Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille remains unrepentant of her directive for the withdrawal of all provincial department subscriptions to the Cape Times newspaper amid a condemnation by the South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef).
On Monday, Sanef said it would send a letter of protest to the Western Cape government calling for them to rescind the decision, which is widely seen as a boycott.
Last Monday the director general of the Western Cape, Brent Gerber, wrote to provincial department heads directing them not to renew their subscriptions with the newspaper or initiate new ones.
“Sanef finds it appalling that the executive committee of the Western Cape government, led by former journalist Helen Zille, interferes at this level in the affairs of provincial department heads, who should have the freedom to choose which news mediums they find useful or not,” Sanef chair Mpumelelo Mkhabela said in a statement.
Zille hit back, questioning when Sanef would issue a statement about the Cape Times plagiarising information.
“That might be a more logical place to start,” Zille told the Mail & Guardian via SMS.
She also insists that they are avoiding a wastage of tax payers’ money.
Decline in the quality of journalism
The directive to end subscriptions with the Cape Times appear to have been spurred by the editor of the paper refusing to put Zille’s administration in touch with the family of a baby suffering from fetal alcohol syndrome which the paper wrote about.
“If the paper is so dismissive of our requests for assistance to find this child and the alleged perpetrators of crimes against similar children, one must ask the question: what exactly is at play here?,” Zille wrote in her weekly newsletter.
She insinuated in her newsletter that the story, which apparently is scant on details, appears to be partly identical to a piece written by a researcher called Eric Graham, and published on the World Socialist Website in August 2012.
“Cabinet has discussed with concern the ongoing decline in the quality of reporting in the Cape Times. As we get newspaper cuttings every day, Cabinet considers it to be fruitless expenditure to renew Cape Times subscriptions,” Gerber wrote in his directive last week.
The ANC issued a statement on Monday morning saying the action of the Western Cape government was an attack on the freedom of speech and media freedom.
“The DA-led government is using its financial muscle derived from taxpayers’ monies to punish those who dare publish independent views it perceives as being at odds with the DA’s misguided, sensationalist and anti-ANC narrative,” the ANC’s Zizi Kodwa wrote in a statement.
This is not the first time an arm of government tried to boycott a newspaper based on its reporting.
In 2008, the Makana local municipality called for a boycott of the Grocott’s Mail in the Eastern Cape following the publication of a story about an unaccounted R13.7-million missing from the municipal coffers.
Sanef at the time dubbed the boycott an “indefensible” act.
The matter was later settled out of court between the municipality and the newspaper.
In a more publicised attempt to punish the media, former minister in the presidency Essop Pahad called for a boycott on the Sunday Times following an exposé on Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, then minister of health.
Pahad’s statements in 2007 were met with widespread condemnation.
DA spokesperson Marius Redelinghuys used Twitter to deny that the Western Cape government was punishing the Cape Times.
“Cancelling a subscription is a protest, cancelling millions of rands worth of advertising is intimidation and punishment,” he tweeted.
Redelinghuys said the cancellation of subscriptions was not the same as ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe call for a boycott of City Press newspaper in 2012 for publishing a picture of a painting of President Jacob Zuma with his genitals exposed.
“If the Western Cape government has an issue with the quality of content in the Cape Times, they should address it with the editor of that newspaper or through complaints to the office of the Press Ombudsman, and not by effectively calling for a government boycott of the Cape Times,” Sanef said in a statement.