual purporting to be a friend of Modiba’s on Monday claimed that Modiba had his cellphone and laptop stolen under suspicious circumstances on Sunday night.
Daily Maverick denies Modiba’s allegations in their entirety.
“We have South Africa’s best writing talent on payroll. Our contributors command hundreds of thousands of followers on Twitter. So for anyone to suggest we are paying students to tweet is just simply preposterous,” says Brkic.
“We are also surprised by the assertion that we were sending drivers in Corollas [to drop off money for students], as Daily Maverick has no funds to support any drivers or Corollas.”
The publication of the IOL article airing Modiba’s allegations without substantiation should be seen in the context of what has been a long-running attempt by the Independent group to cast aspersions on Daily Maverick and its staff.
This is clearly linked to the work done by amaBunghane and Daily Maverick to unpack the manner in which Independent owner Survé allegedly unlawfully used funds from the Public Investment Corporation (PIC) to prop up failing businesses and for personal enrichment.
Attacks on Daily Maverick and its staff have been picking up intensity in the lead-up to the expected imminent release by President Cyril Ramaphosa of the findings of the commission of inquiry investigating misuse of PIC funds.
The attacks have been spurred by figures like Sunday Independent assistant editor Piet Rampedi, who has repeatedly tweeted comparisons between Brkic and Nazi chief propagandist and war criminal Joseph Goebbels. Rampedi is currently the subject of separate defamation action taken against him by investigative journalist Jacques Pauw.
The anti-Daily Maverick campaign has also been fuelled by leaders of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), who have been the subjects of a number of damning exposés by Scorpio.
EFF leader Julius Malema re-tweeted Modiba’s allegations to his 2.7 million followers, and the party released a statement calling on more writers to “expose this unit as the corrupt political weapon it is”.
On the same day, IOL published another outlandish attempt to keep the story alive, Zindzi Mandela backs former Daily Maverick contributor in smear campaign exposé, leaving Daily Maverick team members scratching their heads.
Modiba’s allegations were also taken up by the Information Communications & Technology Union (ICTU), a little-known union established in 2012.
The ICTU released a statement the same day, as the IOL article claiming that “the well-orchestrated smear campaign using gullible students speak of the lowest moral decay, personally, and ever erosion of code of good practice journalist practice has been violently violated by the Daily Maverick” [sic].
The union, which is an affiliate of the South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) added:
“ICTU will therefore write to the Press Ombudsman to investigate the claims and make a deterrent determination which may include the permanent closure of the Daily Maverick”.
Daily Maverick sent ICTU spokesperson Thabang Mothelo four questions in response to the statement, including:
“What steps did ICTU take to verify the allegations made by Modibe Modiba”?
ICTU refused to answer any of the questions, instead releasing a further statement on Tuesday claiming that Daily Maverick has been “championing the assault on the reputation of Independent Media through its owners”.
Legal action is now the sole remaining route towards holding Independent publications accountable for their reporting — as was noted by the Department of Public Enterprises (DPE) on 7 March 2020.
In an unprecedented move for a government department, the DPE released a statement cautioning the public about a piece of fake news due to be published by the Sunday Independent, and added:
Since the Sunday Independent and all titles of the Independent Media group have elected to end their membership of the South African National Editors Forum and to no longer subject themselves to the national Press Code, or the authority of the Press Ombud, their news reporting can no longer be objectively challenged or adjudicated upon, other than before court. This has necessitated this cautionary note to all other media.
In response, the Independent group claimed:
“As its thousands of readers, subscribers and advertisers are aware, Independent Media has an internal Ombudsman and complaints procedure in place, the details of which are listed in all its publications.”
As pointed out by The Media Online, however, the internal ombud system is not quite what it claims to be. Quite the opposite, actually. Veteran journalist Rich Mkhondo, who was previously involved with the Independent’s ombud process, told TMO:
“The Office of the Ombudsman, headed by Jovial Rantao, which facilitated the panels, was dissolved when he resigned almost a year ago.”
Daily Maverick has consulted lawyers and will be instituting legal proceedings against both Modiba and the Independent group this week.
“I’m amazed by how stupid the whole thing is,” says Brkic.
“We are going to be inviting Mr Modiba to repeat his allegations under oath.”
“One thing I want to stress — we have never been sued by Mr Survé or the EFF for our exposés. We are, however, taking legal action in connection with this. Readers should draw their own conclusions.” DM
In brief: The claims against DM — and the facts
Student Modibe Modiba says DM paid him and other students to write articles and tweet negatively against Iqbal Survé, the EFF, and others. The Survé-owned IOL website published these unsubstantiated claims without any further evidence in an article on 4 March 2019.
- Modiba submitted a large number of unsolicited opinion pieces to DM in 2019.
- Four were published as columns and are available for public view; none dealt with Survé, the EFF or any other topic he alleges.
- Email records show Modiba was never asked to cover any topic whatsoever or indeed asked to submit any further pieces.
- There is no evidence whatsoever to support Modiba’s claim that he and other students were paid to tweet negatively about anything, and neither did IOL produce such evidence in its story in the matter.
- Although Modiba claims that DM drivers in Toyota Corollas dropped off money for him and other Gauteng students, DM does not employ any drivers and owns no Toyota Corollas.
- Modiba has refused to discuss his claims with any other news outlet except IOL, a platform on which Modiba has published at least two opinion pieces in the last months.
- It is now claimed that Modiba’s laptop and cellphone were mysteriously stolen from him on the night of Sunday 8 March, presumably — and conveniently — depriving him of any evidence of his claims that he might allege once existed.
- Modiba’s claims should be seen in the light of a long-running campaign against Daily Maverick by Independent group publications, picking up heat now that the PIC report is due to be released.
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