Zille rides in same boat as Manyis and Pahads of this world

2015-03-18 16:46

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A few years ago then ANC national spokesperson Jackson Mthembu mounted a podium and declared City Press an enemy.

“Don’t buy City Press Don’t Buy! Don’t buy City Press Don’t Buy!” he chanted.

The motley crowd standing before him chanted along and applauded as Mthembu called for a boycott of City Press.

The newspaper’s sin was to have printed an image of the painting The Spear, which showed President Jacob Zuma’s trousers unzipped and his bazooka hanging out.

The decision to publish the image in a newspaper had offended many people, not least loyal cadres of the ANC. Hence the boycott call.

There was outrage at Mthembu’s call, even among those who may have disapproved of the publishing of The Spear.

This attack on a newspaper was a direct assault on media freedom, they said. Right-thinking South Africans, many of them members and supporters of the governing party, rallied around City Press.

On the following Sunday people bought multiple copies of the newspaper just to make a point.

Mthembu was not the first to launch such a campaign against a newspaper. In the early 2000s ministers and senior government officials mobilised for an advertising boycott of the Mail&Guardian, which had been giving President Thabo Mbeki and some of his ministers a particularly hard time.

A few years later former Minister in the Presidency Essop Pahad tried to instigate government departments to withdraw advertising from the Sunday Times. The Makana municipality in the Eastern Cape did the same with the Grocotts Mail newspaper.

In 2011 former head of the Government Communications and Information Service Jimmy Manyi unsuccessfully motivated for the centralised state advertising budget to be used to favour friendly media outlets and to punish those seen to be hostile.

Several provincial governments and local councils have tried the same tactic against media outlets they perceived as hostile.

In some instances these boycotts were damaging but in most cases they just did not get the necessary support and fell flat. That is because most political office bearers and public servants recognised that the money that was supposed to be used as an intimidatory weapon and did not belong to any particular politician or party.

They recognised that the public purse belonged to the public to be used for the public good.

Throughout these episodes the Democratic Alliance purported to be on the side of press freedom, coming out strongly against the intimidation of the media.

The party harshly condemned Manyi’s move, saying “it would only serve to undermine the independence of the free media and will infringe on the citizens’ right to access information.”

It said Manyi’s plans were “clearly aimed at turning the free media into a propaganda outlet for the government.”

“Such a move will not only constitute a gross abuse but will undermine the strength of one of the most crucial democratic institutions – the free media,” the party said at the time.

Clearly these wonderful principles applied to everyone but the DA.

This is the only deduction one can make from the decision by the DA run Western Cape cabinet to instruct all departments to cancel their subscriptions to the Cape Times. Citing “an ongoing decline in the quality of reporting in the Cape Times” the cabinet said it considered continuing to subscribe to the newspaper as “fruitless and wasteful expenditure”.

It is no secret that the relationship between the Democratic Alliance and Cape Town’s major English titles has deteriorated since Iqbal Survé’s Sekunjalo took over Independent Newspapers.

The DA, amongst others, is convinced that the proximity of Survé and Sekunjalo to the ANC, the group has a pro-governing party slant and anti-opposition bias.

They believe that Survé’s membership of the ANC and Sekunjalo’s donor status has affected the newspaper group’s editorial independence.

DA members say this bias is particularly felt in the Western Cape, where DA-ANC political contestation is more fierce than in any other part of the country.

But Premier Helen Zille denied that politics had anything to do with the decision.

“This is a decision of the Western Cape government. We believe in the separation of party and state,” said Zille.

Well she can tell that to the birds.

Firstly, the fact that the provincial cabinet sat down to discuss the quality of a specific newspaper tells you that the decision is political. Why else would ten of the province’s most powerful figures, who preside over a budget running into tens of billions, spend time analysing a single newspaper title?

Secondly, what criteria were used to determine the decline in quality? Was it the alleged act of plagiarism that Zille spoke about this week? Or was there a thorough analysis over time? And if so, what motivated it? Were other publications subjected to the same scrutiny?

Thirdly she has in the past taken criticism very personally and viciously lashed out at individual journalists. She did not just stop there, she cut them off. It has become her practice to conflate criticism of her as offence to the public office she holds. So what she has done to the Cape Times fits perfectly into her pattern of behaviour.

So, dear Premier, your actions are no different from those that your party has previously condemned for using the public purse to fight political battles. What you have done is censorship. It is wrong and cannot be justified under any circumstances.

You ride in the same boat as the Essop Pahads and the Jimmy Manyis of this world.

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