Zuma’s 13 holy cows

Jacob Zuma defends the Media Appeals Tribunal (MAT) in This is not personal (Friday 13 August) by calling negative responses to the proposal by ordinary citizens, trade unionists, politicians and the media “hysterical, preposterous, disingenuous and an unbearable insult”. In closing he writes, “Let the real debate begin. Let there be no holy cows!”

Of course the real debate has already started. Dismissing valid criticism from diverse sources of both MAT and the Protection of Information Bill as hysterical isn’t helpful to the debate. Indeed, the thrust of Zuma’s defensive monologue is aimed largely at challenging the media’s right to its own “vested political and commercial interests”, interests not in support of the ideological policies of the ruling elite – the ANC’s National Democratic Revolution. In his letter Zuma writes, “The media must seriously conduct an introspection and open a constructive debate about the role of this institution in a post-apartheid South Africa.”

On the face of it this seems like a perfectly straight-forward statement of opinion? Zuma’s 13 qualifying questions on the present and future ideological role of the print media however, whilst philosophically interesting, constitute an attempt at misdirection.

Zuma asks “Is the media a mirror of South African society? Is it in touch with what the majority of South Africans feel and think? Does this institution actually know and understand South Africans? Why was it surprised by the explosion of national pride during the Soccer World Cup tournament? Why did South Africans decide to rise above the daily diet of negativity and defeatism that they are fed daily in the media? What is the impact of ownership on content and staffing? What is the ideological outlook of the media? Is there an alienation with the post-apartheid democratic order and thinking? Are we on the same wavelength regarding where South Africa should go politically, socially and economically? Does the media understand this well enough to articulate it to South Africans, to enable to accurately judge government action and performance?”

Sibusiso Ngalwa and Xolani Mbanjwa report President Zuma as asking “Does it [the media] have a role in promoting nation building? Does it have a role to play in the promotion of the country’s prosperity, stability and the well-being of its people? Is it a spectator, or does it have vested interests and an agenda, political and commercial, that it cherishes and promotes?”

For President Zuma, none of this is personal? Comments made by the ANC’s spokesperson Jackson Mthembu reveal just how personal the call for press regulation is for the ANC’s rank and file. Mthembu, who described self-regulation as “toothless”, stated that the media appeals tribunal was “receiving overwhelming support” from South Africans aggrieved at the way in which they have been treated by the press. Mthembu has argued that Press Ombudsman Joe Thloloe and the Press Appeals Panel has failed to hold the media accountable for incorrect or defamatory reporting. “All the Press Ombudsman does is to instruct the newspapers to retract and apologise. How can he impose a fine when he is being paid by the same media?” Mthembu wants the media to respect the right to privacy.

Thloloe, describing the ANC’s proposal as a gun to his forehead, has suggested that self-regulation of the print media could be strengthened, not replaced by the threat of party-political regulatory sanction.

Zuma’s 13 cows have largely gone unattended in the fury of commentary on the threat to the future of a free press in South Africa. Perhaps this indicates an unwillingness by opponents of regulation to be dragged into a debate on whether or not a free and independent press is ethically or morally obliged to support any specific ideology (whether social or political) at all.

Lynley Donnelly reported the Democratic Alliance national spokesperson Lindiwe Mazibuko as saying “This isn’t about how the press reports about the markets or about sport, or about any other issue except for the governing party. Everything relates to how the ANC is portrayed, either post Polokwane, how their leadership is portrayed or how its ideology isn’t advanced to its satisfaction in the press.”

Democratic Alliance parliamentary leader Athol Trollip wrote “The thought of losing power in an open democracy is unacceptable to the ANC. Furthermore, its baseless sense of entitlement to the South African polity and the governance thereof can brook no threats, even from an independent and inquiring media, hence the ANC’s proposal to control the free flow of information and establish an authoritarian media tribunal, both of which are inconsistent with our basic freedoms.”

The South African National Editors Forum Western Cape regional convenor Gasant Abarder commented on the ANC proposals by saying “This is probably the most precarious moment for media freedom in the life of our constitutional democracy”.

Constitutional Law expert Pierre de Vos called for a tribunal for politicians. “When these politicians (who pretend to be hysterical about media “excesses” and “mistakes”) refer to the media, they usually mean those sectors of the printed media that sometimes carry articles containing allegations of corruption, tender rigging, high-handed and heartless incompetence by politicians and senior officials; the wasting of taxpayers’ money by ministers who stay in five-star hotels for six months because they are unhappy with their official residence; the fathering of children out of wedlock by our president; or articles that do not seem to endorse the National Democratic Revolution as interpreted by Julius Malema and his woodwork buddies.”

Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi is quoted as saying “the provisions of the Bill would lead to the prosecution of trade unionists who laid their hands on sensitive government documents. Exposing government wrongdoing was a crucial weapon to trade unionists.”

Anti-apartheid activist Mamphele Ramphele said the Bill and the tribunal should “rouse all citizens from the slumber we seem to have fallen into since 1994. Politicians who feel under siege will attack the weaknesses in the current cadres of journalists … (but journalists should) not be browbeaten into believing control over the media is the solution to the problems of our country”.

SA National Editors’ Forum deputy chairman Raymond Louw said the proposed tribunal has “the potential to erode transparency, accountability by public officials and the public’s right to access to information and media freedom”.

Nineteen civil societies, including Jacana Media, the Open Democracy Advice Centre, Media Monitoring Africa, and the Gay & Lesbian Network, have signed a memorandum expressing their concerns about apparent attempts by the ANC “to strangle the media and the freedom of expression in South Africa”. Their concerns have been echoed by international observers.

Perhaps the president should marshal his cows toward his own kraal? The ANC is no longer a mirror of the diversity of South African society. It is no longer in touch with the vast majority who now demand his return from China to bring an end to what promises to be an extended public services strike by nurses and teachers. The current leadership of the ANC has misjudged and continues to misjudge its own constituency. ANC ministers who spent millions on tickets for the Fifa World Cup should not be surprised by the explosion of national scorn from workers in response to the government’s refusal to budge on union demands for an 8.6% wage increase.

South Africans are tired of being fed political ideology and social double-speak by politicians. They want real change.

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