D-Day: Fate of Independent Media in High Court’s hands

Built in 1836, Newspaper House is home to Independent Media and IOL. Picture: David Ritchie / African News Agency (ANA)

Built in 1836, Newspaper House is home to Independent Media and IOL. Picture: David Ritchie / African News Agency (ANA)

Published Sep 12, 2023


Tuesday is D-Day for Independent Media in the Western Cape High Court.

South Africa’s largest newspaper company, which publishes titles including the Cape Argus, Daily Voice and The Star, will hear on Tuesday whether the court will grant an interdict to prevent Standard Bank from closing its bank accounts, as well as those of 30 other companies in the Sekunjalo Group.

Secure the interdict, and 15 Indy newspapers will be able to continue publishing around the country. Its online platform www.iol.co.za will continue to operate unhindered.

Should the court reject the interdict application, the ruling would essentially be granting Standard Bank licence to wipe out one third of the country's newspapers on September 15.

This Friday could potentially be the last day readers lay their hands on these newspapers.

Over 17 million users locally and abroad would no longer have access to these media products and services.

An estimated 1 600 media workers’ jobs will be in jeopardy.

Without these companies – which rely heavily on their Standard Bank accounts to operate, trade and pay salaries – the media landscape would be left considerably poorer, in terms of press freedom, diversity, public discourse, and the invaluable role they play in keeping citizens informed.

An urgent interdict by Sekunjalo to join Standard Bank to its main Equality Court case and prevent the closure of its accounts will be heard in court today.

Standard Bank had cited “reputational risk” as the reason for its decision to stop doing business with Sekunjalo, following negative reports by rival media houses.

In turning to the Equality Court, the Sekunjalo Group and its subsidiaries will seek an interdict against the closure of their accounts, arguing that the banks were racially discriminating against them and violating their right to trade, and that closing the media outlets had a direct impact on media freedom.

The bank had threatened to shut the group’s accounts last month after the Competition Appeal Court overturned last September’s Competition Tribunal ruling and handed down a judgment in favour of Standard Bank, Mercantile Bank and Access Bank, effectively allowing these banks to “unbank” the Sekunjalo Group companies involved.

Sekunjalo, however, filed an application to appeal this ruling in the Constitutional Court, which caused the banks to reconsider and revert to the earlier Competition Tribunal ruling, whose D-Day was set at September 15; or until such time as the Competition Commission concludes its investigation into Sekunjalo’s allegations.

It would be no exaggeration to say that Tuesday’s ruling will have a significant impact on the future of news media and democracy in South Africa.