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Deconstructing Zuma and his letter on the media tribunal

De Wet is the deputy editor of The Daily Maverick. Not having the imagination to even try anything other than journalism (or any medium other than words), he has spent all his adult life writing about what everybody else is doing. He has written about technology and telecommunications, business, politics, the property market, unusual medical conditions and, for a brief interlude, movies. He has participated in the closing-down of one daily newspaper and two magazines, but implausibly claims that none of it was his fault.

It's not personal, the President tells the media. So stop being such cry-babies, and let's talk about all the things that are wrong with the media in South Africa. Which would have been not at all concerning, except that the President apparently (a) has no idea of the deep introspection already happening within the media, (b) believes it's as simple as "ANC good, media bad" fight, and (c) thinks government performance should only be judged by those who are in tune with ANC objectives.

President Jacob Zuma wrote his already infamous letter, published on the ANC website on Saturday, as head of the party. But it shows a level of personal ignorance and belligerence, and a willingness to conflate unrelated issues, which bode ill for his actions as head of the country. In 2,400 words he has shown that he considers the media to be anti-patriotic, the (lying and slandering) enemies of the ANC, corrupted by commercial interests and in dire need of regulation.

It leaves little doubt as to his willingness to sign into law the Protection of Information Bill currently before Parliament, or legislation for the creation of a media tribunal, should either reach his desk.

Zuma’s starting point is that the ANC is the protector of freedom and the common man, and can do no evil. In this case literally and in perpetuity; the proposed media tribunal, he says, “was never and will never be used to settle scores or to undermine the Constitution of the Republic” and, later more generally, “the ANC does not, and will never pose any threat to media freedom”.

So, then, why all this outcry about a little Parliamentary oversight of the media? Clearly it must be rooted in some basic misunderstanding. “Arguments that the ANC wants to muzzle the print media is premised on a falsehood that the ruling party, the ANC, has no ethics, morals and values and that it does not want the media to expose some of its cadres when they are in trouble with the law, including corruption.”

There, problem solved. You can only believe that the ANC wants to silence its critics if you first believe that the ANC is some malignant tumour feeding off society. As it can do no evil (see above) all those arguments are clearly invalid, and we can all move on with our lives.

At no point does Zuma mention, or even allude to, the legislative context in which this proposal comes: Recent attempts at pre-publication censorship in the Films and Publications amendment process, proposals for Internet censorship, the Protection of Information Bill. He twice dismisses the context of recent reporting on dodgy deals by cabinet ministers and police chiefs, saying it is no good “dwelling on individual experiences” as these have nothing to do with the media tribunal idea. It’s pure co-incidence, see?

But he does see fit to dwell on the state of the media these days, the fierce competition for readers and advertising, the pressure from advertisers. These issues, Zuma says, the media does not talk about. “They talk about press freedom and perceived potential external threats to it from government, the ruling party and not threats from commercial interests… the debate about ‘who pays for the news’ must also be opened.”

Let’s practice a bit of that positive, glass-half-full journalism the ANC would like to see more of. It would seem that the President has somehow missed the many decades of debates and arguments and introspection about separating the commercial and public interests of media organisations. That he has been too busy to notice the hundreds of papers and panels and conferences, both locally and throughout much of the rest of the world, dedicated to these problems. The thousands of hours of airtime, the hundreds of kilometres of newsprint used to agonise over things he says are never talked about. Because he is clearly far too noble and upstanding a man to ever play the disingenuous politician who flatly ignores all that doesn’t fit in with his world view.

But it’s hard to stay that polite when Zuma tells you he draws some of his inspiration on these matters from Russia, starts equating journalism with teaching and engineering or questions the media’s ability to judge the government.

All professionals require oversight to protect the public should they abuse their power, Zuma says, “from teachers to architects, doctors, engineers, politicians, lawyers and others”. An interesting list. Notice how none of those professions has a watchdog role over the government, and how none of them has ever reported on, say, extensive and systematic fraud committed by the parliamentarians who can now be trusted to construct a suitable statutory regulation mechanism.

Then there is perhaps the most telling of the questions he says needs to be debated. “Are we on the same wavelength regarding where South Africa should go politically, socially and economically? Does the media understand this well enough to articulate it to South Africans, to enable to accurately judge government action and performance?”

Well, we can’t argue with that. It does indeed take a deep understanding of government’s social vision to judge service delivery. Calling a housing scheme a failure simply because the houses start falling down a couple of years after they are built is a shaming show of ignorance. Pointing out that a rural community was promised water and sanitation, but never received it is nothing more than a lack of understanding. Linking an economically devastating rise in electricity prices to a government failure a decade ago, that just shows lack of vision. It’s not as if the government or the ANC regularly publishes programmes of action that can be used as checklists down the line or anything like that.

The best thing that can be said about Zuma’s letter is that he makes no attempt whatsoever to disguise his attitude. We now know, without a shadow of doubt, that upcoming discussions around censorship legislation and political oversight of the media are more likely to be fistfights than debates, and that Zuma won’t be too concerned with keeping his hits above the belt.

Sorry, Mister President. It’s nothing personal. We just see no reason to think otherwise anymore.


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