ODAC’s Support in the Case of Alide Dasnois

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ODAC seeks to provide litigation support to the high profile cases of those who have spoken out within the context of the rights and legislation that protect individuals who speak truth to power. We have provided litigation support in a number of cases; most recently in 2014 and 2015 in the case of C373/2014 Motingoe v MEC and HOD Department Infrastructure and Public Works Northern Cape, where we supported Mr Motingoe in the Labour Court, Supreme Court of Appeal and Constitutional Court. Following a long court battle Motingoe is now back at work after the Department refused to reinstate him.

At ODAC, our intention is to both support litigation and create awareness around the need to protect those who speak out, which is why we have chosen to support and drive awareness of the Alide Dasnois vs Independent Newspapers court case that is due to begin on 9 May.

Dasnois vs Independent Newspapers

Alide Dasnois was removed from her position as editor of the Cape Times by the chief executive of the Independent Newspapers, Iqbal Surve, on 6 December 2013 at a meeting at a hotel in Claremont.

In a later disciplinary hearing, Independent Newpapers found she was guilty of "dereliction of duty and/or a gross lack of judgement" in failing to "lead editorially" with the death of Nelson Mandela in the second edition of the Cape Times on 6 December 2013. However, the Cape Times second edition did indeed lead with the death of Madiba. The newspaper produced a special four-page edition with a new front page, two pages of news and a leader, a timeline and tributes. The Cape Times had more news about the event on that day than most other newspapers including reactions and tributes from outside his house, from Ahmed Kathrada, Jacob Zuma, Frans Baleni, Helen Zille, Patricia de Lille, FW de Klerk, Thabo Mbeki, Barack Obama and a prayer from Desmond Tutu.

This treatment of the news of Mandela’s death followed a time-honoured way of marking a special historic event.

Dasnois, with the support of ODAC, is taking the matter to court, where she will argue that the real reason she was fired was to punish her for publishing material about one of the Sekunjalo companies.

Testing the right of editors

In a landmark case in the Cape Labour Court on 9 May 2016, former Cape Times editor Alide Dasnois will test the right of editors to publish material which the publisher deems unacceptable to their private or business interests. In the context of growing concern about media ownership being used to drive corporate agendas, the case will also question whether the level of editorial independence in our media is being compromised.

The court case

Dasnois will argue in court that she was in fact fired to punish her for publishing material about one of the Sekunjalo companies.  The first edition of the newspaper (printed before Madiba's death) led with a story about a long-awaited report by the Public Protector finding that one of the Sekunjalo companies, Sekunjalo Marine Services Consortium, had been improperly awarded a tender by the Department of Agriculture Forestry and Fishing.  For the second edition, this story was folded inside the new Mandela special edition.

The Cape Times also printed an op-ed by Iqbal Surve, followed on Friday 6 December by the newspaper’s own editorial reassuring readers that this did not signal a new trend and reaffirming the newspaper's commitment to accurate and balanced reporting. Dasnois was removed from her position the same day.

On 7 December, a letter was sent to Dasnois by Sekunjalo's lawyers, Edward Nathan Sonnenberg, complaining about the Cape Times coverage of the Sekunjalo contract, demanding a front page apology (the writers were clearly not aware that by then Dasnois had already been removed from her position) and threatening to sue her, the reporter on the story, and the Cape Times if they did not comply.

Punishment for being a whistleblower: Dasnois argument

During the court case against Independent Newspapers, Dasnois will argue that Surve's concerns about the Cape Times coverage of Sekunjalo were the real reason for her sudden removal as editor in the middle of the coverage of Madiba's death.

She will argue that the other reasons advanced by Surve in letters to Independent staff and in the disciplinary hearing, including her failure to position the newspaper correctly, or the falling circulation of the Cape Times, are an attempt to mask the real reason for her dismissal. It is a matter of fact that the circulation of all Independent's newspapers (with one exception) had been falling, and that of the Cape Times much slower than many others.

Right to freedom of expression

Dasnois will argue that Independent Newspapers intended to punish her for publishing material adverse to the interests of its owners and so was in breach of her right to freedom of expression; that her dismissal as editor was an unfair labour practice under the Labour Relations Act; and that it was in breach of her contract. The case will test the rights of editors to publish information about their publishers which run contrary to their corporate interests.

 

Read about South Africa's history of secrecy here.

Read about Alide Dasnois' landmark victory here.