STOPPING THE PRESS
Inside existential woes at Iqbal Survé’s Independent Media empire
Days after the Public Investment Corporation (PIC) reached a confidential settlement with Iqbal Survé’s AYO Technology, staff at the Survé-owned Independent Media were told to expect pay cuts and restructuring. The official word from the Survé empire is that these events are unconnected — but many journalists have had enough.
In a January 2023 interview with BizNews, businessman Iqbal Survé indicated that he was ready to “hand over the baton” of Independent Media. The major reason given by Survé was the reputational headaches that have come with ownership of the newspaper group. “Independent Media makes up less than 3% of our portfolio but it takes up 99% of our reputation,” he told his interviewer.
In a statement on Wednesday, meanwhile, Independent Media’s holding company, Sekunjalo, committed to supporting Independent “in the short term, subject to a comprehensive restructuring plan”.
The writing looks to be on the wall for Survé’s controversial ownership of the Independent group — and for some of the journalists on the coalface, the move cannot come soon enough.
Over the past week, current and former Independent staffers have painted a picture to Daily Maverick of ongoing editorial interference, crumbling infrastructure and unsafe working conditions, financial insecurity and — perhaps most acutely — growing professional embarrassment.
All the key claims in this article were put to Independent Media for comment.
The general response, to be attributed to “an Independent Media spokesperson”, was as follows:
“Independent Media takes note of your questions and their serious inferences but respectfully declines to answer what are, essentially, internal matters of a privately held organization. We can, however, confirm that the internal memorandums to staff that were leaked to you and that alerted employees to a deferment of their salaries, had absolutely nothing to do with the separate matter of AYO and the PIC reaching a settlement.”
PIC settlement followed by sudden belt-tightening
On Friday, 24 March, a confidential settlement was announced between the PIC and Survé’s AYO Technology to bring to an end ongoing litigation.
The crux of the PIC’s issue, as reported by Business Maverick, was that despite being in a lossmaking position, AYO has been paying out massive dividends since the PIC invested R4.3-billion of public money in the company in 2017.
Much of the generous dividends paid out by AYO — around R3-billion — have gone to Survé’s other companies, including Sekunjalo Investments.
Business Maverick established that the terms of the deal between the PIC and AYO will see the PIC claw back just R600-million in exchange for 5% of the company’s shares.
Barely had the settlement been announced, then the effects began to be felt at Survé’s other companies — and, in particular, Independent Media.
On the same day last week that the PIC deal was reached, staff at Independent Media received an email from CEO Takudzwa Hove informing them that only 75% of their salaries would be paid for March, as a result of “a very pressing matter which needed immediate action”.
Shortly after Daily Maverick submitted questions to Independent Media on this and other matters, staff received another email informing them that the balance of their salaries would be paid on Tuesday.
“What is clear is that we need to restructure our business to align our cost structures to current revenue levels to make our business sustainable,” wrote Hove in this email update.
In a statement from Sekunjalo on Wednesday following further Daily Maverick questions, it was again insisted that there was no relationship between the PIC settlement and Independent Media’s financial woes.
“There has been great confusion caused by Independent Media’s rivals and a concerted effort to conflate the two entirely independent organisations and their situations,” it stated.
Independent staff were told that the reason for the sudden belt-tightening was an overdue printer’s bill — but some are not buying it.
“None of us think we will survive for long,” one Independent staffer told Daily Maverick. “Are we going to get paid at the end of April? Nobody is confident. And if we are the ones being sacrificed for business survival, are executives also taking pay cuts, or just ordinary media workers?”
Working conditions for Independent staff steadily deteriorating
The sense that Independent Media is being thrown under the bus to keep Survé’s other businesses afloat is causing some resentment among the staffers who spoke to Daily Maverick under the condition of anonymity.
Several said that they were “praying” for Survé to sell Independent Media to someone who cared about journalism.
“There is no sign there is a real interest in journalism from the top,” said one.
“If there was, surely you would have invested in us, surely you would have let the people who know about journalism run it. We are constantly being told that we are subsidised by other businesses within Sekunjalo. Then why don’t you just sell the damn thing, if it’s a liability to you? That’s the question we are all asking.”
Examples given to Daily Maverick of steadily declining working conditions at Independent included the fact that the men’s toilets at Independent’s storied old Cape Town headquarters, Newspaper House, have been out of order since September 2022.
Another incident cited was a fire which reportedly broke out on the fifth floor of Newspaper House in 2022 and which caused chunks of the ceiling to cave in. Staff say that the events around the blaze made it clear that there was no working fire alarm and no evacuation plan for the premises, while there are still holes in the ceiling to this day.
Staff from other Survé companies have been “shoved in”, in the words of one staffer, with Independent staff at Newspaper House — allegedly because the rent on other Sekunjalo premises proved too steep.
One claim which, if true, would be particularly absurd for a major national newspaper group: for a while, dummy pages could not be printed for the Cape Town titles because the only operative printer was in residence at Survé’s sister’s house, being used for her business.
Editorial interference a continued concern
Despite continuous claims from Survé and other Independent executives that there is no editorial interference at the media group, journalists tell a different story.
Daily Maverick has seen evidence — in the form of emails and screenshots of the Independent content management system (CMS) — that an article about a former Cabinet minister was quite recently deleted from the IOL website, apparently after complaints from the minister’s team.
“Articles are just pulled as if they never existed,” one journalist told Daily Maverick. (For articles to be deleted off a media outlet’s website in this manner, without explanation, is an egregious breach of journalistic ethics.)
Another journalist explained: “Individual editors might have some idea of what they want to lead [their papers] with, but suddenly all the papers will be leading with something against certain people in politics and government — even though there were stronger stories available.”
One indication of the levels of paranoia and mistrust in the Independent newsrooms is evident in the fact that three staffers separately claimed to Daily Maverick that listening devices had been found in the rooms in which journalists hold diary meetings — prompting fears that newsroom staff are being eavesdropped on as they plan their stories.
‘Everyone knew the Tembisa 10 story was hogwash’
A repeated issue arising in interviews with Daily Maverick over the past week was the notorious June 2021 story written by erstwhile Pretoria News editor Piet Rampedi which claimed that a Tembisa woman had given birth to the world’s first live decuplets.
Yet Survé has continued to assert the notion that the decuplets were born but have since been “trafficked” — including funding a miniseries about baby trafficking in 2022.
Now, multiple Independent staffers have told Daily Maverick that the “Tembisa 10” story was the source of professional humiliation.
“Everyone knew from the onset that the Tembisa 10 story was hogwash. It made us a laughing stock,” one said.
Another described the story as “the nail in the coffin” of the Independent’s reputation.
“After that story, we started mumbling what media house we were from. And what was so embarrassing and disturbing was the insistence by the people at the top that yes, the story was correct.”
Journalists described the difficulty of carrying out their job adequately as Independent’s reputation has steadily been corroded, including facing the challenge of multiple experts refusing to comment to Independent journalists.
“Someone like [higher education expert] Jonathan Jansen: when you contact people like him for comment, they say they won’t deal with Independent Media. So you end up having to go with analysts like Sipho Seepe, who are either strongly aligned with Independent’s editorial direction or buddy-buddy with Iqbal [Survé],” one said.
Still people at Independent who love journalism
A number of the current and former staffers who spoke to Daily Maverick over the past week had either recently left the company or were plotting an exit. Many senior staff members are long gone, with an increasing reliance on contractors and interns with no newsroom experience.
“There are some of us who are still there for the love of journalism,” one said.
“But if we are no longer even sure of getting our salaries…” DM