Govt officials and media barons

2007-11-12 00:00

PRESIDENT Thabo Mbeki may be correct when he describes the strident reaction from media watchdog bodies and opposition parties to news of a bid by Koni Media Holdings - owned in part by senior ANC and government officials - to buy media giant Johncom as “irrational”.

Of the “media storm” created by the bid, Mbeki is said to have asked: “Why do we do it? Maybe you know. Why?” But it is precisely in the intensity of the reaction to the bid that we can find answers to the president's fervent questions.

For nearly two decades, South Africa has enjoyed a strong measure of press freedom. In a country which takes pride in its democratic principles, there is naturally reluctance to relinquish such freedom. But there is also concern that consistent irritability towards its critics is making the government consider regulating the media. Already there are perceptions that the South African Broadcasting Corporation adheres to a broadly patriotic, less critical approach to news, which finds more favour with the government.

Added to this, of course, is the fact that Johncom owns the widely-read and influential national newspaper, the Sunday Times. The newspaper has recently been a primary object of government criticism and anger over its controversial exposé concerning Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang's alleged inappropriate behaviour while in hospital as well as reports of a theft while she was in charge of a hospital in Botswana.

Instead of refuting the claims, an enraged government, which too often interprets media criticism as either personal or the product of a neo-colonial backlash, has chosen to turn its attention and resources to uncovering how the newspaper acquired its information. Taking all of these factors together, it is difficult not to conclude that there's more to the Johncom bid than a mere business deal and that an attempt is under way to muzzle a major government critic.

The president is technically correct when he says that it is legitimate for government functionaries to enter into business deals, so long as they make these interests known publicly, but the people concerned are too close to the corridors of powers for most democrats to stomach.

The rule of ethical journalism is that a newspaper, for its own sake as well as for the sake of democracy, should never be answerable to another body with an agenda of its own, be it big business or a political party. It's a rule which understands that in a functioning democracy, criticism goes hand in hand with power and that polarity between government and the media is healthy.

It is the potential for this golden rule to be breached that has caused so many voices to be raised in protest. And it is a protest that must be heeded if the legitimacy and credibility of democratic institutions, of which the press is a critical part, are to be protected.

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