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.