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Independent Media Takes Battle Against Account Closures to Western Cape High Court

Published September 21, 2023
9 months ago

South Africa's largest newspaper company, Independent Media, is set to find out on Tuesday if the Western Cape High Court will grant an interdict preventing Standard Bank from closing its accounts. This decision will not only affect the newspaper giant but also 30 other companies within the Sekunjalo Group.

If the interdict is secured, 15 Indy newspapers will continue their undisturbed circulation across South Africa. Their online platform, www.iol.co.za, and 18 community papers under the ACM banner will continue to reach millions of homes weekly across three provinces.

The court's decision will have significant implications. A rejection of the interdict application would, in essence, grant Standard Bank license to eliminate a third of the country's newspapers by September 15. This Friday could, consequently, mark the last day readers gain access to these significant newspapers.

In essence, the withdrawal of these media services would take away 17 million users' access, both locally and internationally. Simultaneously, an estimated 1,600 media jobs are at risk. The companies heavily depend on their Standard Bank accounts to sustain operations, trade and pay salaries. The void left after the companies would shrivel press freedom, diversity, public discourse and endanger the role they collectively play in keeping citizens informed.

Following negative reports by rival media houses, Standard Bank earmarked "reputational risk" as the reason for discontinuing their business with Sekunjalo. Concurrently, Sekunjalo is seeking an interdict through the Equality Court, alleging racial discrimination and violation of their right to trade.

The bank's threats to close Sekunjalo's accounts escalated after last month's Competition Appeal Court ruling. The ruling favoured Standard Bank, Mercantile Bank, and Access Bank and consequently permitted the "unbanking" of Sekunjalo Group companies.

In response, Sekunjalo lodged an application to appeal this ruling to the Constitutional Court, causing the banks to revisit the initial Competition Tribunal decision, and postponing the closure until September 15. In conclusion, Tuesday's ruling holds the balance of power over the future of news media and democracy in South Africa.

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