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Amid outcry over DMRE ‘media-monitoring’ tender, department says minister ‘not involved’

Amid outcry over DMRE ‘media-monitoring’ tender, department says minister ‘not involved’

The department seems to regard legitimate reporting on its many shortcomings and failures as ‘media-launched attacks’. It also should monitor its own performance and address the worrying issues that we often raise.

Amnesty International and the South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) have criticised the tender issued by the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE) which seeks an “early warning system” for “media-launched attacks” against the department. Meanwhile, the DMRE says the minister is “not involved”. It turns out a similar tender was issued by the Department of Energy in 2019.

Business Maverick reported on the questionable tender on Friday last week, noting its strident use of warlike terminology and its intention to monitor the “tone” that individual journalists and publications use in their coverage of the department.

Among the deliverables is “smart monitoring” that would include “an early warning system by which the provider alerts clients via SMS/WhatsApp, of incoming media-launched attacks [italics added] on the department. Such alerts should include, but not be limited to: negative commentary, sector-related issues, defined spokesperson comments etc.”

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It also wants a breakdown and measurements of the coverage of publications and journalists. On journalists specifically, it calls for: “A breakdown of the top 10 journalists with Net Effect scores to be indicated to each journalist. The top 10 journalists for the month should be indicated in a graph, which will include information on: frequency, tone, the journalist’s name and Net Effect.”  

Sanef executive director Reggy Moalusi said it was “a worrying tender that seems to be reactionary, more than anything. It’s sad that the department would seek to resort to such. What is clear is that the media will continue covering the department, fairly and balanced, like all other organisations in the private and public sectors.”

A combative relationship

Interestingly, Business Maverick has also come across a 2019 tender issued by the Department of Energy — before it was merged with Mineral Resources — for the same service and with similar wording.

So it seems that this is a department that for years has considered itself to be in a combative relationship with the media and has been potentially monitoring the “tone” the media uses. The result of that tender is not on the department’s website and a request for a response about that — such as, did the tender go through and what company won the bid? — was sent late on Monday, so in fairness to the DMRE, it probably did not have time to respond immediately.

It did respond to some of our queries by the time we published. Asked if Minister Gwede Mantashe had any oversight, the DMRE said: “Tender processes are an administrative process and a Minister as a political head does not get involved.

“A tender process is governed by the Public Finance Management Act, and there are three committees who are responsible for different stages of a tender, eg bid specification committee, bid evaluation committee and bid adjudication committee, and the latter committee makes a recommendation to the accounting officer (DG) of the department.”

That does not necessarily mean that he would be unaware of it, but the department did not directly respond to our query on that. If the minister was unaware, at least our reporting is keeping him informed.

Asked how an “early warning system” would work to alert the department to “media-launched attacks”, the DMRE said: “We won’t be able to respond to these questions through the media as there is a planned briefing session where prospective bidders will have an opportunity to ask clarity-seeking questions.” 

War room

Human rights NGO Amnesty International South Africa called on the DMRE to reconsider the tender.

“While it is not unusual for an organisation to monitor the media related to its work, however, the wording and tone of the DMRE’s tender are concerning. Phrases like ‘an early warning system’ for ‘incoming media-launched attacks on the department’, and ‘negative commentary’ give the impression that the DMRE is setting up a war room against the media,” said Shenilla Mohamed, the executive director of Amnesty International South Africa.

“The tender document implies that the media will be under close surveillance to the extent that the names of journalists will be collected. This raises the risk of intimidation and editorial interference, all of which go against section 16 of the Constitution that states that everyone has the right to freedom of expression, including freedom of the press and other media.”

Mohamed also noted that the DMRE often says it does not have the resources to do its job properly on other far more pressing and critical fronts.

“Interestingly, in our engagements with officials from the DMRE around the rights violations by mining companies of the communities who live around the mines, they often state that they do not have the resources to monitor the social labour plans (SLPs) of mining operations, which they are legally obligated to do,” Mohamed said.

“But they seem to have resources for a media monitoring system. The DMRE must first fulfil its mandate to uphold the human rights of mining communities across South Africa. It would not need to be nervous of the media if it just fulfilled its obligations openly and transparently.”

Threatened — by legitimate reporting

That gets to the heart of the matter. The department seems to regard legitimate reporting on its many shortcomings and failures — a frequent staple of this publication which is part of our job and a public duty — as “media-launched attacks”. Perhaps it should monitor its own performance and address the worrying issues that we often raise.

This also speaks to costs, which are critical in the current economic environment. Government departments clearly need to tighten their belts as state funds are scarce. If the department lacks the resources to fulfil its legal regulatory obligations, how can it justify this expenditure, which does not appear to be a legal requirement?  

One PR practitioner who spoke to Business Maverick said there was nothing wrong with “sentiment analysis” tools being employed by an organisation to measure perceptions about it in the media. But they raised concerns about the language.

“‘Media-launched attacks’ does not sound like a very professional comms person came up with it. It’s defensive and politicians tend to view it that way. It appeals to people who think they are in a war and it’s someone who is feeding the anxiety of their principal,” the expert said.

That speaks to another issue at play here. The minister may not be involved in the process, but the department is feeding the anxieties of their principal by employing such language. And this language has been used since at least 2019.

One thing is clear: this is a tender that the media is going to monitor very closely. That’s not the launch of an attack. It’s called bringing the light of transparency to the department’s operations. DM/BM

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  • Andrew Blaine says:

    A knee-jerk reaction by an underworked, and overpaid, department which appears incapable of getting its story straight?
    Maybe early warning will facilitate the creation of a sellable dream in place of the current nightmare?

  • Steven D says:

    If Greedy Gwede doesn’t fancy the deservedly scathing attacks on him and his inept department, maybe he should do his job properly…

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