Opinionista Julie Reid 19 December 2013

Right2Know, a ‘media transformation’ bunch and a really weird protest

On 6 December the editor of the Cape Times, Alide Dasnois was dismissed from her position by Dr Iqbal Survé, executive chairman of the company that owns the newspaper. Survé’s subsequent explanations for the dismissal appeared contradictory, illogical, ill-informed and irrational. In response to what appeared to be an attack on press freedom and editorial independence, the Right2Know Campaign scheduled a protest outside the Newspaper House Building in Cape Town, for 17 December. Unexpectedly a new group professing to demand greater transformation in the media arrived on the scene. What followed was weird, bizarre and a little surreal. And it spoke volumes to the childish and desperate stupidity of some of South African politics.

It was the strangest protest event that I have ever attended. The weird-factor kicked in an hour before the protest, when I got wind of a press conference taking place in the Mandela Rhodes Hotel and Spa on St George’s Mall, only a block away from Newspaper House, for the launch of something called the Movement for the Transformation of the Media in South Africa (MTMSA). I arrived at the press conference and spared a moment to look around. It occurred to me that we were in a hotel room, and the press conference was being conducted in the cramped dining area with journalists necessarily spilling over into the kitchenette. It was a hugely peculiar spot for a press conference. Weird. It didn’t end there.

The MTMSA’s main aims have already been documented in detail in other media but in short its man-in-charge, Wesley Douglas, spelled out that the ‘movement’ was initiated to address a lack of transformation in the South African media. He listed as concerns the persistent negative reporting of black politicians, the low number of black editors, sub-editors and managers, and “concerted effort by largely white owned and run media houses to discredit black business”. Throughout the press conference he was right-flanked by a young woman in a business suit. Douglas mentioned that the MTMSA has performed research to back up its position, but was unwilling to publicly share the findings at this time. Douglas also told us that the organisation would be staging a counter-protest at the Right2Know Campaign’s (R2K) protest in support of Survé: according to MTMSA, the decision to fire Dasnois panned out perfectly well with regard to the transformation agenda because she was replaced by a black editor.

With the scene set, we headed outside to the protest site. Soon a collection of activists, concerned citizens and journalists arrived in support of the Right2Know Campaign’s call, and began taking their places in a row on either side of the main entrance of Newspaper House, holding up placards that decried attacks on press freedom and called for the reinstatement of Alide Dasnois as editor of the Cape Times. Within 10 minutes the counter-protestors started gathering not more than 10 meters away. Numbers grew quickly on both sides. More Right2Know supporters arrived. A small group wearing Agang T-shirts placed themselves on the R2K side of things. The MTMSA front appeared to be made up mostly of a few people claiming to represent the SA National Civic Organisation (an ANC alliance partner), about 10 individuals in ANC T-shirts, and a confused group of pensioners who did not seem to know what they were doing there.

The MTMSA group became immediately antagonistic. Moving ever closer to the R2K group, they chanted and shouted loudly. About half of the R2K protestors resolutely held their positions in front of the building in silent protest, standing stock still and holding placards. Another group of R2K protestors entered the fray, spontaneously lead by a hugely enthusiastic Zackie Achmat, and began shouting and chanting in response. Things got chaotic. Because the groups were so close to each other they soon got tangled up, meaning that people from both sides were mingling amongst one another, still shouting their respective slogans.

It got a little tense. Situations like these can very quickly turn from a shouting match into a violent mass brawl. Myself, and a few Right2Know comrades ran into the centre of the crowd to encourage the protesters to stay calm and tried to diffuse the situation. No one from the MTMSA side did the same. Then the band arrived. Without warning a group of school-boy minstrel brass band musicians struck up, right in the centre of the human mess, adding a cacophony of rhythm to the whole affair. It was hard not to bop to the tune, but given the tense atmosphere, the performance of these boys seemed out of place and inappropriate. Everyone seemed confused as to why they were there including, sadly, the boys themselves.

I noticed the young woman from the MTMSA press conference. She was a real sight to behold. Dressed in a super smart business suit, with an above-the-knee pencil skirt, perfectly blow-waved hair, impeccable make-up and most impressively, what looked like 10 inch red stilettos, she protested. I have never seen anyone go to a protest in stilettos. She held a placard that read ‘Fire all racist reporters’ with both her hands above her head and walked slowly atop her teetering heels calmly in amongst the shouting hoard as though she were a caricature of a girl in boxing ring, holding up the board with the round number between each round of a big fight.

From other protestors, she elicited open-mouthed stares and aghast headshakes.

While staging their interference, the MTMSA seemed oblivious that what they were doing was infringing on the Right2Know Campaign’s democratic and constitutional right to practice freedom of speech through the mechanism of public protest. The Right2Know Campaign had a right to protest. The MTMSA also had a right to protest. But neither group had the right to deny the other of their right to public protest. The MTMSA, it seems, was lacking in an understanding of the basic fundamentals of freedom of speech.

In accordance with the Regulations of Gatherings Act, the Right2Know Campaign had obtained permission from the City of Cape Town to stage the protest prior to the event. The MTMSA had not done so. Technically, the MTMSA was breaking the law. The police were at the scene, as they usually are when a group applies for permission to stage a protest. But the police were evidently caught off guard. There were only two of them, which was problematic considering how things looked to be getting serious. The police called for back-up and a few more arrived. The somewhat panicky police then informed Wesley Douglas that he and his group had precisely 5 minutes to leave. Douglas protested, saying that they were not there to cause trouble but to simply provide ‘another voice’. The police’s response: “That is nice, but if you want to gather like this you have to apply for permission to do so. End of. Now move off”. Dejected, Douglas returned to his fellow protestors and obliged – the MTMSA crowd had dispersed almost entirely within 10 minutes.

The Right2Know Campaign and its supporters now had the floor to themselves, and feeling victorious staged a street rally where Mark Weinberg, human rights campaigners Mary Burton, Zackie Achmat, and journalist Terry Bell, addressed the crowd. The singing of the national anthem raised spirits further. With regard to the event itself, strange as it was, it nonetheless had a happy ending in the sense that it did not result in a violent brawl which it quite easily could have, but also because the mechanism of South African law was applied effectively to protect the Right2Know Campaign’s democratic and constitutional right to stage a protest. But it did raise a number of questions about the MTMSA.

Firstly, the sudden appearance of this organisation out of nowhere seems purposefully timed and its legitimacy suspicious. How real is this MTMSA? Just glancing at the basics: it has no website or Facebook page. It does not seem to have a logo – or at least there wasn’t one printed on its very first press statement. It’s impossible to find any information about it through an extensive online search other than what transpired on Tuesday: for example, what is the MTMSA’s history, who are its founding members, when was it formed, where is its central administrative office, who sits on its main governing body and how where they elected, where/when do its meetings with its affiliate organisations take place, where are its founding documents, its constitution and its position papers, how many affiliate organisations are members of the MTMSA and who are they? The only contact details provided at the bottom of the press statement are a cell phone number and a Gmail account. Sound real to you?

At the press conference Douglas was at pains to emphasise that the MTMSA has been working unofficially for months and had not been hastily formed the previous week. (It was strange that he said this because no one asked him whether that was the case before he did). But if the MTMSA has been around for some time why don’t more people know about it, why is it so hard to know anything about it, and why didn’t its own ‘supporters’ understand what they were doing there? Another question: why would any organisation launching itself into the public space for the first time choose to stage a disruptive counter-protest as a first launch event? This is a very peculiar way to introduce any organisation to the public arena.

This next bit will sound strange to middle-class folks who have never organised a protest but here goes. You have to bear in mind that the activities of civil society and grassroots movements are as-a-rule run on tight shoe-string budgets. Renting a room in an expensive hotel is unheard of. Press conferences happen in, if you’re lucky, the ‘boardroom’ aka storeroom of an affiliate NGO organisation, that was nice enough to loan the room to you for a few hours at no charge. Hand written posters are the norm, but if printed ones are produced that will be done on thin newsprint type paper to save costs. Protest events are usually planned either before or after lunch time, and then for only a 2 hour duration so that the organisation won’t be expected to buy food for the protestors – again to save on costs. Protestors are sometimes reimbursed for travel by taxi but told to make their own way to the protest site – this is far cheaper than hiring a bus.

But it was clear that the MTMSA had put money into this effort, which, in the context of social movements is, again, weird. The large stack of hundreds of full colour gloss placards printed on hard board must have cost in the tens of thousands of Rands to print. According to Booking.com a room at the Mandela Rhodes Hotel and Spa will set you back anywhere between R1500-R2700 per day. Where did the money come from to hire a hotel room, bus in people, feed them, print those expensive posters, pay a group of musicians, and conduct the research they say they’ve done? I’m an academic so I know: research costs money. In the interest of openness and transparency, and to lend legitimacy to their very existence, I would challenge the MTMSA to reveal its funders.

But perhaps more important than whether or not the MTMSA is ‘real’, is the question of what is it trying to say? Douglas was at pains to stress that theirs is not a black versus white issue. But when reading the MTMSA’s launching statement it is hard to see it any other way. The MTMSA appears to engage the issues of media transformation, diversity and freedom as if they are exclusive from one another. They are not. They are intrinsically connected and cannot be considered separately. Consider for example if we did manage to successfully ‘transform’ the media sector according to whatever benchmarks are collectively decided upon, and our media began to produce a more diverse content offering. Great. But what use is a transformed media if it is not also a free media?

Another peculiarity that has left the MTMSA with egg on its face is that the most compelling part of its message is something which the Right2Know Campaign has already been campaigning for since March 2012. Had the MTMSA bothered to visit the Right2Know Campaign’s website, they could have downloaded the R2K position paper on media freedom and diversity, and on page 4 would have found a set of principles which speaks directly to the ideal of a more diverse media in South Africa. Why then would the MTMSA choose to position itself in opposition to the Right2Know Campaign when it should rather be exploring the common ground?

It is not as if there have not been other measures within the past three years to rectify the lack of transformation within the media sector as well as the lack of diversity in media content. But the MTMSA does not explain why it feels its activities are necessary despite the efforts already made by the Print and Digital Media Transformation Task Team (PDMTTT) as well as the ongoing set of discussions initiated by the parliamentary portfolio committee on communications on the transformation of the print media and possible forthcoming media transformation charter. Has the MTMSA engaged, for example, with academia or bodies such as the South African Communications Association (SACOMM) to source the latest research on the status of media transformation and diversity in South Africa? For the latter, it has not. I know, because I am the president of SACOMM. So here’s the question: has the MTMSA done its homework?

Almost everyone at both the press conference and the protest, including persons weighing in on the MTMSA side of things, seemed to see through the transparent facade so quickly that it was laughable. The Right2Know Campaign has asked whether the MTMSA is a ‘corporate front parading as a self-proclaimed movement’. The MTMSA is not a long-running grassroots or community based movement with a real following. It is a fake and badly-gone-wrong PR stunt with a bit of money at its disposal to pay for the rent-a-crowd, the hotel room and the expensive posters in a pitiful effort to look legitimate. Sit down Wesley Douglas: you made a brave attempt but have got no one fooled.

The last question is only this: who is behind the hair-brained MTMSA move and whose money is funding it? It is really a very sad day when either political parties or politically connected business people will childishly stoop to engineering supposed ‘movements’ in order to win an argument. I’m sure the folks at the MTMSA are feeling a little down today. For there to be serious doubts about the legitimacy of your organisation on the very day that it is publicly launched is an absolute disaster. Without even an appearance of independence from political elites, the voice of MTMSA is likely to hold little weight now in many corners. DM

*Disclaimer: Dr Julie Reid is a working member of the Right2Know Campaign and President of SACOMM, but her views in this column are her own and do not represent those of either the Right2Know Campaign nor SACOMM.

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