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Why does Julius fear the media?

“We not playing here. We dealing with racists … step aside or we will crush your prolapsed vagina.”

This was the message sent to journalist Karima Brown this week, after Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema published her telephone number online. At the same time, he told his supporters that Brown was sending her “moles” to an EFF press conference. It was an obvious effort to incite his supporters to take action against Brown — and it worked. Brown received multiple threats of physical violence, including many of a graphic and sexual nature.

Nobody should ever be on the receiving end of such messages.

To suggest that Malema did not know exactly what he was doing is to do him a disservice: he is a smart political strategist, and his inflammatory tweets represent a deliberate and cynical attack on a journalist who dares to criticise him. The commander-in-chief, for all his pseudo-military bluster, appears to have very thin skin.

This time, however, he has stepped well over the line. In Section 8(c) of the Electoral Act, it states that parties and candidates “must take all reasonable steps to ensure that journalists are not subjected to harassment, intimidation, hazard, threat or physical assault by any of their representatives or supporters”. There can be no doubt that Malema is in contravention of this law, and should be sanctioned accordingly.

The attack on Brown is not an isolated incident. The EFF’s recent history is littered with other examples of attacks on journalists. These include the assault of a News24 photojournalist by the party’s deputy president, Floyd Shivambu, and the insidious false allegations that journalists Thandeka Gqubule and Anton Harber were Stratcom agents who had worked for the apartheid security services.

But the EFF’s behaviour does not just concern individual journalists. The reason this is so important is that there is a broader principle at stake. These form part of an attack on the institution of journalism itself. By baselessly undermining individuals, the party is contributing to a culture of fake news and hastening the declining credibility of media in the public space.

This is an existential threat to South Africa’s democracy. After all, this is a country where journalists have been at the forefront of exposing corruption and holding up truth to power. Without journalists, no one would have known how the Gupta family had captured the state, or the scale of the rot in state-owned entities such as Eskom and SAA. Without journalists, Jacob Zuma would probably still be in power.

In a Mail & Guardian story published online this week, broadcaster Eusebius McKaiser notes, astutely, that Malema’s attack on Brown “is designed to make other reporters, talk show hosts, analysts and commentators think twice about criticising the EFF. A less experienced or not-so-tough journalist may not respond the way Brown is by continuing to do her work, fearlessly.”

This leads to the question: What exactly is Malema so scared of? Is he trying to hide secrets? In going after journalists so brazenly, Malema is revealing weakness, not strength. He has also fundamentally misunderstood how journalists work and what motivates them. One thing is for certain: if there are secrets to be found, South Africa’s journalists will find them.

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