Howls in a hurricane

For South African news media to be ignored is a fate worse than censorship.

Image: Paul Keller.

Silence in a relationship speaks volumes and in the relationship between the governing African National Congress and the South African news media, the former’s stony silence about the Mail and Guardian’s recent spread into the finances of Jacob Zuma, president of the party and the nation, is a voluble reminder of the history of hostilities between the two and its effects. The spread may also serve to renew calls for more stringent regulation of the media, not because the reports portrayed Zuma unfavourably as a ‘kept politician’ mere weeks before he is to contest for re-election but because of the editorial exception the paper applied to the reporting.

Johannesburg’s Mail & Guardian last week revealed the details of a previously unreleased 500-page KPMG report compiled in September 2006 for the National Prosecuting Authority’s investigation into allegations of corruption against Zuma. The series of articles recounted in detail how Zuma regularly accepted financial assistance from an array of unsavory and surprising characters, including his corruption-convicted former financial advisor Shabir Sheik and former president Nelson Mandela. Zuma, according to the report, received from these sources in excess of R7 million in less than five years, which he spent just as quickly to settle debts racked up to maintain his large family’s lifestyle and to upgrade his home in Nkandla, in rural KwaZulu-Natal.

Departing from the publication’s regular practice of offering pre-publication right of reply, the paper ran the articles without seeking comment from Zuma or any of the others named. Editor Nic Dawes headed off criticism for the deviation from normal practice with an editorial published alongside the articles. In it he expressed concern that his and other publications offers of a pre-publication right to reply, especially with material such as the KPMG report, which emanates from the investigations into corruption-riddled 1999 military arms acquisition deal, is treated by the state as an opportunity to prevent publication.

“Although we would have preferred to publish comments from those affected with the report, we are convinced that the risk of being prevented from publishing it at all was real,” Dawes wrote.

That, however, may not be enough to quell passable accusations that the country’s news media have thrown away all journalistic standards and ethics, as claimed by some of Zuma’s staunchest defenders and others within the ANC aggrieved by media practices in the country.

Recently planning minister and ANC national executive member Trevor Manuel penned an op-ed in the Sunday Independent taking public intellectual and former journalist William Gumede to task for a lifting quotes from a 2003 Business Day article which had later been corrected. The article quoted Manuel, who at the time was the minister of finance during the height of the country’s HIV/Aids pandemic, as saying government spending money on anti-retro viral drugs would be a waste of money. Manuel, the report said, told a closed parliamentary committee that “the rhetoric about the effectiveness of ARVs is a lot of voodoo and buying them would be a waste of limited resources.”

Other publications, journalists and columnists picked up the quote and Manuel was roundly condemned by ANC alliance partner Cosatu, opposition party MPs and HIV/Aids lobby groups. Manuel was incandescent with rage. He maintained that he’d said government’s approach to dealing with the pandemic could not rely solely on ARVs at the expense of measures to prevent the spread of the disease. And less than a week after the original report was published, Business Day editor at the time, Peter Bruce, corrected the misquote in his weekly column after checking parliament’s Hansard record. “Clearly Manuel didn’t say AIDS drugs were voodoo, which the headline said he said. So we must, and do, sincerely apologise,” Bruce wrote.

But it was too late. The correction notwithstanding, Gumede reproduced the quote in his 2005 book Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC, the first edition of which was vaguely referenced and saw him accused of plagiarism. The book has since been used as a source for other political biographies and the quote attributed to Manuel has continued to re-spawn.

Another incident which still smarts for the ANC’s leaders and members is journalist Fiona Forde’s 2009 article where Forde relied on a single source who claimed that Zuma’s deputy Kgalema Motlanthe, president at the time, had had an affair with a 24-year-old woman who was carrying his ‘love child’. The claim turned out to be false. Speaking in Cape Town in 2010 at special ANC branch meeting on media practices, ANC national executive member Pallo Jordan questioned the state of journalistic ethics and practice that allowed such a report to be published. He also questioned whose business it was anyway even if the story had been true. Journalists, he said, take public interest to mean anything the public might be interested in, which makes everything and anything in the public interest.

But these comments notwithstanding, Manuel and Jordan and others, like Cosatu secretary general Zwelinzima Vavi, are the closest things to allies and sympathisers media houses have within the ANC alliance. Jordan, for example, did not support other ANC leaders’ calls for a media appeals tribunal, a statutory body mooted two years ago to mete out fines and other punishment for media indiscretions. But even they are wary.

In the op-ed, Manuel said, “Gumede, as a journalist at the time, failed at the first hurdle which would require him ‘to exercise exceptional care and consideration’. How does society balance these interests so that it knows that the comments in the media are fair and verified? Why do journalists believe that acknowledging a lapse in judgement and an apology can make things right? They are able to rebuild their reputation, as Forde has been able to do following this faux pas. But for the rest of us, the damage is done. Where does the onus rest?”

Others within the ANC alliance, however, are less willing to question and ready to act. SA Communist Party chairperson Blade Nzimande last month reportedly told a conference of the party’s commissars that instituting a media appeals tribunal should remain an option for the ANC-led government in the face of the offensive by a media that he says has thrown away even the pretence of fairness.

“They (the media) are not even following their own press code, by the way. I don’t know why the ANC has retreated on the issue of a media tribunal,” Nzimande was quoted as saying.

According to Dawes, not only were last week’s articles on Zuma’s finances based on an unimpeachable report, the decision to publish the articles with an offer of post-publication right of reply was to the spirit of the letter of the press code. He said the code frees a publication from offering pre-publication right of reply in instances where it has reasonable grounds to believe it would be prevented from publishing, or where evidence could be destroyed and sources intimidated.

A year ago Mail & Guardian published a blacked-out article in which it was alleged that Zuma’s spokesman Mac Maharaj lied to prosecutors investigating claims that he and his wife received kickbacks from French arms manufacturer Thales. The disclosure of the content of such interviews, made in terms of section 28 of the National Prosecutions Act, without the permission of the national director of public prosecutions is a criminal offence. When offered pre-publication right of reply, Maharaj used that provision to prevent the full details from being published.

“Sam (Sole), Stefaans (Brümmer), and I still face criminal charges over the Mac (Maharaj) report. That fact legitimately increases our concern that “investigations” into us may be used to confiscate material and to go after our sources. We were extremely anxious that they be protected from discovery, intimidation, and possible reprisal. Getting the (Zuma KPMG) report into the public domain reduces that risk,” Dawes added later by email.

Nonetheless the instances of actual media indiscretions to which Manuel posed his unanswered questions and the marginal cases, such as Mail and Guardian’s reports into Zuma’s finances, have created room the ANC to ignore news reports that in many other nations and organisations would have sunk a bid for re-election.

“We cannot dignify irresponsible reporting by the Mail & Guardian. This has got nothing to do with the public office and the office of the president,” ANC spokesman Keith Khoza told the South African Press Agency. And that was that. Zuma looks set to be re-elected next week and for their sins, real and imagined, the voices of the news media are howls in a hurricane.

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