Media, Politics

Parliament and media at each others’ throats again

By Carien Du Plessis 5 October 2011

Relations between Parliament’s management and the media are tense again, and once more threats by management to gag a reporter – ironically over the Protection of State Information Bill – have led to the two sides seeking talks. After all, they need each other. CARIEN DU PLESSIS reports.

An anonymous quote over a highly contentious matter amid increasing tension between parliamentary management and journalists has this week sparked a full-blown fight.

Secretary of Parliament, Zingile Dingane, has threatened to withdraw the accreditation of a member of Independent Newspapers’ parliamentary team, Deon de Lange, after he anonymously quoted a senior parliamentary source criticising the way the ANC has handled the process around the Protection of State Information Bill.

“It’s like the blind leading the blind and (the ANC) are confusing everybody,” the official reportedly told De Lange.

They cited a draft 2009 code, which had not been agreed on by journalists, to justify their threatened action to withdraw his accreditation.

Parliamentary reporters are based in offices inside the parliamentary precinct (this was also a contested terrain a few years ago, but more about this just now). They need the accreditation to access their offices and to move about freely to attend sittings in the National Assembly and the National Council of Provinces, as well as committee meetings and press briefings at the Imbizo Media Centre.

They also need this access to visit the offices of MPs.

A few years ago, when the media offices were more centrally located, journalists didn’t even need to leave their offices, as MPs often dropped in themselves.

Journalists have been based in the Parliamentary precinct since 1910, but around 2003 – shortly before 2004 general elections, when former president Thabo Mbeki started his second term at the helm of the country – parliamentary officials started threatening to kick the media out to Parliamentary Towers, an office block just across the street from the gates of Parliament.

The reasoning was that the offices where journalists were based in the National Assembly block were needed for parliamentary staff. It’s led to some resentment, and informal reports have it that some offices are still empty, or at least underused.

The Parliamentary Press Gallery Association (PGA) fought back, with the result that journalists were booted to just near the exit, a building that was somewhat removed from the activities in Parliament – but not before their phone lines were cut off by management because the move didn’t happen quickly enough.

More recently, Parliament’s security division wanted journalists to reapply for their accreditation, and the vetting process was tightened.

Most journalists that reapplied were not granted access cards.

So the animosity isn’t new.

Head of communications in Parliament, Luzuko Jacobs, on Tuesday wrote to the PGA to ask for a meeting to talk about this “and various other issues”, including “the ways to improve our communication and service to the PGA”.

Jacobs also expressed concern that journalists, when quoting nameless sources from Parliament, would be “coopted into personal and group agendas”, manipulated and given selective information. He added that “truth is mixed up with malicious falsities to malign people and to cast aspersions”.

The PGA said in a statement on Tuesday, issued by co-chairs Donwald Pressly and Joylene van Wyk, that Parliament had “pernicious intent” when it came to dealing with journalists.

The association also slammed the provisions in the draft policy, saying it would never have agreed to most of these.

“This included that journalists should not approach party support staff – itself an utterly absurd notion in a democracy – or employees of Parliament to seek information on parliamentary matters.”

The document also says all enquiries should go through the parliamentary media relations office, a notoriously slow and inefficient operation which was, ironically, responsible for circulating the draft media document which never reached any of the journalists.

It also said prohibiting journalists from interacting with parliamentary staff “would imply that interaction with ANC, DA, Cope, IFP, ACDP, Azapo, Minority Front, African People’s Convention and the Pan African Congress staff would be proscribed. It means that power struggles within any of the parties could not be reported on or analysed. It is beyond absurd because all these matters would be deeply in the public interest. It could even mean that parliamentary journalists would not be able to gain access to annual reports of departments and state entities,” the statement said.

The FF Plus and the DA, which has previously removed journalists from its mailing lists when it felt that the reporter’s work was consistently negative and unfair, both weighed into the debate, with DA parliamentary leader Athol Trollip saying in a statement that he had written to National Assembly Speaker Max Sisulu about the matter.

He said there were two issues at stake, the first being “why Parliament has allowed itself to be used to fight a party-political battle against media freedom”.

The second issue was why the “draconian draft media protocol”, devised without consulting the media, was “used to gag the press gallery”.

“It is completely inappropriate for Parliament to dictate how journalists and MPs should engage.”

The FF Plus’s Pieter Groenewald said the media was there to inform voters about the work and views of Parliament. “The secretary (Dingane) should rather manage his personnel than try to control the media. The media should be allowed to communicate freely with whomever it wishes. It always remains the other party’s prerogative to react or refrain from reacting,” Groenewald said. DM

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