Defend Truth


Journalism Today: Media freedom, diversity and democracy versus editorial interference


Glenda Daniels is associate professor of media studies, Wits University and is Sanef’s Gauteng convenor. These views are her own.

The unfolding eNCA drama after the removal of political reporter Samkele Maseko by the television station’s head of news Kanthan Pillay, has rent asunder pretences of independence and fairness in some media — or could it be just about most media today in South Africa?

In case you missed it: the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) does not like the coverage and exposure of its party by some media. It bans Daily Maverick/Scorpio and amaBhungane journalists from its December conference, the National People’s Assembly. Later, the EFF calls this “disassociation” and not “banning”. Inexplicably, eNCA bans coverage of the conference “in solidarity” with the banned journalists. We don’t know if the editorial head made this decision. We do know that the “banned” journalists didn’t ask for this “solidarity”.

But then Maseko does not heed the banning, stays on at the EFF event and tweets. In a sense, he carries on reporting on the assembly at the weekend, via social media. eNCA’s Pillay, who not so long ago was leader of the Purple Cow — the Capitalist Party of South Africa — (which contested the last national election, but made no impact) asks him to leave within about 24 hours, ignoring Maseko’s resignation notice period, which he was working out.

Maseko’s unceremonious departure from eNCA caused a twitter firestorm — about “racism” — from EFF supporters, and of course many others. But this article deals with journalism today, rather than racism. Ethics in journalism, and the political taking of sides by journalists, but more specifically, and in this case, media companies.

For many years, journalists have been struggling with terms such as “objectivity” fairness, truth, knowing that they have to be truthful conduits of information to the public, offer reliable analysis so that people can make up their own minds, among other noble aspirations such as holding power to account.

When I did research, through a survey, a few years ago, asking whether journalists should be members of political parties, a majority of 102 journalists said no, they should not, but not an overwhelming majority; it was 64% who said no.

Of those who said yes, they could be, they prevaricated, and said, well, journalists are human beings, with constitutional rights, and they had political views, so why hide them? Of those who said no, they mainly said “go ahead and vote and support a party, but be careful to be fair and balanced when reporting”. But, many reflected, being a member of a party would mean losing your credibility and trust with the public.

The research took place just after the controversial wearing of ANC hats — literally — with their colours flying to their mast and masters — by journalist Karima Brown (who was recently axed from EWN) at a January 2015 ANC rally.

Credibility, integrity and trust is everything as a journalist. Once you have lost these, forget about being taken seriously again. Individual journalists and media companies are experiencing this loss over and over again.

The Times Media Group, now Arena Holdings, had in recent years experienced a credibility crisis after its false Sunday Times SARS “rogue” unit stories, among a few others, for which the subsequent editor, Bongani Siqoko, apologised.

To this day, the truth about how, and why, has never really emerged. Were the journalists played by political factions? Why did they just use one side of the story? Was this about batting for one side of the factional politics of the day? Whether the company was involved in these stories is not clear, but journalists certainly were.

Then there was ANN7 and The New Age (TNA) — both now defunct — owned by the capturers of the state, Indian businesspeople the Guptas, the Zuma mouthpieces or lackeys of the day. The TNA hardly had any readership, would never release their “sale” figures, and the newspapers were dumped everywhere, free. No one took the television station seriously either.

And, of course, there is the biggest English-language print group, Independent Newspapers, owned by Sekunjalo boss Iqbal Survé, another Zuma acolyte, who cannot pay back his Public Investment Corporation loans, does not understand what independent journalism means, and interferes to the extent stories about himself are carried in many of his titles.

Naspers, the multinational internet group which owns Media24, has come under fire many times for its anti-competitive conduct and pushing small media players out of the market at the competition tribunal.

The point is that this “list” contains just about all traditional, mainstream, legacy media companies. Even though there are great journalists around, many of the shenanigans of the tainted, in the past five years or so, has blemished the craft (some say profession).

The issue of the day, however, is eNCA. This 24-hour news channel which broke onto our screens in 2008 was perceived as a fresh relief from the public broadcaster, the SABC, with its oft politically biased news, always at the service of whichever ANC faction was in power.

eNCA calls itself “South Africa’s most trusted independent TV and online news brand”.

This now appears to be a sham in light of the allegations against Pillay. He apparently stood at Maseko’s desk and asked him to pack his bags and leave. He then tweeted “Rats swimming toward a sinking ship #EarlyXmasGift”. He was referring to Maseko moving to the SABC — a ‘sinking ship’.

Over the past two days there has been on Twitter an angry backlash about Pillay’s, to put it mildly, disgusting comment. Pillay shut down his Twitter account after death threats, amid other harsh words. He apologised on Thursday to Maseko and the eNCA staff for his ratty sinking ship comments.

It is unrealistic to expect journalists not to have political views. It is passé to talk of “objectivity”. Today we talk of “fairness” in reporting, giving both sides of the story — sometimes five sides to a story. Cover all the bases, but also make a judgment on the basis of the facts.

Apparently the eNCA company, or was it the editorial bosses, did not like the way Maseko recently questioned the president, Cyril Ramaphosa, about the Eskom electricity crisis — of rolling blackouts. He was robust. Paraphrasing here, Maseko asked: Was everything going to be blamed on State Capture? For how long? What about the present government’s ineptitude and inertia? Yes, State Capture was part of the story, we got that. But we want to know what is being done now?

Maseko was not pussyfooting around the president. Nor should any journalist. But was Maseko part of the EFF batting squad? Perhaps that’s where his sympathies lie. That is not a crime. I don’t know the answer to Maseko’s political affiliations, and I don’t really care.

What I do know is that it is not just “worrying” or “concerning” that Pillay interfered in the way that he did. It was ridiculous in the first place that the eNCA decided to ban coverage of the EFF’s assembly. I am no friend of the EFF. But I wished to see and hear what was being said, as would many people in the country have wanted to.

The journalists who were “banned” were not appealing to other media to withdraw. It was a perplexing decision, a mistake. Condemnation of the EFF’s “banning” would have been sufficient. When the EFF starts banning, should we all follow the same undemocratic principles? At the same time, if the eNCA is now a Ramaphosa hack forum, it must declare that it’s a political player, so that its viewers know they are getting one-sided news.

In the meanwhile, real media freedom, diversity and democracy, anyone? DM


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