Zuma and the press: Soft or hard?

Newspapers are beginning to deal with whether Jacob Zuma and his backers will be magnanimous in his victory … or vengeful towards them.

Last week, the new ANC president pruned his legal actions against the press. He can now afford to do so politically, and many of the cases were probably unlikely to succeed anyway.

But at the same time, one of his leading backers, the South African Communist Party’s Blade Nzimande, has turned up the pressure in an ominous way.

Reacting to critical coverage in City Press newspaper that relied on anonymous sources, Nzimande went above the heads of the paper’s editors and wrote to the owners, effectively proposing their staff be disciplined.

The newspaper, he demanded, should either live up to its claim of independence and impartiality, or ”come out openly and unashamedly as a factional player inside our organisations”. The politician then warned of a possible boycott ”because we have had enough of these factionalist editorial practices and pseudo-journalism”.

By means of a front-page editorial comment, City Press indicated the strength of its response to Nzimande’s arguments and action.

First, the paper stressed its continuing ambition to be politically impartial and factually accurate. It stated its willingness to apologise when mistakes were made, and it upheld the Press Council as arbiter of complaints.

Second, it said Nzimande was resorting to intimidation, and urged resistance to ”an atmosphere of fear” such as that which created sources who were too scared to be quoted by name. The paper would not, it said, ”bow to the new gods”.

Third, the point was made that over four years the paper had increased sales by almost one-third to reach close on 200 000 per edition. ”This is as a result of you, our readers, feeling that we are serving your news and information needs. We respect you and would never try to feed you propaganda.”

How successful are these arguments likely to be? Not very.

Purporting to be impartial when you are accused of being anti-Zuma is unlikely to win in the court of mass public opinion. For sure, anyone criticising a critic who flies a flag for Zuma, won’t carry weight with those who see City Press as allied to the Mbeki camp.

Thus while City Press has sent a strong ”hands off” message, it is not likely to win the perception war through protesting its impartiality or by showing bravado against political bullying.

The third argument the newspaper advanced, viz the circulation increase, is a bit more powerful. This enters the realm of facts rather than opinions. It is effectively saying: you may have your support; so too do we. The inference is that despite your criticism, we must be doing something right.

But the argument’s numerical terms also make it vulnerable — for instance, what if Nzimande were able to reduce the sales through an effective boycott?

Ultimately City Press does not have ”troops” on the ground in the way the Zuma brigade does. And the balance of power could shift even further if, as is likely, the Zuma camp takes forward the initiative of a media tribunal to take out the press.

That’s still ahead. For now, at least, the contest is still in the arena of ”soft power”. The outcomes, however, will have a determining impact on the medium-term prospect of actual boycotts (including by state advertising) or legislated interventions like the tribunal.

The point that needs to be made is that irrespective of sales, City Press journalists would still be correct to resist Nzimande’s making demands on their employers.

Whether the paper leans towards Mbeki, Zuma or no one is the choice of its editor. That’s the kernel of editorial independence and press freedom.

The best way to exemplify this, and to counter political pressure, is a fourth tactic used by City Press. This was to publish Nzimande’s letter in full.

The paper made clear that there was no compulsion for it to do so. But by publishing the missive, much of Nzimande’s allegations of bias were invalidated.

Instead of burying or ignoring criticism, the paper showed that whatever agendas it is accused of, whether with reason or not, it has no problem engaging with powerful critics.

Notwithstanding Nzimande’s complaints, there are editors who continue to believe that despite the votes of the ANC, they’re against Zuma becoming the country’s next president.

That stance will pit them against many readers, and certainly against many politicians. In defending their right to dissent, they — like City Press — will need to bring political pressures out into the open, and then engage with them in the tough court of pro-Zuma public opinion.

If, through this, the press can show it is no push-over, then that will help preserve space for diversity. But if the current phase gives way to ”hard power” contestation, it may also need to fight in the courts itself, and not least in the Constitutional Court.

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