Goons attempt to disrupt protest for press freedom

Protesters for press freedom outside Cape Times, 17 Dec 2013. Photo by Gareth Dawson.

Terry Bell

17 December 2013

The saga of the Cape Times and South Africa’s Independent Newspapers (INL) group plumbed new depths of farce this afternoon (December 17) when a rent-a-crowd arrived in the city to support the putative new owner, Iqbal Survé.

A busload of elderly pensioners was the first to arrive to confront a picket that grew to some 150 people protesting the sacking of Cape Times editor Alide Dasnois and supporting editorial independence for INL titles.

The pensioners, from the Belhar suburb north of the city, carried expensively produced, two-colour placards demanding the dismissal of “racist journalists” and, in particular, assistant editor and Man Friday columnist Tony Weaver. They also carried glossy, full-colour A2 posters of newspaper front pages referring to the death of Nelson Mandela, posters that claimed the Cape Times had ignored this historic event.

But the Cape Times did not ignore the event. And Weaver, in his column, spelled out how Alide Dasnois and the Cape Times team had put together a four-page wraparound that earned that newspaper the accolade of having one of the 14 best “Mandela front pages in the world”.

Not that any of the nine pensioners interviewed was aware of these events or of the journalists mentioned. “We were told we could come in a bus to Cape Town and would get food at the [St George’s] cathedral,” one woman said. Her two companions readily agreed: “We don’t know what all this is about,” they added. Others nodded in agreement, but would not comment although one muttered: “Ek dink ons is misgebruik.” (I think we are misused)

That was bad enough. But the evidently well-financed counter protest had obviously been put together in a hurry — or perhaps there was nobody around to proof read the caption on the glossy posters. This read: FIRE DASNOIS — FIRE TONY HOWARD.

Howard is “the other Tony” at INL, and is the chief executive of the company. However, given recent events at the Cape Times, perhaps the rent-a-crowd had inside information and Howard too is about to be dumped.

Then, as the often bemused pensioner contingent stood around, another small group, similarly equipped with placards and posters arrived. They were younger and noisy, claiming to represent both the South African National Civics Organisation (Sanco) and the ANC. They joined several men who had arrived with the pensioners, one of whom claimed to represent “Khoisan freedom”. He pointed out the organiser of the counter protest, a man who gave his name as Wesley Douglas.

Wesley Douglas, who appeared to lead the attempt to disrupt the protest for press freedom. Source: LinkedIn

Douglas bears a striking resemblance to the Wesley Douglas who was once an ANC Youth League member and who later switched to the African Christian Democratic Party and lists his current occupation as “CEO Hillsong Africa Foundation”, a project of the pentecostal Hillsong Church. He obviously did not want to be interviewed, but said he represented the newly formed Movement for the Transformation of Media in South Africa (MTMSA) that was responsible for the counter protest, the placards and the posters. Contact details for MTMSA, printed on the posters, are only a cell phone number and an email address. However, he noted to another journalist that his movement was formed “a month ago”.

It was then that a youthful “minstrels” band blared onto the scene. In between blasting on brass instruments and banging drums and cymbals, several of the boy bandsmen were asked what they were doing there. They noted that they had been told “to play music”. By whom they weren’t sure nor why they had been asked to play.

Amid the noise and shouting, the pensioner contingent was ushered away, apparently to have their promised meal. As tensions in parts of the crowd began to heighten, two police officers appeared to inform “Wesley”, whom they seemed to know, that he and his group had ten minutes to leave since they did not have permission for their protest.

This allowed the Right to Know to stage an impromptu rally that resulted in pledges to continue and to build the campaign to protect the media freedom enshrined in the Constitution and Bill of Rights. But now more pertinent questions need answers: who decided on a counter protest? Above all, who paid for the posters, the placards and the transport?

Terry Bell participated in the Right2Know protest for press freedom. So did the GroundUp editor.