South Africa

South Africa

Analysis: Was BLF vs. Bruce really just a warm-up?

The battle between media and Black First Land First (BLF) looked set to intensify on Monday, as SANEF proceeded with the necessary steps for an interdict against BLF which, for its part, was not backing down. On the contrary, it says, it’s just getting started. By MARELISE VAN DER MERWE.

Fascists despised the small truths of daily existence, loved slogans that resonated like a new religion, and preferred creative myths to history or journalism. They used new media, which at the time was radio, to create a drumbeat of propaganda that aroused feelings before people had time to ascertain facts. And now, as then, many people confused faith in a hugely flawed leader with the truth about the world we all share. Post-truth is pre-fascism.

– Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny

Warm-up

Don’t panic, [Peter Bruce],” Andile Mngxitama Tweeted on 1 July. “We just getting started [sic].” The caption alongside read: “It is quite evident that BLF is giving white monopoly capital sleepless nights. The interesting point is that BLF is just warming up. In fact, we are just stretching before striking out. The panic by white monopoly capital is unjustified and premature. More to come…”

BLF added: “To Webber Wentzel we say: ‘Watch out, we may just pay you a visit too!’”

They may still be stretching, but BLF haven’t been napping. A warning was issued by the South African National Editors Forum (SANEF),via their legal team at Webber Wentzel, that BLF should undertake not to harass or intimidate the journalists mentioned on their list (which at the time of writing linked to a suspended page) by noon on 1 July. The group, for its part, declined. In response to Police Minister Fikile Mbalula’s condemnation of media harassment on Sunday, they took to Twitter in no uncertain terms. “The right to protest is a fundamental right enshrined in the Constitution. This is not a police state,” they said.

BLF is also clear that any cover-up of white monopoly capital corruption would be fought.”

Speaking to Daily Maverick on Monday, SANEF Deputy Chairperson – and one of BLF’s intended targets – Katy Katopodis said SANEF was proceeding with the interdict and intended to finalise it urgently:

We are continuing with the legal process because there has been an escalation,” she said. “The number of journalists targeted continues to grow. We are continuing because even despite the warnings from the Minister of Police, the threats and warnings continue.”

BLF had not updated the list as such but it was clear from social media that the group had no intention of backing down, Katopodis said.

There were 12 applicants on the interdict, she confirmed – SANEF as first applicant, with BLF’s specified journalists as applicants 2-12.

Meanwhile, besides the BLF-SANEF battle, a new anonymous report popped up not unlike those written about Sam Sole and Peter Bruce. On 2 July, a story appeared on the website dodgysaministers.com, citing a “trusted whistle-blower”. The report claims a corrupt relationship between journalist Moipone Malefane and her husband, the SACP’s Solly Mapaila, who – according to the report – use a “bullying work style to acquire tenders”.

There are various … cases and names which we will gradually reveal as we are on the verge of receiving more interactive emails regarding this multi-billion scandal from our trusted whistle-blowers,” the report reads.

Tell us how you really feel

Fikile Mbalula spoke of “suffocating” those who harassed journalists; SANEF is taking out its interdict. Is this going to blow over? Not likely.

Unisa media analyst Dr Julie Reid, of the Media and Democracy project, told Daily Maverick she was deeply concerned. But, she added, it was not always helpful to focus on single incidents or short-term periods. “When you’re looking at media freedom you should take a bird’s-eye perspective rather than zoning in,” she said. “The death of Suna Venter or the harassment of Peter Bruce should be seen in a greater scheme.”

Threats to journalistic freedom are multilayered and complex, she argued, but there are overarching patterns. For Reid, these boil down to four key areas: first, legislative issues, such as the Hate Speech Bill or the Film and Publications Amendment Bill.

Second, surveillance developments, some of which have previously been covered in Daily Maverick. These include the expansion of surveillance capacity and the lack of oversight. “This is occurring in an unbridled way and we don’t actually know the full extent,” Reid said. This has far-reaching implications, for instance the protection of sources; in extreme cases, it can place whistle-blowers at risk of violence or assassination. “We already know journalists are under surveillance,” says Reid.

Third, direct threats on journalists. These include being forced to delete photos, being rounded up and/ or being arrested by police. “These are incredibly blatant, open threats on people that are heavily politicised,” says Reid. This is exacerbated by what Reid calls “the conspiracy of silence by journalists themselves”, which may be attributed to pride, fear, or a belief that they should tell the story, not be the story.

Fourth, the growing phenomenon of fake news, not restricted to South Africa. “In South Africa, there are sites believed to be Gupta-sponsored,” says Reid. “Then there are fake public relations campaigns, really just made to discredit.”

But the key concern for Reid is that the environment is deteriorating so rapidly. It is not a gradual process, she says: less than a decade ago, there was widespread outrage when Sunday Times journalist Mzlikazi wa Africa was arrested. Today, intimidation of journalists is more widespread, yet responses are more complacent. “I am an academic, not a journalist, and yet I have received death threats and been forced out of my car at gunpoint for what I have written [on media freedom],” says Reid. “There is a clampdown on critical thought of any kind, and it is not gradual, it is fast. It is really quite worrying. We don’t give it enough attention.”

William Bird of Media Monitoring Africa was similarly concerned, telling Daily Maverick the media was in “a great deal” of trouble. “We know that much of these battles surround the split within the ANC,” he said. “As tensions grow and pressure mounts, we can expect more attacks. Which is why clear and unambiguous statements and actions by the ANC and government are so essential.”

Bird added that there should be very real concern for journalists’ safety. “What these attacks do is legitimise a response to media that one disagrees with,” he said. “Suna [Venter] and the SABC 8 were deliberately targeted for not toeing the line, and management, who knew they had no counter, could only resort to violence and intimidation.”

No shortcuts

According to Bird, quite a lot could be done in the short term to ensure media freedom, but “strong, clear and unambiguous responses” were required from all key stakeholders. “We have seen some from the ANC and Minister of Communications. Also belatedly the Minister of Police, but we need to see more than condemnation – clear support and reiteration of the importance of media freedom, as well as real follow-up and communication on the investigation into the intimidation and violence against the SABC8.”

Condemnation of those who threaten journalists was crucial from civil society as well, he said, as well as support for the legal responses to those threatening media.

Reid was less optimistic. She believes that until those in power have nothing to hide, media freedom will not be secure. So until corruption is rooted out, media freedom will be in jeopardy. The trouble, it seems, is that corruption is currently a matter of perspective.

Reid points out that recent research by Unisa found that the overwhelming majority of South Africans who receive news receive it from the SABC. Access, therefore, is almost a more pressing problem than media freedom. Until more South Africans can access media fairly, media freedom does not affect them.

You have to have a groundswell of popular support for journalistic freedom of expression,” says Reid. “That’s sometimes difficult to do. A lot of people at grass-roots level feel very disconnected from the media sector. Their issues aren’t represented enough, are misrepresented, or they feel the media doesn’t care about their stories. And a large proportion of the people in the country can’t access the media. So why would they take to the streets to defend that media? The media sector will have to do some introspection. They will not win this fight alone.”

And whatever else they may disagree on, Reid agrees with BLF that the events of last week probably signalled protracted conflict. “What we saw outside Peter Bruce’s place was mild,” she said. “All the media has in its pocket at present is public support, and at the moment they don’t have a lot of it.”

Mbalula, at any rate, seemed fairly fired up over the weekend. “When people attack journalists in their homes we are going very soon to arrest them… that concerns my citizens’ right to freedom of speech,” he said. “The day we allow people to march to the houses of their children, while they work in their own workplaces, that will be wrong. That is why, when people were marching to the Guptas, we hit you [with] stun grenades, because we don’t want you to do that.

When people march to Solly Mapaila, we must hit them hard. When people march to Peter Bruce, we must hit them hard. When you march to my house, I finish you,” he said.

He added that the Ministry of Police could not allow such protests because it would be convenient due to disagreeing with the journalists, or because they were said to be linked to white monopoly capital. “[We must] suffocate these people because they are undermining our democratic right and we must protect citizens against that abuse.”

BLF, for its part, seemed unconvinced. “BLF has maintained its position that it supports freedom of expression and freedom of the media. But we shall not tolerate any acts of racism being committed under pretext of practising journalism,” it said. “No one can protect racist journalists. BLF notes misguided clownish comments by the so called Minister of Police about ‘suffocating’ people. Minister [Mbalula] is giving racist journalists false hope.”

The group was “exposing racism and massive corruption cover-up by white monopoly capital”, it added. DM

Photo: Black First Land First leader Andile Mngxitama. Picture: Facebook.com via EWN

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