South Africa

Somewhere over the rainbow: the media, the enemy

By Ranjeni Munusamy 31 May 2013

This is Child Protection Week, but it might just as well have been Blame the Media week. It is becoming a common refrain to accuse the media for projecting events in South Africa negatively, as has been witnessed this week in relation to the troubles in Cosatu, the image of the National Prosecuting Authority and the crisis in the mining industry that is badly impacting the entire country. Even the Gupta family believes that the media is on its case, not because they violated national security, but because of a racist agenda. So it seems the answer to South Africa’s problems: let's get a pair of rose-tinted glasses for every journalist. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

A high-profile businessman recently held a meeting with President Jacob Zuma at the presidential residence in Pretoria while the Guptagate scandal was playing out. A television set was on in the room and the news bulletin was reporting the latest developments around the landing of a planeload of wedding guests at Waterkloof Air Force Base.

The businessman felt awkward but was intrigued to see Zuma’s reaction. He says the president raised his eyes to the television as the news item came on and watched it intently. As the item concluded, the businessman says Zuma clucked his tongue and said “Hayi but the media!”

This is a fascinating and rare insight into what Zuma saw as the problem with the matter. While the brazen abuse of the military facility by the family and the failure of the government machinery to stop it from happening shocked the country, it is intriguing that the president’s default reaction was to deride the media reporting of the issue.

But this was just one person’s version of what he experienced and the public does not have the benefit of any direct interaction with Zuma on the issue to be able to gauge his overall reaction. All there has been was a passing line in an SABC interview with the president early on in the saga when Zuma cautioned that the matter should be handled carefully so as not to jeopardise South Africa’s relations with India. And then there was the media statement by Zuma’s spokesman Mac Maharaj following the release of the investigation report by directors-general condemning the use of the president’s name to secure the landing rights.

But the businessman’s account of the president’s reaction to the Guptagate scandal is consistent with how the ANC and its alliance partners generally perceive media reporting on current affairs. There is a perception that the media has a surreptitious agenda to project the government and the three alliance partners, the ANC, the SACP and Cosatu, in a negative light.

While the SACP general secretary Blade Nzimande is perhaps the most vocal proponent of this view, labelling journalists as “professional cynics” and “prophets of doom” driving a “neo-liberal agenda”, there is now a growing tendency in the alliance and in government to cast the media as unpatriotic, purveyors of negative sentiment and instigators of problems. The irony is that many of these statements are made to the media in press conferences with the expectation that this specific condemnation be reported by the journalists, rather than what they find newsworthy.

On Sunday, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) held a media briefing to report on the outcome of its central committee meeting last week. The NUM has been in the news frequently in the past year due to turbulence in the mining industry, its epic battles with the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), and its dramatic losses in membership. The NUM is also a chief protagonist in the leadership battle playing out in Cosatu. Despite the nature of the news being negative in the terrain the NUM operates in – strikes, retrenchments, violence and intense wage negotiations – the union is convinced that the media has a deliberate agenda to project it in a negative light.

The NUM media statement on Sunday read as follows: “The CC noted with grave concern inaccurate reporting by the media; the lack of investigation and ethical media conduct is disturbing. The media seems hell-bent on distorting events in the mining industry to serve a particular interest and have written the obituary of the NUM.”

This week Cosatu held a highly anticipated central executive committee (CEC) meeting to decide on the fate of its general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi following accusations from some affiliate unions that he was involved in impropriety and fraud. Despite leaders in the affiliate unions and the national leadership feeding the media cycle from last year on the internal battles and the crusade to remove Vavi from his position, Cosatu came out of its stalled CEC meeting and lashed the media for reporting on the federation’s troubles.

In a bizarre about-face, Cosatu claimed its leadership was united and that the factional battles and skirmishes during the meeting were all a media fabrication.

“The media and their sources together want to try to divide and weaken the federation, and to set the agenda for COSATU meetings. They failed this week and we are determined that they will never succeed,” Cosatu said in a media briefing on Wednesday.

On the same day, Justice and Constitutional Development Minister Jeff Radebe was briefing the media on the work of his department ahead of his budget speech in Parliament. The media was naturally interested in what the minister had to say on the performance of the National Prosecuting Authority in light of its recent bad run of bungled prosecutions and resultant public outrage. As reported in Daily Maverick, Radebe became defensive when interrogated by journalists on the NPA’s recent controversies.

“I am satisfied that they are doing a good job,” Radebe said, saying the high conviction rate and jail overcrowding were evidence of this. But he lost his cool with a journalist who said this argument was “nonsensical”.

Radebe hit back: “I don’t think you know what you’re talking about. So the nonsense you’re talking about is with you, not with the system!”

Later during the debate on the justice department’s budget, Radebe’s deputy Andries Nel was more forthright about his views on the media. Bemoaning the lack of positive coverage of the department and sketching a number of stories which he thought were newsworthy, Nel said: “Regrettably, honourable members, your chances of reading about these stories are negligible – the news is either simply too good to be profitable or too fundamentally at odds with the preconceived notions of the prophets of doom.

“Those in the media who want to tell these stories, and they are there, are afraid to do so for fear of being branded as stooges of government who are not truly independent,” Nel said.

On Thursday, Zuma addressed a hastily convened media conference to talk up the economy on the back of poor first-quarter growth data and to calm fears around volatility in the mining industry. After outlining interventions to support the mining industry, Zuma said South Africa should enhance its strengths, including tourism.

During a brief question session, Zuma was asked whether South Africa would not have a greater number of tourists if it had fewer scandals. Zuma’s response was that South Africa had a “good story to tell” and that the incidents of police brutality and corruption were due to “openness”. Incidents of police violence and brutality were far more frequent under Apartheid, Zuma said.

Rather than committing to deal with these problems which had a negative impact on the image of the country, Zuma rather used the benchmark of Apartheid to measure current incidents against. As the media briefing concluded, a chuckling Zuma said to the journalists: “Just report nicely about South Africa.”

Although this was said in jest, the import of Zuma’s message on Thursday was that the media would help the economy along if it were more positive in its reporting of South Africa. Of course the president cannot be faulted for wanting his country to be portrayed in more glowing terms and is rightly worried about the economy. But it is not the media’s responsibility to fix the economy. It is Zuma and his Cabinet’s duty to do so, as well as business and labour.

It is quite easy to confuse patriotism and sunshine journalism. One is the love of your country, the other is deliberately swaying the story to project the subject in a positive light. Although everyone in South Africa’s political leadership claim they support a free and unrestrained media, it would appear from recent utterances that some of them would prefer a less critical, probing media. But reporting on scandals does not make the media unpatriotic, much to the contrary these are in the public interest.

What is unpatriotic are politicians abusing their office and stealing public money, and public officials deliberately misleading the public.

Some of the statements about the media are now veering from criticism to outright hostility and blame for the stories they report. The approach is shortsighted and disregards the real source of the problems besetting the country. A compliant and sycophantic media does not make a country prosper; if it did, Zimbabwe would be the most thriving state on the continent. The secret of success is good and clean leadership in all spheres in society.

Clearly, South Africa does not have that. DM

Photo by Reuters


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