Is journalism becoming irrelevant?

2010-08-10 00:00

LAST week was a stressful, if not frightening week for the South African media as a watchdog and as business.

Despondent editors and journalists have been holed-up in conference rooms debating a battle plan in the face of the proposed Protection of Information Bill, while industry leaders have been watching the developments with keen interest from their executive suites.

There is widespread fear that the bill is the government’s attempt to clamp down and muzzle media.

While these editors and journalists were holding a meeting to discuss these threats, police barged in and arrested a journalist in the same building.

Mzilikazi wa Afrika, an investigative journalist at the Sunday Times, was arrested on Wednesday by members of the police priority crimes unit, the Hawks, without an arrest warrant on charges of fraud and defeating the ends of justice.

For me, this evokes chilling memories of 1986 when apartheid security cops invaded the Business Day newsroom and arrested me in terms of Section 29 of the Internal Security Act, an act of law mainly reserved for guerrilla insurgents or terrorists as they were known. I was no guerrilla insurgent. I was just a journalist trying to do my job. The arrest meant indefinite incarceration at John Vorster Square without access to family, lawyers or reading material. All I was given was a Bible. It smelt new.

In terms of this piece of draconian legislation, the only people you had access to were cops. Then a magistrate would swing by once every two weeks and ask: “Enige klagtes?” Even if you had complaints, it was pointless complaining about anything.

There is no real clarity on what Wa Afrika was arrested for. I worry about the profession and the business of media. I am worried sick about the future of the industry.

But I cannot say I am totally surprised by the proposed bill. There has been a lot of shoddy journalism taking place. Some of it has been outright criminal, extremely libellous, demeaning to individuals and families, and even contemptuous of the courts. It has been so bad that I have often wondered what the future holds.

In fact, as a result one of the things I thought would be in place by now is an ANC-owned newspaper to counter shoddy journalism. It’s not publishing yet, but it is on its way.

The second tool I thought the ANC would consider is regulation of the industry and this is happening through the proposed bill.

As an example, the ANC has acknowledged for the first time that ex-Western Cape Premier Ebrahim Rasool was removed because of allegations that he paid two Cape Argus journalists to write favourably about him during his internal battles with another ANC leader Mcebisi Skwatsh­a.

What do you call this?

Judge Hilary Squires went on a painful protest during the Schabir Shaik trial when he was broadly misquoted by the media. In what was flagrant contempt of court, the media quoted Squires as having said Shaik had “a generally corrupt relationship” with President Jacob Zuma during the trial. That was in fact the prosecution that had alleged that and not Squires. The judge even wrote a letter to the editor complaining about this.

One of the first drills you are taught as an entry-level reporter is never to report inaccurately about a court proceeding. That is basic stuff.

When Zuma was facing a rape trial, the media went on a binge of unethical behaviour, which resulted in a string of legal claims against publishing houses after he was acquitted. Some of them have since been settled out of court.

The fact of the matter is, there is a lot of shoddy journalism going on, and if the industry does not do something about this, journalism is going to become irrelevant and the industry is going to die a natural death.


• Sipho Ngcobo is former deputy editor of Business Report and ex-managing editor of Enterprise Magazine. He has written for the Sunday Times and the World Paper in Boston, and was employed by the New York Times Group in the United States between 1989 an 1991.

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