A high-level panel on media ethics and credibility says Mines and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe showed “executive contempt” for the media when he made public allegations that he had paid R70,000 to Sunday World journalists to kill a story about him.
“The Sunday World claimed to have Mantashe recorded on tape admitting to this bribery or subornation of journalists,” said the panel. The allegations were then retracted without explanation and the Sunday World editor-in-chief Makhudu Sefara is now the Sunday Times deputy editor.
Mantashe alleged publicly that he paid the hush money to journalists at the title to stop further details of his sex life being made public. (For background, read this.) He is colloquially called “Tiger” because of previous revelations by a woman who compared him favourably to Finance Minister Tito Mboweni.
The panel made 69 wide-ranging findings to improve media credibility and ethics and said that fear and loathing within newsrooms were a risk to the media. Also, it said that journalists’ safety and security was often undermined. Retired Judge Kathy Satchwell chaired the panel with panellists Nikiwe Bikitsha and Rich Mkhondo, both media luminaries.
“While the panel is not necessarily in agreement that there has been either criminal or civil wrongdoing on the part of Minister Mantashe, this is nevertheless a prime exemplar of political and executive disregard and contempt for the media. Either Mr Mantashe did bribe journalists, in which case he has no respect for the institution of the media.
“Or Mr Mantashe did not bribe journalists, in which case making an on-the-record allegation and then retracting it without explanation is contemptuous of the media and media practitioners’ function and standing. That a Cabinet minister should escape censure from his political confrères indicates a disregard for a fundamental democratic institution, which one informant described as ‘important as the Constitutional Court’.
“Such incidents demonstrate that not only is there subornation and disrespect for the media, but also a growing discourse on the part of politicians that deliberately undermines trust in and the credibility of the media,” said the panellists.
Panellist Mkhondo said the biggest risk to the media was poor working conditions.
“I feel petrified and saddened by the fear and loathing in newsrooms. It was quite clear they were working under difficult conditions. [It’s the kind of] newsroom [where there is] fear, loathing, factionalism and pressure from above [management],” he said. The panel identified “vulnerability” as a condition of journalism, be it about toxic workplaces or the constant fear of retrenchments.
The independent ethics inquiry was commissioned by the South African National Editors’ Forum. DM
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