Sowetan’s decision to run Eric Miyeni’s hate-filled column plunged the media to a new low says Wits journalism head Anton Harber. The former Mail & Guardian editor believes Avusa must be held accountable for a series of failings that brings all press into disrepute at a time when government seeks to regulate media freedoms. By MANDY DE WAAL.
Publishing Eric Miyeni’s invective on Ferial Haffajee plays directly into the hands of a government that seeks to limit press and information freedoms says Anton Harber, who directs the Journalism and Media Studies Programme at Wits University.
“Miyeni’s column was completely out of order,” says Harber. “In my definition this was hate speech, and I favour a narrow definition. We must look to what is embedded in the Constitution to guide us, and Miyeni’s column speaks directly to the threat of imminent violence. Miyeni’s line about necklacing was a fatwa-like threat. A threat like that stifles debate and discussion, and is not in any way acceptable.”
The Bill of Rights contained in the Constitution states “everyone has the right to freedom of expression”, but this cannot be extended to the “incitement of imminent violence” or “advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion, and that constitutes incitement to cause harm”.
“I absolutely support Miyeni’s right to question, and even to be rude or obnoxious. But linking this to the threat of necklacing is anti-freedom of speech because it threatens Ferial for her opinion. You can’t raise the threat of physical violence because you don’t agree with someone.”
Harber says Miyeni has been “writing idiotically” in Sowetan for some time. In June Miyeni summarily dismissed Anton Harber’s “Diepsloot” and Jacob Dlamini’s “Native Nostalgia” without having read either book. More recently Miyeni took another swipe at Dlamini’s work in a manner that showed he had still not read the book.
Harber says Avusa has to answer for the debacle. “Editors have to take responsibility for what appears in their newspapers. Columns shouldn’t be a ‘free for all’. Whoever took the decision to run Miyeni’s column must be held responsible,” says Harber, who helped launch Sowetan as the paper’s deputy chief sub-editor.
Ironically some three years ago Harber sat on an eponymous commission called by Avusa after a series of embarrassing retractions at the Sunday Times due to inaccuracies. The commission tabled recommendations which Harber subsequently said had largely not been implemented. Speaking to Daily Maverick reporter Michelle Solomon, Harber said he was “disappointed” because Avusa had been given a “useful set of tools to use and they missed the opportunity” to improve.
Harber’s disappointed with Avusa again, but this time over Sowetan’s bad editorial decisions. “We are sitting with a situation where collectively journalists are being accused of irresponsibility, and if the editor of Sowetan isn’t accountable, it fuels this argument.” Late on Wednesday Avusa announced that Len Maseko had stepped down and was to be replaced by Mpumelelo Mkhabela, former editor of Daily Dispatch.
“Sowetan has become increasingly tabloid as it has come under pressure from the Daily Sun. For me when Aggrey Klaaste was editor of the newspaper, I knew what it stood for. It had a character and a viewpoint. If you ask me what Sowetan stands for today, I wouldn’t be able to tell you,” says Harber. “Charges of sensationalism often levelled against Sowetan are true. The rise and rise of local tabloids have made the paper’s life hard, but they have largely responded by resorting to sensationalism.” Harber adds that Sowetan often favours sensationalism as a means to drive the paper’s sales.
Sowetan enjoyed its heyday soon after Aggrey Klaaste took over as editor in the late 1980s and as the legendary newsman pioneered a concept of “nation building” aimed at, in part, promoting inter-racial reconciliation. Under Klaaste Sowetan became a top selling newspaper, if not the best read paper in South Africa. By 2006 it had a circulation of 124,000 and claimed a readership of 1.6 million.
Five years later Sowetan’s circulation and readership figures are stagnant and the latest report from the Audit Bureau of Circulation shows the numbers are much the same. By comparison Daily Sun has been a local publishing phenomenon and was the first newspaper to achieve the massive circulation and readership volumes it has. Although Daily Sun has also felt the pain of a circulation fall off pervasive in the daily newspaper sector at present, the title’s figures still look strong with a circulation of 400,699 and readership of just more than 5 million.
Harber says the reason for Daily Sun’s enduring popularity is because it continues to give voice to people in communities who are otherwise marginalised by mainstream print media. “If you flip through the pages of Daily Sun you will see the faces and voices of working-class South Africa, and of the poor. Other newspapers simply don’t cover working-class life as well. You seldom see or hear these voices in the rest of the media.” DM
"A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason." ~ Thomas Paine