/ 23 July 2010

Big stick to beat ‘errant’ journalists

The media appeals tribunal mooted by the ANC could include measures to imprison journalists or force them to pay millions of rands in fines, the party’s national spokesperson, Jackson Mthembu, warned this week.

Mthembu said that in the three years since its conference in Polokwane, the ANC had done little more than “engage in discussions” with the media and develop a discussion paper on the issue.

The paper is to be tabled at the party’s national general council (NGC) meeting in September, which will review progress reports on decisions taken in Polokwane.

Outlining the party’s thinking on a media tribunal, Mthembu said it would be “independent of the ANC and of the state”, but it would have the power to punish journalists found wanting.

“If you have to go to prison, let it be. If you have to pay millions for defamation, let it be. If journalists have to be fired because they don’t contribute to the South Africa we want, let it be,” he said.

But he was adamant that no changes to the Constitution were envisaged and that international perceptions of South Africa’s commitment to press freedom would not be tarnished.

“We are the authors of that Constitution. We have no intention of changing it,” he said.

The ANC is expected to refer the proposed tribunal to Parliament to refine the details, including its powers, composition and funding.

A proposal that the tribunal should have the same standing as Chapter Nine institutions, currently including the public protector and the South African Human Rights Commission, is also on the table.

Mthembu said that, despite severe criticism of the tribunal, the ANC felt it necessary to implement the proposal because the media “has more freedom than anyone else”.

“Our impression is that the media has more freedom than all the freedoms that all of us enjoy. Media freedom supersedes all other freedoms.”

‘Some media reports don’t go down well with the ANC’
The current system of self-regulation by the press ombud was insufficient, he said, because it did not ­provide for sanctions.

Mthembu agreed that “some media reports don’t go down well with the ANC”, especially those profiling government ministers who spent taxpayers’ money on luxury hotels and cars.

“There are people who go out to smear other people and you have no way to sanction that,” he said.

Asked if this amounted to shooting the messenger, he said: “Let’s start with the messenger. If the messenger is part of a DA [Democratic Alliance] onslaught on ministers, the messenger must be subject to sanctions.”

Ordinary South Africans did have recourse through the courts if they believed they had been defamed but that was too expensive, Mthembu said.

“You [the media] have destroyed people’s lives,” Mthembu said, but he would not give examples.

Fierce infighting in the ANC can be seen as a factor in the sudden resurgence of the tribunal proposal, which has lain dormant for many months. As a result there has been a spate of media leaks about the extravagant lifestyle of ministers.

The looming succession battle for leadership positions at the ANC’s next national conference in 2012 is never far from the minds of ruling party politicians.

Following reports on the hotel stays of the communications minister, Siphiwe Nyanda, the police minister, Nathi Mthetwa, and the higher education minister and South African Communist Party boss, Blade Nzimande, the ANC released a statement lambasting the media for reporting on such matters.

According to Mthembu, the ANC had merely noted the initial reports, thinking that “the media would see the folly of their ways”.

“But then we saw it was becoming a pattern and certain ministers are being singled out and we had to say something.”

The SACP said last weekend that it would push for a media tribunal at the ANC’s NGC.