The Economic Freedom Fighters have made a gigantic principled and strategic error by blacklisting some journalists. The party doesn’t want to talk to reporters who work for the Daily Maverick, making it clear that they will be treated as “enemies” of the party. There are many reasons the EFF’s posture should be considered dangerously anti-democratic, and worth skewering.
First, the word “enemy” should not be used lightly in a country in which that kind of marker can set you up as a target for everything from innocuous mocking to serious violence.
Although we should all have thick skins when it comes to the use of energetic political language, we cannot deny that the volatility of the South African political arena makes this dangerous.
You could feed irrational supporters’ lust to strike at your “enemies” on your behalf even if it is not your intention to be misinterpreted as effectively shouting: “ATTACK THEM!”
Several journalists, including Peter Bruce and Karima Brown, have experienced intimidation such as in the form of marches on their property or threats of rape and murder.
A responsible political leader is one who thinks carefully about their use of inflammatory language because they know context must inform the choice of imagery, analogical reasoning, and other linguistic tools.
Malema, being wily, has for years responded to such criticism by casually asserting that he is using language figuratively, not literally. Former television broadcaster Justice Malala, for example, once tried to discuss with Malema his assertion that he, Malema, would “kill for Zuma”. Without batting an eyelid, Malema said he also uses the phrase “dressed to kill”, which is simply the colourful use of language and obviously is not meant to be understood literally.
It is a shrewd orator with a capacity for potential demagoguery who is that insincere and glib about the use of irresponsible political language. To say that you would “kill for Zuma” is to imply that you may well do so. To call journalists “enemies” is to imply that they can be considered legitimate targets of the justified use of violence.
Malema is not, despite what his detractors sometimes think, an idiot. He is an astute political leader who knows what the effect of his speech-acts will be on the vicious trolls and supporters who love him and the EFF not just unconditionally but also with an eagerness too to show that they may well “kill for Malema”.
I cannot be accused of panicking because I have just used the phrase “kill for Malema” figuratively rather than literally. Yes? No? This is the kind of disingenuous blurring that irresponsible scribes, or irresponsible political leaders, routinely give way to. Malema, and the EFF, ought to have known and done better.
If you think a journalist is technically useless or unethical (or both), the easiest way to undermine the content of their work is simply to show them up as such. This past week, for example, I had asked the spokesperson of the EFF, Mbuyiseni Ndlozi, what the essence of their beef with these blacklisted journalists are. He accused them of being in cahoots with politicians from other parties to write bad things in the media about the EFF so as to undermine the party’s place in the body politic.
Interestingly, however, when I invited Ndlozi to end the careers of these unethical crooks calling themselves bona fide journalists, he was unable to offer any evidence to support this claim of a conspiracy against the EFF.
Evidence matters. If the EFF can support such a serious claim about a journalist, isn’t it interesting that they are coy about sharing their proof? Why spare the crooks in the newsroom of the Daily Maverick?
All of which makes it hard to not conclude that what actually irks the EFF’s leaders is the quality of the investigative reporters at Daily Maverick. They do a brilliant job of painstakingly trawling through the money trail to find out whether every single cent spent by the leaders of the EFF is monies that were obtained lawfully and ethically.
Simply put, it is hard to evade the irresistible conclusion that the EFF is not so keen on the accountability role of a robust and critical media. That is a deeply anti-democratic turn that should worry the people who support and vote for the party.
An erosion of democracy’s core values such as openness and transparency, which journalism facilitates, ultimately increases the prospects of all of us living in a country in which the powerful continue to amass resources with gay abandon and with no effective archiving of their unethical or unlawful behaviour.
This isn’t only true of the EFF. When ANC politician Bathabile Dlamini refused to talk to journalists from another media house last Friday, she demonstrated the same disdain for accountability.
We should be vigilant about these anti-democratic habits in any and all political parties and people in power. For that matter, even non-state actors such as corporates and powerful individuals should not be beyond the reach of a critical media. The public ought to understand that there is nothing frivolous about the space for critical journalism being systematically closed down. You should be concerned even if you are not a journalist.
Here is why. Your ability to meaningfully enjoy your civil and political rights, such as exercising your right to vote on the basis of a full set of facts about the society you live in, depends on a free flow of accurate information and diverse viewpoints into the public sphere. Absent the space for robust and diverse media, the quality and volume of information and ideas flowing in the public sphere will diminish.
In turn, your ability to enjoy your civil and political rights fully will be undermined.
It is therefore a mistake to laugh when a politician tells a journalist that they will never again speak to them or their media house. That attitude is not only bad for the craft of journalism. Our democracy is poorer when the hubris of powerful politicians are propped up by the laughter of a crowd affirming such anti-democratic ways of being.
There has been an interesting debate between journalists about how to respond when a colleague or a competitor gets blacklisted. Is it wise to show solidarity by not covering the EFF at all on any media platform? I used to think that maybe blacklisting the EFF might force the party’s leader to accept that it needs the media, and so might get it to change its decision to effectively ban some journalists. But I have reconsidered my intuitive initial view.
We shouldn’t lower the bar by taking our cue from any politician who smudges the values of our Constitution. If my argument that voters require a free flow of information to meaningfully exercise their political rights is correct, then a media blackout of a political party would also be both unethical and inconsistent with the core values of the Bill of Rights.
It would be a mistake to respond to the EFF in a tit-for-tat game. To what unpredictable end?
The best response to any individual, company, organisation or political party who hates a journalist is to continue to write and broadcast the inconvenient truth about what they say and do. It is a commitment to evidence and debate that should guide newsroom choices rather than stooping to the anti-democratic tendencies of some politicians. Journalists must trust their readers, listeners and viewers to think for themselves while the media continues to do its jobs in the face of bullying.