Book about SARS paints damaging view of the media

2016-09-20 20:17

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Johannesburg - Did police crime intelligence and the State Security Agency (SSA) use the media to tarnish the image of SARS with false stories that it ran a rogue unit?

This is one of the biggest questions the public will be left with after reading ROGUE The inside story of SARS’s elite crime-busting unit.

The book, written by previous SARS investigation unit head Johann van Loggerenberg and former SARS spokesperson Adrian Lackay, was released this week.

It is described as “an exposé of national importance that identifies the dark forces at play in politics and the business world, it provides clarity to a saga that has left us asking ‘Who can we trust?’”

Van Loggerenberg writes that before the first stories about the so called “rogue unit” appeared in the Sunday Times, senior SARS officials were getting tip-offs that something bad was coming their way. He said he was warned in February 2014, months before the first story ran, that a unit within police crime intelligence was looking for dirt on “JvL”.

According to Van Loggerenberg, a mishmash of former disgruntled employees, spies, people in the illicit tobacco industry, crime intelligence officials and politically connected individuals with a range of accusations against him came together, to discredit him and the small unit within SARS which was taking on major organised crime rings.

Van Loggerenberg believes they used the media, in particular the Sunday Times, to disseminate their information in what appeared to be a planned and targeted attack on SARS.

Van Loggerenberg said the first article was published the same week that City Press published an article indicating there was an alleged rogue unit within the SSA.

30 articles in 2 years

He believes the SARS story in the Sunday Times was a counter-narrative to the SSA story.

The paper ran more than 30 articles on the rogue unit within less than two years.

Van Loggerenberg writes that when he looks back at what happened, he thinks about apartheid-era stratcom (police strategic communications).

Stratcom allegedly paid journalists to plant or advance stories, placed journalists in media houses, issued leaks and rumours, and put together seemingly credible dossiers and stories – all aimed at discrediting someone.

He said that over the years he worked in the investigation unit at SARS, there had been dossiers and allegations claiming that he, Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, and former SARS deputy commissioner Ivan Pillay were racist, were opposed to President Jacob Zuma, had entered into unlawful tax settlements, spied on taxpayers, and intercepted communications.

“In the second half of 2014, SARS was not the only state institution being battered by storms. Around this time a curious pattern was emerging in various other law enforcement agencies where incriminating information would be leaked to the media that questioned the integrity of the heads of these institutions. These reports were then used as a pretext to launch an investigation into these officials. There were leaks from within the Hawks, the NPA, the Independent Police Investigative Directorate, and SARS,” Van Loggerenberg writes.

'Sustained political interference'

In May 2016, former Hawks head Anwa Dramat, suspended Ipid head Robert McBride and Pillay released a joint statement on what they said was sustained political interference in the country’s public institutions, especially law enforcement agencies.

They said information on these probes would be leaked to journalists.

Van Loggerenberg's version that the rogue unit never existed and was created to discredit the work they had been doing targeting organised crime was in some ways borne out when the Press Ombudsman ruled that the Sunday Times had violated the press code.

On April 3, the newspaper’s editor Bongani Siqoko published a full page article saying they were retracting some of the facts they published on Van Loggerenberg, Pillay, and the rogue unit.

Siqoko wrote: “Did we get everything right with our SARS story? No. Did we get everything wrong? Again the answer is no. Today we admit to you that we got some things wrong.”

Siqoko told News24 on Tuesday that the Sunday Times had already gone public to clarify where they got their coverage wrong.

“We have said everything we have to say on the rogue unit. We will not be issuing a statement on the book,” Siqoko said.

One of the journalists who worked on the stories at the Sunday Times and who had since left, Piet Rampedi, was not impressed with Van Loggerenberg’s version of events.

“He must deal with his legal woes and stop trying to use my name to divert attention from the serious crimes he and other former SARS officials are facing. His unfounded claims about us are typical of former apartheid agents like him,” Rampedi said.

Why are you getting the information?

Van Loggerenberg is one of the ex SARS employees, along with Gordhan who was SARS commissioner between 1999 and 2009. Last month, the Hawks instructed him to come to their offices to make a warning statement. He refused.

Rampedi said in his opinion Van Loggerenberg was trying to ensure he did not face criminal charges. On social media forum Twitter, Rampedi indicated he too was writing a book which he said would be released next year.

All in all, the book paints a damaging picture of journalism. The head of the Journalism School at Stellenbosch University, Lizette Rabe, said journalists should at all costs guard against being used to further certain political aims.

“Always question why you are getting information,” Rabe said.

“Especially in times of instability, which we are facing in the country at this moment in time, there are forces out there that want to exploit the media.”

Rabe said it was vital for the media not to lose integrity and credibility.

“You can never get that trust back,” she said. “Media freedom is the last bastion of democracy and needs to be protected.”

Read more on:    sars  |  johan van loggerenberg  |  books

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