Arthur Goldstuck
Arthur Goldstuck

Fired for blogging

So history has been made. Llewellyn Kriel has been fired from the Sowetan for his writings in his Thought Leader blog. At a hearing held at Avusa (Johncom) on Thursday afternoon, November 29, his contract of employment was formally terminated.

While this was not unexpected, the first firing of a South African journalist for what he had written in a blog is a bleak landmark in the brief history of the medium.

It is also a sad moment. The Sowetan was born in 1981 out of the fires of the fight for freedom of expression, after the courageous newspaper The World was banned by the National Party government in 1977 and its successor, The Post, was closed following a strike in 1980.

On November 7 2007, an email message was sent to all Sowetan staff, including part-timers and “dash subs” — sub-editors who work on an ad hoc basis but are not formally employed. It read:

SUBJECT: Recruitment in 2007

Dear Colleagues,

Following discussions at a meeting this afternoon, it has been decided that all new recruitment be put on hold until further notice. In case of critical or urgent positions that need to be filled, motivations need to be sent to the Johncom Media MD’s office for approval beforehand.

May I suggest that you get the MD’s approval before adverting any position henceforth.

There was nothing earth-shattering about it, and nothing especially confidential, aside from a spelling lapse. After all, anyone applying for a job at the Sowetan would have to be told the newspaper was not presently hiring.

But then Llewellyn Kriel had the temerity to write about it in his blog on 13 November. It was a central point in an argument about the decline of journalistic standards and about the deteriorating atmosphere at Johncom.

He was immediately suspended, and subsequently found guilty of bringing the Sowetan into disrepute and of disclosing confidential corporate information. Thursday’s hearing was in effect a punishment session, in which he would be told what “sanction” would be visited upon him.

At the hearing, Kriel was told by management that he would receive no sanction for bringing the newspaper into disrepute, on the basis of his argument that he had a constitutional right to freedom of expression.

However, for divulging confidential corporate information, his contract would be terminated with effect from December 31, and he would not be required to work out his contract period. Instead, he would be required to vacate his job and the building with immediate effect.

His staff security card was deactivated on the security system even before he had left the building.

Kriel was furious: “They end up heaping more disrepute upon themselves, especially in an era when, throughout society, there is far greater freedom to express oneself, to criticise, and to question authority, even at its highest level, and certainly in one’s own organisation.

“Here is an organisation whose entire existence is premised on freedom of expression. It’s an organisation that continually calls on private and public institutions to account for their behaviour. Yet, they don’t want to be measured by that yardstick.

“If a company is putting out a moratorium on new appointments, surely this is something you can argue is in the public interest to be known? Nothing in the email, and nothing in the way it was distributed, gave any indication of sensitivity or confidentiality at all.”

It may reasonably be argued that an organisation still has a right to confidentiality of its internal communications. However, the Sowetan is hardly an excellent example of an organisation that should invoke this right.

In one of those great ironies of media life, the Sowetan itself had highlighted the danger of violations of freedom of speech by employers in an article on 11 November. It appeared on page 9 under the headline, “Workers have right to free critical speech”. It is even available online.

It is worth repeating some of the content, which was based on an interview with Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI) executive director Jane Duncan after several municipal officials had been disciplined for criticising their employers:

The FXI was particularly disturbed by cases that have been brought to its attention. They concern workers who have either been disciplined for utterances they made or have already been dismissed.

“These cases point to a growing trend where attempts are made by employers to silence criticism of their management practices.

“This calls into question the commitment of employers to the constitutional rights of employees,” said FXI executive director Jane Duncan.

… Duncan said the FXI was distressed by the fact that these employers do not seem to have taken into account that the Constitutional Court has ruled that employees have a right to engage in speech that is critical of their employers.

… Duncan said speech about working conditions is of considerable public importance, and workers should not fear recrimination for speaking out.

A “pull quote”, which did not run in the article itself but appeared in large type in quote marks below Duncan’s photo, was prophetic: “These developments strongly suggest a growing trend towards managerial authoritarianism, where employees are expected to surrender their constitutional rights as part of their employment contract.”

This context for Kriel’s dismissal is best described in the colourful Yiddish language, which calls such irony a “bittere gelechte”. Roughly translated, it means a “bitter joke”. And Llewellyn Kriel is not laughing.

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  • http://www.thoughtleader.co.za/ebrahimkhalilhassen Ebrahim-Khalil Hassen

    I have never worked at a newspaper. So I do not understand the informal rules in newsrooms. So for instance, I do not know if a journalist fired for an unfair reasons, can be offered a some by a competing newspapers. Wherever I have worked, when someone is hard done by – like Kriel – someone makes a plan. Do newspapers do the same?

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  • JV Monde

    Typical double standards of mainstream media, I am surprised at your shock Arthur. If this had been done by govt, it would be headline news in CNN! Where is Xolela Mangcu, Justice Malala, etc…why arent they commenting?

  • Jarred Cinman

    I really don’t see what is so “landmark” and “historical” about this. To me, this is just hyping up a very ordinary event. Someone spoke out of turn and out of line with corporate policy and was fired for it. What possible difference does it make that it was in a “blog”?

    I personally think this kind of analysis is a good example of the mischaracterisation of blogs as something “other”. If this had been written in a column in, say, the M&G Print Edition or even the M&G Online Edition, no-one would have been writing pieces say “History has been made: someone has been fired for writing Op Ed”. But put it on a blog, and suddenly the world is changing.

    Blogs — especially Thought Leader blogs — are really just columns. And if one of my employees wrote a column contravening company policy, they would be fired whether it was written in a blog, a newspaper or on the wall of a parking garage in spray paint.

    I know this makes the whole blogging world run around and wave their hands in the air and shout that the sky is falling and get all community oriented because one of our own has been mistreated. If he broke the terms of his employment contract, he should be fired. It’s that simple.

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  • Blogsmacked

    Ooh! Ooh! Blogwars! And Jarred doesnt think its important because Jarred isnt involved! Jarred, piss off if you cant see this is new in blogging. For bloggers, this is new. Why dont you point fingers at the real holes in this argument, which is about the fact that a company is entitled to keep its e-mail confidential. Its irrelevant what you think is historical if those who are part of it believe it is historical.

  • Jarred Cinman

    Er…how am I not part of this exactly? I blog on Thought Leader, I use the internet, I read the media, I have an opinion. Are you suggesting we lock access to offering points of view to only those who are somehow directly involved in each of the issues blogged about here?

  • http://fromtheold.com esvl

    So much for “Workers have right to free critical speech”. Freedom of speech is in decline in our so called free country.

  • marian

    Jarred, let’s forget the setback for blooging freedom for a moment, and look at the offence. Is publishing an innocuous memo – in which the newspaper/company was not named – a fireable offence? No it’s not. Only the inner media circle and Llewellin’s mates knew where he worked.
    Even the slackest labour lawyer would advise that the employer was not brought into disrepute by Llewellin’s action. A reprimand should’ve been the harshest – if any – action was warranted. I bet guys who’ve pranged fleet cars with financial cost to the company have not been treated as harshly as this.
    I hope there’s a successful legal action for Llewelling coming up.

  • http://www.thebigchange.com Art2

    This reminds me of the “Who is a blogger?” debate. Anyone who engages with the blogging world,as a blogger, reader or commentator, is entitled to speak of and for blogging. So please do hang around, Jarred. But seriously, as much as they do no reinvent expression (a point made strongly in my previous posting, in case you haven’t read it) blogs are a new phenomenon, and it is possibly a little disingenuous to suggest they are no different from conventional columns. The reality is that this is a precedent, and it is necessary to address its implications.

  • http://akanyangm.blogspot.com Akanyang Merementsi

    There goes South Africa’s freedom of expression. First it was the Rapport, and now it’s Sowetan.

    Could Sunday Time’s David Bullard be next?

  • HalcyonDaze

    This is less about blogging and more about getting rid of people who no longer fit in at the increasingly corporate world of newspapers. Too outspoken, too independent and too old-school. Old school enough to remember the dignity and protection from a short-sighted, cost-cutting management that used to be afforded by a robust union. I’ve seen it happen all over the place: M&G, Johncom, the Independent titles: if one of the managers suddenly gets it into their heads that you’re too old or ornery, and the salaried price of your experience is too much of a drain on their budget… security will eventually be accompanying you to the door.

  • Claire

    Now hold on here people. Jarred has a point.
    Notwithstanding the fact that the company probably overreacted in dismissing Kriel, and that it was undoubtedly a foolish management decision, the fact is that he was fired for disclosing confidential company information. And any company is well within their rights to dismiss someone who does this.

    He’s not a child. He was working for a large corporation and someone with his experience should know the rules of corporate politics – be circumspect in voicing strong opinions and to whom you voice them.

    I challenge you to find any company that would be happy with its employees loudly criticising it to the world in general. Just because he’s a journalist and a “blogger” (when did bloggers become such hallowed beings I wonder) doesn’t entitle him to different treatment.

    I have nothing against the man. I enjoy his writing. I find his dismissal unnecessary and I believe he is entitled to feel aggrieved. I have no doubt that he is an exemplarary journalist and that The Sowetan is the poorer for his loss. But a blogging-related dismissal of this nature isn’t actually anything new. I ran into trouble myself for blogging-related issues with my employer a good couple of years ago and I have come across similar dismissals before.

    If anything this dismissal – as unnecessary as it was – serves as a reminder to bloggers everywhere that just because we now have the power to broadcast our opinions across the planet does not mean that these opinions are sacrosanct, or that the people voicing them are inviolable.

  • http://fromtheold.com esvl

    Oh i did not mean he was right in giving out confidential information though. I was just saying.
    I agree with Clair on “He’s not a child. He was working for a large corporation and someone with his experience should know the rules of corporate politics – be circumspect in voicing strong opinions and to whom you voice them.”

    He should think before he type.

  • http://justinhartman.com Justin Hartman

    I’m with Jarred on this. I’m sorry Arthur but to title this post “Fired for blogging” is a complete misleading title to the public at large.

    As I commented on Vincent’s blog this is about corporate policy and lets face it – Kriel overstepped the mark in his post.

    Avusa were completely entitled to fire him and we shouldn’t make this about blogging because the two have little to do with each in this instance. The blog provided a platform for Kriel to vent and he’s now paid the price for his actions.

    I feel sorry for Kriel but with 30 years experience you would think he would have showed some common basic sense in this matter.

  • Fred Khumalo

    Truly making a mountain out of a molehill. I’m with Justin and Jarred on this. We truly value our independence as writers, and also fight for our right to freedom of expression. But this was a simple and clear abrogation of corporate policy. Fullstop.

  • http://www.thebigchange.com Art2

    Justin, you and Jarred are both correct,in principle. However, there is an issue here that goes beyond semantics. Globally, companies are wrestling with the issue of how blogs affect them, and how to respond to them. It is not as simple as responding to a random public utterance or a public statement by an employer. It is responding to that statement being made in an arena that is viewed by many (rightly or wrongly) as the new battleground of freedom of expression. It is responding to that statement in an environment that represents a new form of content creation and a new form of interaction between content creators and their audiences. And it is responding in an environment that represents a new kind of interconnected community.

    This issue is going to become more complex, not less so. It won’t serve employers’ interests to look at this case and see the issue as being only the divulging of confidential information. They also need to understand appropriate responses to such events occurring within the blogosphere.

    On the case itself, a key question is whether Kriel would have been fired had he merely e-mailed the “confidential information” around or divulged its contents in a different forum. Possibly not. But he blogged the information. And, as Robert Frost once put it, that has made all the difference.

  • Jarred Cinman

    Arthur, you don’t seem to have absorbed my point at all. What in this context is the “new form of content creation” here? Using WordPress instead of Frontpage or Vignette Storyserver?

    This was a:
    – Commentary piece
    – Written by a professional writer
    – Subbed and moderated by an editor
    – Published on a prominent media platform, run by a major media publication

    Does that sound like anything new to you? Just because we call it a “blog” suddenly people wearing Web 2.0 t-shirts bounce into the room with flowers in their hair? Gimme a break…

  • Albertus van Wyk

    I’m not a lawyer (I’m a poor journo) and I’m not sure how strong Kriel’s case is legally, but my feeling is that just because this kind of corporate behaviour is usual and conventional, it doesn’t mean that it is right. Can I be fired for saying that my company has frozen all vacations in a bar in front of ten people? It is not a secret that newspapers and magazines are entering a tough period and cost cutting is going on across the board, so this kind of information could hardly be called a trade secret.
    I don’t think there’s anything particularly “new” about blogs as a medium, but why should Llewellyn not be allowed to say this to people?
    Why are we so respectful towards corporate authority?

  • http://justinhartman.com Justin Hartman

    Albertus we are respectful to corporate authority because we all signed contracts before we started working at our respective companies.

    To ignore the clauses in these contracts is just plain stupidity and if we don’t like what the contract says we have a choice to not work there.

    Seeing as “we” all sign these contracts we have no choice but to respect corporate authority.

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  • Robert

    While I am sorry for Llewelyn Kriel, let’s be clear about one thing: he was NOT fired for blogging. He was fired for what he said, not how he said it (although I think the company would have had a case to fire him for how he said it too: he was, after al, writing for a competitor). You may disagree with Avusa’s reasons for firing him, but let’s be clear about the reasons. If he had made his comments in the form of a letter to another newspaper, or an article in another newspaper, he would also have been fired. It’s the message, not the medium.

  • Liansky

    I hate myself for opening this page. I’ve just wasted 30 seconds of my life. He signed an agreement and he should have abided by it. That is how it works when you work for a profit maximising entity that operates in a competitive enviroment. Stop blogging and do something useful with your life.

  • http://nml.ru.ac.za/blog/jude Jude Mathurine

    FORMER Sowetan sub Llewellyn Kriel’s dubious honor as the first South African sacked for blogging may be undeserved. About three months ago, I was confidentially informed of an incident involving a motoring magazine, a media powerhouse and another journo-blogger. That matter was resolved rather more quietly. But I’m sworn to secrecy. See http://nml.ru.ac.za/blog/jude/2007/12/05/casualty-ignorance.html for more…

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  • http://www.nickvanderleek.com Nick

    Blogging is like putting posters up all over the neigborhood. Lots of people are going to see what you’ve put up, and obviously, since you put them up, what you say can be used against you. Makes sense doesn’t it?

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