Firing of Citizen Editor raises critical questions – R2K

Organisation says Steven Motale was fired for the very kind of critical journalism that should be encouraged and not punished

R2K Statement on firing of Citizen Editor, Steven Motale

29 November 2016

Yesterday Caxton, publishers of The Citizen newspaper, fired their editor Steven Motale after an internal disciplinary process in which Motale claims no hearing was held. The company justified the firing in corporate speak: “his ongoing employment at The Citizen has become untenable, as a result of this trust breakdown, which was solely due to Motale’s actions and failure to follow procedures.”

Public concern has been raised that Motale was disciplined for publishing investigations into corruption allegations against former finance minister Trevor Manuel, as well as reports critical of finance minister Pravin Gordhan and ANC chief whip Jackson Mthembu.

This is the very kind of critical journalism that should be encouraged and not punished. For democracy to function the media should hold all power to account. No story should be taboo.

Motale’s firing once again raises critical questions about the threat posed by media owners to press freedom after the SABC un-procedurally dismissed eight of their journalists and  Independent Newspapers un-procedurally dismissed the editor of the Cape Times. The power of media owners is of particular concern in the context of the high concentration of media ownership and lack of transformation.

The implicit threat in Motale’s firing is that any media worker producing anything the owners disagree with or dislike does so at the risk of being fired. Motale’s firing risks increasing a chilling effect among the editors and journalists.

The Right2Know Campaign asserts that the right to press freedom is primarily the right of media workers practicing within their ethical code. It is the responsibility of media owners to support and resource media workers to practice press freedom.

This is a matter of great public concern and Right2know has written to Eureka Zandberg, publisher of The Citizen, demanding the public release of the charges against Mr Motale as well as details of the relevant procedures he has said to have breached.

Motale’s firing contributes to a chilling effect among the editors and journalists. This chilling effect is all the greater in the context where commercial media owners are retrenching journalists, increasing the workloads of remaining workers and starving them of the resources they need to do their jobs. The result is a decline in the quality of editorial content as the remaining media workers battle to meet their ethical commitments as, with less time to undertake research, they must increasingly rely on press statements from the public relations industry and official sources to generate content.

We believe that there is a legal conflict between the rights of employers to hire and fire, and the constitutional rights of journalist to practice media freedom. We were disappointed when the Courts were denied the opportunity to address this issue after the SABC reinstated the Journalists they fired and Independent Newspapers reached a settlement with Dasnois. We welcome Motale’s intention to dispute his dismissal legally and – depending on the facts of the matter – hope that this case can set a precedent that can offer greater security to journalists in the future.  

Issued by Mark Weinberg on behalf of R2K, 29 November 2016