President Jacob Zuma’s comments regarding Mexico’s press portrayed a deep misunderstanding of the role of the media and the profession of journalism, wrote Andrew Heslop, editor of press freedom and media development at the World Editors Forum, in City Press on Sunday.
Zuma told a group of journalism students from the Tshwane University of Technology who were visiting Parliament last Tuesday that the South African media was overly negative and had failed to tell the story of how the government had turned the country around since the end of apartheid.
He called for more "patriotic news", something he said he had learned during a visit to Mexico, where the media did not report on crime because it would reflect negatively on the country and scare off investors.
"When I am in South Africa, every morning you feel like you must leave this country because the reporting concentrates on the opposite of the positive," he said.
In an open letter to Zuma published in City Press, Heslop said the president's interpretation of "patriotic reporting" was an insult to the dozens of murdered Mexican journalists whose work made them targets of organised crime.
"Perhaps President Zuma was not reading the right papers on his trip to Mexico. Maybe his Spanish is not up to the challenge of navigating the country’s blogosphere to unearth the reality of news reporting," he said in the letter.
Heslop wrote that Mexico’s press has been under attack for its efforts to expose the reality of the country’s situation. He said that since December 2006 — the beginning of the so-called War on Drugs — 41 journalists had been murdered "with almost total impunity, while concrete steps have yet to be taken at any level of government to address ongoing safety concerns".
Heslop wrote that by December last year, as former president Felipe Calderón’s administration came to an end, the official death toll for those caught up in the violence stood at 60 000.
He said unofficial figures put the number closer to 100 000.
"Is President Zuma genuinely suggesting the reasons behind this horror should not be reported, investigated and exposed for fear of triggering a marketing disaster?" he asked.
"Silence kills democracy, Mr President. Mexico is the prime example of this in recent times. If the press is muzzled — by violence or simply through instructions to report only positive news — its watchdog role that you so deride is stifled. Such a situation profits only those with something to hide," wrote Heslop.
"It is for this reason that the controversial Protection of State Information Bill, now back in Parliament, is a dangerous road for South Africa to walk and should be reviewed and modified at all costs. Transparency and accountability are virtues of strong governance, whereas attempts to cloak under a veil of secrecy the inner workings of state are a sign that things are not at all well in the corridors of power.
"The masses that elected you, President Zuma, in turn do elect their watchdogs. Sales and circulation figures of the independent press in South Africa will give you a simple idea of just how many are interested in keeping a watchful eye over your administration.
"By no uncertain terms is it your job to instruct the press on how to report the successes and failures of the South African dream. The truth cannot be hidden, especially in this digital age, and as we have so tragically seen in Mexico, such dreams turn quickly to nightmares if the press cannot freely speak," he wrote.