OPINION

Independent Media behaved dishonourably - Alide Dasnois

Lawyers for axed editor say she'll be taking Cape Times to press ombudsman for slanted settlement report

Statement issued on behalf of Alide Dasnois

11 May 2016

1. We are the attorneys acting on behalf of Alide Dasnois in her claim in the Labour Court against Independent Newspapers. The trial was set down for hearing on Monday 9 May 2016 and was settled out of court shortly before the proceedings were due to commence.

2. The next morning 10 May 2016 the Cape Times carried an article under the heading “INDEPENDENT MEDIA VINDICATED AS DASNOIS SETTLES” as well as a further article headed “FAILED TO HAVE MADIBA’S DEATH ON FRONT PAGE.” Other newspapers in the Independent group carried similar articles, quoting at length from a press release issued by INMSA hours after the court settlement.

3. The first article contains no by-­line and was purportedly authored by a “staff writer”.

4. The crux of the article is where the author claims that Dasnois “has attempted to conclude the matter in return for a substantial financial payout. We have constantly rejected this and believed that the matter of Dasnois decision on the night of December 5 had to be ventilated an open court.“

The author also claims that because our client falsely sought to depict her claim as a case about press freedom and editorial prerogative this made it “even more important [for INMSA] to [try] the matter in court.”

5. Elsewhere on the same page the Cape Times however points out that the case was indeed (inexplicably) settled by an agreement. INMSA was obviously a party to that agreement but the reader is left to somehow conclude that INMSA – although insistent that this case would never be settled by INMSA out of court as our client has no valid case – somehow inexplicably agreed to settle this case in the face of an invented claim brought by an undeserving gold-­digger.

6. What the article fails to explain is that an unfair dismissal case of this nature brought by an employee cannot be settled in this fashion unless the employer offers the employee (i.e. the one seeking “a substantial financial pay out”) terms that can persuade her and her lawyers that she may be better off by not proceeding with case. That is what happened here. What those exact terms indeed were are agreed to be confidential.

But the manner in which settlements like this usually come about is important. The employer makes an offer, and the employee must decide whether she wants to accept what has been offered or she takes her chances that she may one day end up with something better through long, unpredictable and expensive court proceedings against wealthy opponents. That is what happened here.

7. There was nothing whatsoever preventing INMSA from making no settlement offer if they truly believed (as they now suggest) that Dasnois’ claim had little or no merit and for this very reason INMSA wanted a trial in open court. If they wanted this why did they instruct their lawyers to settle this case to stop a trial in open court in which our client was seeking a pay-­out for injury to her dignity?

8. Our client also sought compensation because of false allegations of racism and disrespect for Mandela which had been made by her employer. That is the context in which Independent agreed to say this in the public part of the settlement agreement:

“ ….. Independent Newspapers acknowledges the following:

(a) that her decision was not intended by her in any way to show disrespect for Nelson Mandela or his legacy, or to embarrass Independent Newspapers, its owners or management, and was a decision, in respect of which Alide Dasnois was exercising her prerogative as editor;;

(b) Independent Newspapers further acknowledges that Alide Dasnois’ conduct was not motivated by racism and it retracts all allegations of racism made against her in the course of the proceedings that preceded the termination of her employment.”

9. The agreement to this bears Dr Surve’s signature. After agreeing to say this in the face of an imminent court hearing INMSA unfortunately almost immediately proceeded to publish an article which sought to reassert that her conduct was “an affront to the dignity and legacy of South Africa’s founder [Mandela] ..” and that as an editor she was guilty of racism (“.. not a senior African reporter or sub-­editor.. “; disrespect for Mandela).

10. These claims went to the heart of Dasnois’ reasons for filing a dispute – that is -­ to seek satisfaction over these hurtful and offensive claims. She sought to use a court process to reclaim her dignity. INMSA then purported before court to have settled that very dispute by inter alia withdrawing these allegations.

It then turned around and repeated these insults in a very prominent and public fashion in the very newspaper about which the case had been concerned -­ as if what had just been said by them in a court process had never taken place. The lack of respect for court process is manifest.

11. In addition, after fully and finally settling a dispute about whether a dismissal was fair or not they sought to reopen the debate about the main issues – the very dispute that had apparently been resolved on agreed terms. In other words after informing a court that they agreed to end the dispute with Dasnois they immediately recanted with a view to painting a picture of themselves as being vigorously opposed to any settlement and then being “vindicated” in court -­ when no such thing had happened.

12. Who was vindicated? The claimant who is satisfied with the amends the defendant offered to avoid a trial in open court -­ or the person making the amends?

13. The Code for members of the Press Council provides that allowing commercial, political, personal or other non-­professional considerations to influence or slant reporting constitutes serious misconduct on the part of a news group and our client will be lodging a complaint with the Press Ombudsman

Statement issued by Jason Whyte, Cheadle Thompson & Haysom Inc., 11 May 2016