I have been reporting on the failed Highveld Syndication schemes for several years.
Recently I undertook a comprehensive ‘flow of the money’ investigation to try and ascertain what happened to the R4.6 billion the 18 700 investors invested in the various syndications.
It is crucial to note that Nic Georgiou, a wealthy property owner and a key individual in the historic Highveld Syndications Orthotouch rescue scheme, accused me of bias and of not reporting objectively.
This column serves to inform readers of Georgiou’s accusation, and I encourage you to take his views into account when reading the articles that will emanate from this investigation in the coming weeks.
Within days of learning about my investigation, Georgiou raised his concerns about my impartiality in a legal letter sent to Paul Jenkins, Moneyweb’s chairman.
In this letter he accuses me of “waging an obsessive vendetta” and says my historic articles about him, Zephan Properties (owned by Georgiou and the underwriter of the rescue scheme) and Orthotouch (property management company and the rescue vehicle of the failed Highveld Syndication companies) have been “inaccurate and entirely unbalanced”.
The letter also demanded that I “not be involved in the research, preparation or writing of any future articles about our clients to be published by Moneyweb”.
The letter lists three reasons to justify these views.
My responses to the allegations feature in italics:
- I did not respond to a legal letter sent to me on May 17 asking me to remove “inaccuracies” in two articles.
- I did not give Georgiou an opportunity to respond to criticism made by guests during live radio interviews. Background information: I conducted several live radio interviews on RSG Geldsake in June 2018 in which guests criticised Georgiou and Zephan. Georgiou complained to the Broadcasting Complaints Commission of South Africa (BCCSA) that I did not give him and Zephan an opportunity to respond. I offered an on-air apology and the complaint was settled before a BCCSA hearing. I then apologised to Georgiou on air.
- I am biased, lack independence and am a supporter of the Highveld Syndication Action Group (HSAG). Background information: A certain individual, Pine Pienaar, posted a WhatsApp message on chat groups for investors, which reads as follows: “In my Comrades example, I have left out one of our biggest names and that is Ryk van Niekerk. Ryk is our Team Manager, keeping us informed about our position in the race, providing information about the opponent’s tricks, and lots more. Thanks a lot, Ryk, you are a great help to keep us ‘poor’ investors up to date with the latest information. Pine“.
In a subsequent post, Mr Pienaar retracted this post by stating: “I withdraw the above statement with regard to Ryk van Niekerk in full and with apologies to Ryk. Ryk is fully independend (sic) and not part of any of our groups or class action. Regards. Pine”.
The legal letter says this serves to “fortify our client’s [Georgiou, Zephan and Orthotouch] conclusion that Mr van Niekerk is patently biased and lacks independence in his reportage of our clients”. It adds that “the withdrawal sent by Mr Pienaar in the second text message does not do anything to alter the impression created by the first text message, being that Mr van Niekerk is a supporter of the HSAG and the ongoing litigation against our clients, and that Mr van Niekerk clearly views our clients as his adversaries who are up to ‘tricks‘. This is clearly factual unless Mr Pienaar was lying in his message.”
I am not a supporter or in any way aligned with the HSAG, apart from reporting on their activities. I have no idea why Pienaar posted the message. I am virtually the only remaining journalist still reporting on developments at Orthotouch, and that could have been the reason.
I always respond to legal letters, but I did not receive this letter as alleged. Nor was a copy of the letter sent to our legal representative Willem de Klerk, as Georgiou has done in the past. There was also no follow-up inquiry to confirm whether I received it or not.
I concede that it was an oversight not to give Georgiou and Zephan an opportunity to respond to the criticism on air. This culminated in my apology. But it is also important to note that Georgiou, Zephan and Orthotouch have never agreed to be interviewed on the radio despite numerous invitations to do so over the past few years. As part of my settlement offer, I also offered Georgiou and Zephan the opportunity to respond to the criticism, but the invitation was declined.
Georgiou also states that my reporting has contravened the Press Code as it is “biased and has been influenced by personal and non-professional considerations … The narrative put forward in Mr van Niekerk’s articles is that our clients are dishonest, fraudulent and lack integrity. These articles cannot be considered to constitute independent or professional reporting due to the patently close relationship Mr van Niekerk’s has with members of the HSAG; indeed, he is seen to be their ‘Team Leader'”.
Georgiou then demands that I apologise for the breach of the Press Code and requests Jenkins to ensure that “in light of the reasonable perception of bias which our client has” that I “not be involved in the research, preparation or writing of any future articles about our clients to be published by Moneyweb. Our clients have no difficulty with other Moneyweb journalists engaging in (fair) reporting but believe it is clearly untenable in the circumstances for Mr van Niekerk to continue in this capacity.”
Jenkins has not requested that I suspend the investigation or that I withdraw from further reporting related to Georgiou, Zephan and Orthotouch. Moneyweb responded to the letter, rejecting the accusations as unfounded and malicious.
We at Moneyweb strive to report on all matters truthfully, accurately and fairly. If anyone believes that we fail in this task, they are welcome to make use of the complaints mechanism of the Press Council. Georgiou is yet to do so.
Read the full letter here.