Yusuf Abramjee, head of news and current affairs at Primedia and chairman of the National Press Club, has been the media’s point man in terms of the reaction to the events of the past few weeks. He reveals to us what’s been going on behind the scenes, and what it would take for a news boycott of Julius Malema to be put into practice.
On Tuesday, April 13, a column appeared in the Pretoria News under the header “There is still hope for this country”. In South Africa, those seven words have been written so often – in that precise order – that they’ve just about been stripped of their meaning. This time, however, was different. The picture on top of the header was of a well-known and respected face in media circles, and the name confirmed it: we were dealing here with someone deep on the inside, a person who not only had access to the facts while others were dealing in conjecture, but a person with the power to change things.
As head of news and current affairs at Primedia Broadcasting, Yusuf Abramjee is the man ultimately responsible for South Africa’s most important radio stations. (If you think that any other commercial station, or indeed any of the SABC radio brands, do as much to hold our democratic institutions to account as Talk Radio 702 or 567 Cape Talk, you probably work for one of those stations). Abramjee is also the chairman of the National Press Club, an amalgamation of journalists, news photographers and communications professionals that’s been operating in the interests of a free media since 1975. In short, what he says matters.
So when Abramjee wrote on Tuesday that “developments over the past ten days have brought South Africa’s national psyche to an all-time low,” it wasn’t a cliché offered by your bipolar relative at the dinner table. He meant it, and what he was referring to was the racial polarisation brought about by Eugene Terre’Blanche’s murder and funeral on the one hand, and Julius Malema’s incendiary behaviour on the other.
Photo: Primedia Broadcasting’s Yusuf Abramjee
In an interview with The Daily Maverick on the same day the column was printed, Abramjee gave more background to his comments. He traced the slide into our current national condition to the moment in March that journalists exposed Malema’s dodgy business practices, and the ensuing allegations, from 19 of South Africa’s top political journalists, that senior members of the ANC Youth League were spying on them.
“When I met Jacob Zuma at the National Press Club awards,” Abramjee told us, “I raised the issue with him, I said we were concerned. To which he publicly responded at the awards event with a question: ‘Why’s there a need to spy on the media?’”
Be that as it may, Abramjee continued, there were repeated instances of media abuse by the Youth League in the following weeks. The “name-calling of journalists” in the organisation’s press releases continued apace until Malema booted a BBC reporter from a news conference last Thursday, calling him a “bloody agent” and a “bastard”.
“The BBC reporter might have been a bit out of order when he interjected out of question time,” said Abramjee, “but even if he interjected, Malema should not have responded the way he did.”
Last Friday at 2pm, while thousands of neo-Nazis were following the corpse of Eugene Terre’Blanche to its final resting place on a farm outside Ventersdorp, a media summit was held amongst members of the National Press Club, the South African National Editors Forum, The Professional Journalists’ Association, the South African Freelancers Association, and the Foreign Correspondents Association.
Abramjee chaired the meeting, and he allowed two hours for debate, most of which was taken up by the subject of Julius Malema. “One or two people suggested a news blackout of Malema,” Abramjee told us. “The meeting was off-the-record, so I can’t give their names, but they were senior editors, one from a Sunday newspaper. In the end the discussion was unanimous; a news blackout was not the way to go.”
The consensus was that the media should instead engage President Zuma, said Abramjee, and ask him to discipline Malema.
Another point agreed on at the meeting was that if in future a journalist is kicked out of a news conference by a political leader (such as Malema), the other journalists present should act “according to their conscience” when deciding to walk out in solidarity. “We can’t dictate to people what to do,” Abramjee explained, “we can only encourage them.” (Of course, it’s clear from these words what Abramjee thinks the proper response would be).
According to Abramjee, the office of the presidency has already been contacted, and Zuma is willing to meet a media delegation to discuss the Malema problem when he returns from a trip to the United States. As for the president’s press conference last Saturday, where Malema – although not mentioned by name – was called to order, the media body is satisfied. “We believe it’s one of the strongest statements on media freedom that the president has made to date,” said Abramjee.
A question that media organisations have faced in the last week, Abramjee added, is why they’re coming down hard on Malema and the Youth League and not on the AWB. “The day after Terre’Blanche was murdered, we condemned the white racists who intimidated black journalists. Also, the AWB guy walking out of an eTV studio, that type of behaviour is shocking. We’re not picking on anyone. All we’re asking is that the media is treated professionally and with dignity.”
Importantly, Abramjee revealed to us that last Thursday night, a few hours after he’d stripped his proverbial moer at the BBC reporter, Malema called and asked for a meeting with the media. It was a personal call to Abramjee himself. “He was prepared to talk about the BBC incident,” Abramjee said. “But at the media summit the next day we decided it wasn’t necessary. We wanted to speak to the president of the ANC instead.”
The big question here is this: What if the president’s words last Saturday were empty? What if there’s no follow-through? What if Malema continues to behave as if he’s accountable to no-one and nothing but his bank account and his inbuilt inclination to demagoguery?
Said Abramjee: “If nothing happens and he carries on, we’ll convene an urgent meeting. If at that stage we decide there needs to be a news boycott of Malema, then that’s what we’ll do. But that’s a last resort. Boycotting was a technique used by the apartheid government; they used to institute news blackouts. At the same time, though, we as the media fought against apartheid; we can decide on our own strategy.”
By Kevin Bloom
Photo: South Africa’s African National Congress Youth League President Julius Malema attends a rally for Zimbabwe’s ruling ZANU PF party at Stodat Grounds in Harare April 3 2010. Check out the shirt. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo