Within hours of the publication of this column, we received word of the death of Jackson Mthembu’s brother. Though that does not change the content of this column, it makes the timing of its publication regrettable, and we would like to express our heartfelt condolences to the Mthembu family.
Speaking to Jackson Mthembu about media freedom is a lot like Groundhog Day. The message is strangely similar to the interview I had with then-ANC spokeswoman Jessie Duarte two years ago when she told me about the media conspiracy against the ruling party.
All that’s changed is the tone and the voracity with which the ANC is forcing a gag down the media’s throat. In September 2008 a diplomatic and congenial Duarte told me how the ANC knew about a “cartel” of journalists from Avusa, Caxton and the Independent Group who would sit in Newtown on Thursday nights to determine the news in an effort to influence the ANC.
“We are aware that every Thursday night a group of journalists sits together in Newtown and decides what stories they will go into. This is very clear when we do our analysis. What we see is a pack approach,” said Duarte at the time. “What we all don’t want is for the media to influence the agenda of the ANC and this is a very real concern.”
Fast forward two years and I’m speaking to Mthembu, and the message is eerily the same, albeit with a change in tone. Unlike Duarte who politely, yet firmly tried to steer conversation, but listened to questions, Mthembu has all the diplomacy of a jackboot.
He talks over you. You have to interrupt to get a question in edgeways, and he gives the impression of an ANC that lectures, but refuses to listen. I remember clearly that Duarte’s timbre kept an even keel throughout our conversation, even during more sensitive questions. Not so for Mthembu who audibly rankles when he’s interrupted and slams the phone down when a prickly subject is broached, but more on that later.
A forceful, rather than perceptive politician, some secrets to Mthembu’s spin doctoring could be called “bandwagoning” as evidenced by his declaration that there was “overwhelming support” for a media appeals tribunal, as well as disinformation and demonising the enemy as seen with his attack on the Mail & Guardian. Like Duarte before him, Mthembu is enraged by the media’s use of what the ANC calls “ghost sources”, off-the-record informants or anonymous whistleblowers that tip the press off about events unfolding within the ANC or tripartite alliance.
Mthembu uses the old propagandist staple of repetition, repetition, repetition very liberally. In our interview he told me no less than eight times that the self-regulatory system used by the press to address complaints against the media was flawed. In fact, he graduated his positionfrom first saying the system was flawed, to outright declaration that it was completely defunct and useless.
Asked whether the ANC had taken complaints to the Press Council, the ombudsman or the press appeals panel, Mthembu said the ruling party had chosen not to use the system of late because it wasn’t working. “We have taken some (complaints). That’s why they have a problem with the self-regulatory environment. That’s why the advent of the MAT (media appeals tribunal – Ed) because we have taken some already. We have taken many complaints that took years,” said Mthembu. This begged the question how did the ANC know the self-regulatory system was a failure if the ANC wasn’t using it?
Mthembu repeatedly stressed that the ANC’s insistence on a tribunal and the party’s position against press self-regulation was a cause that was being fought for everyman. That it was a battle taken up for everyone who’d ever been wronged by the media. When asked to cite incidences of the “many, many violations” perpetrated against the ANC by the press, Mthembu offered two examples.
The first was the case of Mathews Phosa and the ANC vs. City Press in which the ombudsman found that City Press may have harmed “the ANC in general and Phosa in particular”, and ordered that the Naspers-owned weekly newspaper apologise to both parties. The second example Mthembu offered was the case of Rubert Gumede vs Mail & Guardian. A report in the newspaper alleged that Gumede, who is an ANC financier, was involved in a “graft probe”. The finding of that case was in the favour of Gumede, and Mail & Guardian was ordered to apologise to the billionaire businessman and reprint a abridged version of the ombudsman’s finding.
What’s interesting is that neither of the examples cited by Mthembu relates to working-class people or the economically disadvantaged, but rather are cases where powerful politicians or wealthy businessmen felt maligned by the press. In the matter of Gumede, this wasn’t even an ANC case, but the slight was obviously felt by proxy because Robert Gumede is one of this country’s richest men and is a generous benefactor to the ruling party.
What is also interesting, if not disingenuous, about the ANC’s total onslaught against the media is that the SABC has been left well outside the debating chamber. A complete and utter management disaster, the SABC makes government one of the biggest media owners in this country, yet despite this the broadcaster is tucked well away from the site of the skirmish. This comes just as the ruling party readies bills that would put the SABC and Icasa more firmly under government control
Another example of Mthembu’s penchant for disinformation is his woeful declaration that sadly neither Sanef nor any of the media editors had asked for an invitation to tea with the ANC, but instead readied the cannons and started a full-scale attack after the ANC’s media discussion document was tabled on the ruling party’s website.
“One thing that one would like to add is that if we had started with this conversation earlier, as robust as it was, it would have been far better for South Africa,” said Mthembu last week after meeting with Sanef. “Our relations would not be as low as they are if we started from this angle of just getting to understand where the ANC comes from and where does the media come from, and why do they think that no one should interfere with their self-regulatory environment.”
According to Sanef, the editor’s forum had been trying to meet with the ANC for two years, after the last meeting in 2008 with then president Kgalema Motlanthe which focused on the issue of press freedom and bills that would limit these freedoms. As I’ve said, it’s Groundhog Day – again and again.
Mthembu’s key assertion during last week’s interview was who protects everyday people from abuse by the press? “The issue is how do we come with a vehicle that protects the rights of ordinary citizens and who has such a responsibility? Does such a responsibility rest with the media? Our view is a definite no. Such a responsibility of protection of all South Africans rests with such instruments that we all agree to, and we agree on chapter nine institutions.”
It should have come as little surprise then to find out that soon after Mthembu was breaking bread with Sanef and appeasing media editors by telling them they would be heard and engaged with, that the ANC’s Gauteng council was reaching for its big guns. The Gauteng hawks mooted the amendment of the Constitution to enable yet another statutory press watchdog that would operate alongside the media tribunal. Depending how you read this call for rabid media regulation, it’s political posturing to herd the more timid members of the party into a caucus of consensus before the imminent national general council or it’s the middle finger to the rest of the world, the media, civic organisations and anyone else who’d try an interfere with the manner in which the ANC wants to set the media agenda.
Clearly this isn’t a fight about the constituents or the voters or the workers or any other people who put the ANC into power and might be “maligned by the media”. It’s a fight to the bitter end about who sets the media agenda and who manages the news.
It was Joseph Goebbels, Adolf Hitler’s propaganda minister, who once said: “The most brilliant propagandist technique will yield no success unless one fundamental principle is borne in mind constantly – it must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over.”
The principle is that if you tell a lie often enough this form of conditioning creates a “truth” in the eye of the beholder. That’s why the press is so inconvenient. They are messing with the ANC’s ability to “stay on message” and deliver a coherent picture of a country that’s working and delivering to its constituents.
That’s why strikes, service delivery protests and story after story after story of government corruption is so abhorrent to a ruling party who, like Jackson Mthembu, doesn’t like to listen or hear the inconvenient truth.
And, the question that so abruptly ended the interview with Mthembu?
“Who will protect South Africans from abuses of power by the ANC?”
At first Mthembu stumbled, sputtered and appeared not to understand the nature of the question. I had to repeat the question three times before he answered, telling me that I “was not being useful” with my question. That I could “bring a discussion document to the ANC” and that every South African had free recourse to any court or law enforcement authority if any “government department had messed with them in any way”.
“The authority that is resident with the law enforcement authorities can be put to bear and show prosecution for anybody who goes against the grain of the Constitution,” said Mthembu shortly before putting the phone down on me.
Unfortunately, Mthembu’s assurance’s of legal, Constitutional and police protection come a little too late for the “Mpumalanga 11” who were murdered, survived assassination attempts or disappeared after being linked to tender irregularities in that province. For the most part, culprits involved in the Mpumalanga tender debacle have yet to be brought to book. Those who survive fear for their lives in a province that remains a place where whistleblowing or appealing for protection could cost you your life. DM