A tale of two writers

Blame the press(ident) by William Gumede

Most of the bad press President Thabo Mbeki gets is self-inflicted. For starters, getting information from the president’s office is for many journalists a torture in itself. Basic information is often treated as the most explosive state secrets.
The president rarely gives interviews to local journalists. The only interviews Mbeki appears to give are to the SABC and then it is often based on pre-approved questions.

Contrast that with other world leaders who often have regular briefings - both formal and informal. For another, government and senior ANC spokespersons often blatantly deny obvious facts, and when it comes out later, they offer no explanation or apology. For example, the presidency has stubbornly denied before that there was a succession crisis in the ANC - although it was very obvious to everybody that this is the case. The consistent denial of real-life events does defy logic: from the underplaying of the devastating impact of the Aids pandemic and the ailing public health system to rising crime levels.

Journalists and whistle-blowers are often attacked as enemies of the state that needs to be annihilated for reporting the problems. The venom with which critics are attacked by either Mbeki or those who purport to speak in his name (without censure from the president) does not only cloud perceptions of the president, but it also makes rationale debate impossible. Denial of reality does erode the credibility of government, but it also shows a disregard for citizens. Mbeki gets annoyed when one makes the comparison with Mandela, but when President Nelson Mandela was released in 1990 pockets of the local and international press, business and opposition were also deeply hostile.

However, Mandela did not hide in a corner and sulk, hitting out at perceived enemies, or publicly threatening critics. He opened up even more. He invited critics, liberally gave interviews; was open in his relations with the media and the public. Doubters were quickly won over. There will always be racists and Afro-pessimists - but to act as if they are the only actors to respond to is simply short-sighted. Furthermore, delivery is the great leveller and will force respect, even if grudgingly.

At the heart of Mbeki’s hostility with the press is a flawed belief that all the media monolithically share the same views. On balance, at least most of the black journalists and commentators and progressive white ones harbour the president no menace. In fact, most desperately want Mbeki to succeed - as do most of his internal critics in the ANC.

Another is a fundamental disagreement of the role of the media in a representative and participatory democracy. The constitution demands checks and balances, not only between branches of government, but from non-government actors, such as the media, the private sector and civil society.

To expect the SABC for example to unquestioningly report what the government says, or to cancel programs because they think the government or the president won’t like it, is a misreading of what it means to be a public broadcaster. Off course the media is not perfect. It faces the same challenges of transformation other institutions do. Yet, it also plays a unique role in that it is also a mirror in which the transformation battles of society is reflected, while also having the responsibility to help transform society.

Profit considerations are sometimes above news values. Government figures are quite happy to sometimes use the media to thrash opponents - and some journalists are sometimes happy to oblige. But immunity from criticisms often leads governments to be deaf to the plight of the vulnerable. For another, international tribunals and increasingly national ones are clear that politicians and governments should be subject to greater criticism than ordinary private individuals. Neither is the media all-powerful: the weight of the state can crush any journalist, whether directly or quietly. Because most of the media are now in black hands and have black editors and senior reporters does not mean that it would report in diverse ways.

What we need is a diverse media, in newsrooms, ownership and the coverage of the major issues. The closure of most of the alternative media - with its roots in the ‘struggle’ - in the mid-1990s was a blow to media diversity. The fact that not all the media went to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has left a bitter residue. But it was the ANC - Mbeki himself strongly supported the deal - who approved Irish magnate Tony O’Reilly’s purchase of the Argus newspaper group in 1993.

A better solution for our democracy would have been to unbundled the Argus group and sell off the different newspapers and so with one stroke diversify the media. The best press for South Africa would be to have a range of newspapers and broadcasters that covers the country’s political, community and economic diversity. Media monopolies, whether national, regional or local is bad for democracy. Nevertheless, it is better to have a media that sometimes gets it things wrong - of course it will be better to have a media that gets it right all the time - than a fawning one.

The 2nd edition of WM Gumede’s book “Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC”, Zebra Press, was published mid-Sept. His forthcoming edited book, “Democracy, Transformation and the Media”, University of KwaZulu Natal Press will be released soon.

Mbeki laughs aloud By Ronald Suresh Roberts

Rapport editor Tim Du Plessis wonders why President Mbeki ignores most media. Partly because the media systematically violates basic protocols. This has been most stark in such areas as HIV/Aids and Zimbabwe, areas marked, as the president wrote to me, by “dearth of originality, superstition, opinionated prejudice and a herd mentality.” How did this come about? One important cause is the unresolved tension, within the media itself, between two conceptions of what journalism ought to be and what journalists ought to do.

Are journalists illiberal “Defenders of the Truth”, as in the title of a recent Cape Town Book Fair debate? Or is the media instead a liberal forum for the exchange of views, enabling people to make up their own minds? Evidence suggests that sections of the media select and defend truths deemed immune from debate.

In 2005 The Economist described President Mbeki as an intolerant autocrat. The ANC’s website published a response and, very democratically, invited the editor of The Economist to reply, which he did. The Citizen, by contrast, delivered an illiberal front-page rebuke to the ANC: “JUST SHUT UP.”

By August, 2007 the issue had changed but the media’s illiberalism had not: “Weekly glimpse into the President’s mind may be too much information” wrote Sunday Times editor, Mondli Makhanya. Under the headline “Ban the letters from the President” the ANC then objected: “Not for the first time, the editor of the Sunday Times, Mondli Makhanya, used the pages of his newspaper to urge the restriction of the right of the President of the ANC and the President of the Republic, Thabo Mbeki, to speak his


Mail & Guardian editor, Ferial Haffajee, has by contrast pronounced herself “flabbergasted at the number of freedom of speech disciples” who seek to silence particular voices: “Freedom of expression’s fine, they seem to say, as long as we can determine who gets it and who doesn’t.” (The Media, March, 2007).

Makhanya’s illiberal approach was most clearly expounded when the Sunday Times fell into a bitter dispute with the commentator Xolela Mangcu. Mangcu objected that the Sunday Times had suppressed coverage of the eminent African writer, Ayi Kwei Armah, during his visit to South Africa. But the Sunday Times claimed that Mangcu blocked its access to Armah after the newspaper rebuffed his demand that he personally had to write the Sunday Times article on Armah - a starkly illiberal demand, if true.

While liberals would want to hear both sides in this, the Sunday Times decided that one side would suffice. Mangcu then asserted a right of reply, which the Sunday Times illiberally denied. The Ombudsman naturally ordered the Sunday Times to publish Mangcu’s reply. The newspaper rather recalcitrantly appealed - and lost.

Ratcheting up the illiberalism, the very same issue of the Sunday Times carried an abusive editorial (“A Sad Day for Media Freedom”, 29 May, 2005) frankly denouncing the Press Ombudsman for facilitating Mangcu’s right of reply. “It is a sad day when a key institution such as the Press Ombudsman is seen to be joining the inexorable march towards press censorship, wittingly or unwittingly— (We) found ourselves on the receiving end of the Ombudsman’s jackboot”. Mbeki laughs aloud.

The same editorial expanded upon the newspaper’s unmistakably illiberal “Defender of Truth” philosophy: “Intellectual dishonesty is one of those germs that might, in the long term, have a debilitating effect on our morality as a nation.” This obvious authoritarianism was accompanied, as authoritarianism often is, by hysteria: “We are left with no option but to conclude that George Orwell’s thought police are on a steady but determined march towards closing the sluice gates of intellectual freedom - and the office of the Ombudsman is leading the way, wittingly or unwittingly.” Then a threat of lawlessness: “As signatories to the Press Code we have always abided by the Ombudsman’s rulings, and will continue do so. But in the interests of our readers and every citizen’s constitutionally enshrined right to freedom of expression, we find it difficult not to violate this particular ruling.” This entrenched illiberalism continues in the recent Sunday Times editorial headlined “Time to Purge the SABC” (22 July, 2007). Mbeki laughs aloud.

Ronald Suresh Roberts is the author of “Fit to Govern. The Native Intelligence of Thabo Mbeki.”

William Gumede

William Gumede

William Gumede is Associate Professor, School of Governance at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. He is Executive Chairperson of the Democracy Works Foundation and former Deputy Editor and Managing Editor of The Sowetan.During the anti-apartheid struggle, Gumede held several leadership positions in South African student, civics and trade union movements. He was a political violence mediator and area coordinator for the National Peace Committee during the multiparty negotiations for a democratic South Africa and was seconded to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He is the bestselling author of several books including, "Thabo Mbeki & the Battle for the Soul of the ANC” and "The Poverty of Ideas: South African Democracy and the Retreat of the Intellectuals" amongst several others.
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