Media's Double-Edged Sword: The Pitfalls of Challenging the Establishment

Former President Jacob Zuma with businessman Louis Liebenberg. Picture: Supplied

Former President Jacob Zuma with businessman Louis Liebenberg. Picture: Supplied

Published Mar 18, 2024


By Ethan Ruskin

In a realm where the pen commands more authority than the sword, media conglomerates wield significant power, shaping public sentiment and possessing the capability to either build or demolish reputations.

Yet, this power isn't always exercised responsibly, as evidenced by the ongoing crusade waged by Media24 against Dr Iqbal Survé, his company Sekunjalo Investments, and the Independent Media Group, where he serves as Executive Chairperson.

The latest onslaught in this conflict manifested as a News24 exposé titled "Inside Iqbal Survé's Glitchy Propaganda Machine," a purported "Special Project". This piece aimed to uncover Dr Survé's alleged sway over the editorial content of Independent Media's publications, ostensibly in response to criticism.

The trigger for this retort was an opinion piece by contributor Edmond Phiri, likening News24 journalist Karyn Maughan to a Nazi propagandist, despite a clear disclaimer that the views expressed did not necessarily reflect those of the publications in which they were featured.

The rivalry between the media giants intensified, with News24 editor-in-chief Adriaan Basson seemingly taking offence at the critique levelled against Maughan and, in turn, authorising the "Special Report".

Less than a year prior, Maughan had emerged triumphant from the Pietermaritzburg High Court, which decreed that former President Jacob Zuma could no longer pursue a private prosecution, seeking criminal punishment for the release of his personal medical records, against her and state prosecutor Billy Downer.

Celebrated as a champion of press freedom and portrayed as a victim, Maughan garnered widespread support from fellow journalists both inside and outside the courtroom.

This case unwittingly exposes the glaring hypocrisy within Media24. Maughan's road to legal victory shines a glaring spotlight on the fact that Media24's accusations against Dr Survé of utilising his platforms to assail his detractors may well have been part of their own public relations manoeuvring leading up to the trial. It's not uncommon for those who are adept in such tactics to point fingers at others despite mastering similar methods themselves.

One must question what shields Maughan, and journalists employed by media organisations not affiliated with the Independent Group, from scrutiny. Not only are Independent journalists assailed by their counterparts in the media, as seen in the recent "Special Report" where staff of the group are personally accused of either assisting, enabling or for fulling the alleged orders of their chairman, but they're also vilified for the publications they choose to contribute to.

On the flip side, journalists from rival media houses are seemingly immune to reproach, hailed as guardians of accountability. Yet, their motives remain unquestioned, disregarding the fact that journalists, too, are fallible humans, which underscores the flaw in the beyond-reproach narrative.

Every individual retains a natural bias, shaped by the ethics and principles ingrained in their lives. Consequently, it's inevitable for a stance to be taken, and further, to defend those closest to us. So, how can reporting be impartial when their colleagues are, from their perspective, under attack?

A glaring instance of Media24's negative PR campaign being leveraged to directly target an individual who poses a threat to their journalists or platform is the case of businessman Louis Liebenberg. Liebenberg has been leading the revitalisation of the long-neglected Namaqualand region and its communities through his diamond mining ventures in the area.

What could have made this particular businessman, who had sporadically appeared in the media prior to the Maughan versus Zuma case, become a marked target? Simply put, he dared to not only befriend but also support former President Jacob Zuma, including financially backing his private prosecution of Maughan and Downer.

The first sign that a saga was unfolding emerged on April 11, 2022, when an article surfaced about Liebenberg's visit to Nkandla to meet Zuma. Liebenberg clarified he was troubled by the events of the previous July, when, following the former president's incarceration, the nation witnessed violent looting and riots. His solution was to extend an olive branch on behalf of his fellow Afrikaners between their people and those of the Zulu nation.

The following week, Adrian Basson, editor-in-chief of News24, seized on this visit to question the timing of the former president's health deteriorating, given his meeting with Liebenberg shortly before requesting the court to excuse him due to illness. Nevertheless, Liebenberg remained of little interest until he attended the Maughan and Downer court case to support his friend.

On that day, an application was filed to secure security for the prosecution and potential legal costs order should the former president fail in his bid to have the two individuals convicted. The court granted this security, and on October 11, headlines blared the startling revelation that Liebenberg had financed Zuma's legal action.

The publicity came at a cost, as Liebenberg became the subject of ire from certain far-right Afrikaner groups and a public enemy of Media24 via their extensive print publications as well as digital publications News24 and Netwerk24. A mere sum of R500,000 was all it took for a microscope to befall the businessman's affairs, intimate and personal relationships, and financial dealings.

The first real salvo came in the form of an article about a recording where the businessman used the K-word in a private outburst. He promptly apologised, explaining that the recording had been made during a moment of weakness with a former lover, Teresa Coetzee, a married former Media24 journalist who had encouraged a steamy affair with him leading to her not only receiving vast sums of money but also being caught pilfering from him while employed by the media group.

The recording had lain dormant until suddenly splashed across the media house's pages after he dared to fund what was seen as an attack on not only Maughan but media freedom.

By January 2023, Media24 had intensified its coverage, with journalists tirelessly unearthing any story related to their target. Articles, Opinion Pieces, and "Special Reports" began labelling Liebenberg's business operations as a Ponzi scheme, despite previously acknowledging in a published article covering his wedding that a court had dismissed a preservation order against Liebenberg due to lack of evidence of illegal activities.

The relentless media blitz caught the attention of South Africa's liquidators, who eagerly appended the numerous articles to their court applications as supposed evidence of wrongdoing. With calculated precision, they secured a provisional order against one of Liebenberg’s businesses.

Netwerk24 eagerly obliged with even more articles, the headlines oozing with the glee of a child who had gotten their own way, unfazed by the ethical implications of their actions as long as it aligned with their ultimate goal of decimating a man who dared oppose them and support Zuma's constitutional right to seek legal recourse.

Much like Dr Survé, those who oppose Media24 can anticipate a deluge of negative PR, and this exposé was merely the beginning of what lay in store for Liebenberg. The magnitude of resources the media behemoth dedicates to tarnishing reputations is both formidable and disconcerting.

The sheer volume of articles speak for themselves, over 285 have appeared in the last two year following the payment of the security for the Zuma case, leaving no stone unturned in their quest to discredit him.

The most alarming consequence that appears to stem from these negative PR campaigns is the direct correlation between the coverage by these organisations and the abrupt closure of bank accounts. Courts seem to accept articles as evidence and treat them as gospel truth, banks follow the same route, no matter the truth behind, or within the articles the outcome remains the same, reputational damage at a level these finance institutes are not willing to deal with.

Banks attribute the closure of accounts to reputational damage, yet if that were the true reason, they would conduct thorough investigations allowing the affected party to make representations as to why these headlines are damaging to them more than the bank. An enquiry into the factual accuracy of the claims propagated by these so-called media organisations, but no sadly for anyone implicated in these individuals pages injustice is often swift and perilous to their business operations.

Trial by media has become a lucrative enterprise for these entities, particularly when they've succeeded in discrediting the only media outlets not under their cabal's sway. The banks one has to wonder are either blind to this, too lazy to investigate or more likely wholly and solely complicit, in the absence of facts proven before a court they are quick to become judge, jury and executioner.

However, Media24 consistently underestimated their adversary's resilience. Despite numerous court battles, businesses haemorrhaging millions daily, liquidation petitions, and the closure of his bank accounts, Liebenberg continued to fight undauntedly.

Today, amidst the ceaseless media maelstrom, Liebenberg’s mines continue to yield diamonds, and he has initiated efforts to legalise artisanal mining on his properties, much to the consternation of the Democratic Alliance. He has also embarked on a political campaign, believing it will secure him a parliamentary seat following this year's elections.

Surprisingly many either overlook or forget that Media24 has had its own faux pas regarding fake news. Who could forget their misreporting of circulation figures in order to inflate advertising revenue or how the Huffington Post South Africa, under Media24's auspices, published a blog post titled "Could It Be Time to Deny White Men the Franchise?" The article sparked outrage as it was penned by a white male aiming to highlight the lack of editorial oversight and complete blind bias within the organisation. Initially, the editor staunchly defended the publication's right to print until it was revealed that they had failed to vet the author.

This serves as just two instances where Media24's ethical lapses have been exposed publicly. With the current campaign against Dr Survé and Liebenberg, one must scrutinise the motives behind those approving these campaigns. Is it the editorial team entrenched in their war rooms, the journalists, or their superiors at Naspers? Is it driven by profit, safeguarding share prices, political agendas, or simply silencing dissenting voices that don't conform to their narrative?

These tactics paint a portrait of a media conglomerate unafraid to utilise its vast resources and influence to mould public opinion and stifle opposition no matter the cost to the individuals they target or the knock-on effect for those employed by their businesses.

As South Africa grapples with corruption, inequality, and political turbulence, the media's role in holding the powerful to account has never been more critical. However, when media houses like Media24 engage in what appears to be targeted campaigns against individuals and organisations, they undermine the very principles of free speech and independent journalism they profess to uphold.

It's time for a frank discussion about the state of South Africa's media landscape and the imperative for greater transparency, accountability, and ethical reporting. Only then can the public have confidence that the information they receive isn't tainted by hidden agendas or vested interests.

The cases of Dr Iqbal Survé and Louis Liebenberg serve as a stark reminder of the media's potency and the devastating repercussions that ensue when that power is misused.

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** The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of IOL or Independent Media.