Advertising is not a weapon

A Grahamstown court will soon decide if a body of government may legitimately withdraw advertising from a newspaper simply because the authorities do not like the coverage.

This is the nub of a case filed by the city’s Grocott’s Mail against the local city council, which instituted a boycott of the twice-weekly publication a year ago. The case has far-reaching repercussions, because a victory for the paper will send out a wider signal that public advertising is not available for use as a political weapon.

This issue impacts on public resources being used to skew media houses towards avoiding critical coverage—or, conversely, to sustain and reward those companies that specialise in safe or sweetheart journalism.
Neither scenario is good for democracy.

It’s a topical matter because state advertising boycotts took place last year in regard to the Witness in Pietermaritzburg and Talk of the Town in Port Alfred. Minister in the Presidency Essop Pahad proposed the same fate for the Sunday Times in response to that paper’s exposé of Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang.

The Grahamstown case arises from a council decision last May to drop Grocott’s as a vehicle to advertise municipal matters. Prior to that there were always council adverts in the 138-year-old paper, notifying the city’s residents about road closures, tender opportunities and job vacancies.

Grocott’s depends on sales and advertising to survive, even though it is owned by Rhodes University now and provides a community service, as well as giving journalism students the chance of experiential learning.

The paper incurred the ire of the council when its editor at the time, the award-winning journalist Jonathan Ancer, published news of an Auditor General’s report about missing money in the municipality.

The council’s response included not only an advertising boycott, but also a media liaison boycott, which it has operated erratically over the past year.

Grocott’s made many attempts to resolve the impasse last year, despite the council rebuffing numerous requests for a meeting. The municipality then failed to meet a deadline to give reasons for the boycott, despite being required to do so under the Promotion of Administration Justice Act.

It also failed to revert on proposals that were formally tabled when two meetings eventually took place and since then the advertising boycott has taken a number of turns.

In one instance the council paid a sizeable fee to cancel an advert (about water cut-offs), which an official inadvertently placed in the paper in ignorance of the municipality’s boycott stance. In another case the council actually went against its own policy and published selected adverts about public meetings, because it needs to show wide public participation in its bid to change the name of the city.

But because the bulk of municipal advertising continues to be withheld, the newspaper has now resorted to legal action against what it sees as the continuing arbitrary misuse of power.

Although some municipal leaders have claimed that the boycott is for purely economic reasons, Grocott’s argues that its rates and reach continue to be highly competitive—and that advertising in other media is therefore not the most cost-effective use of public money.

In its legal papers the newspaper’s case is that the Municipal Finance Management Act was contravened in that the council’s action resulted in a flawed supply-chain management procedure.

One senior councillor admitted publicly that the boycott was based on unhappiness with Grocott’s coverage. On this angle the paper’s legal argument is that the boycott is illegal because it contradicts constitutional rights to freedom of expression, as well as the rights to democratic and accountable government.

A related violation of rights claimed by the newspaper is of the municipality’s constitutional obligation to ensure that the public is encouraged to participate in policymaking. It is further stated that the Local Government Municipal Systems Act was also contravened in that the boycott contravenes citizens’ rights to be informed about municipal matters. Helping Grocott’s make its case is the respected media lawyer, advocate Gilbert Marcus. Support has come from the Media Institute of Southern Africa, as well as Print Media SA.

It will be more than Grocott’s Mail that will be watching the outcome of this case.

Professor Guy Berger is chair of the board of Grocott’s Mail

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