Zuma’s ‘patriotic journalism’

2013-09-17 00:00

THE year is 2016. A newly graduated journalism student has just found a job at The Witness where the editor is beefing up the crime and politics desks.

On her first day, she decides to impress her new bosses and presents her best story in the morning meeting. She had two. But this one needs to be told more than the other.

The one she chooses is about the unveiling of yet another national park by San Parks near Pietermaritzburg. The park is children-friendly, more like Disney Land. It’s the first for South Africa and the continent.

“It’s good news,” she says. “It will surely put South Africa on the map as the tourist destination of choice. It could be a front-page lead.”

“Okay”, says the news editor, not wanting to burst the young journalist’s bubble. “Let’s hear your other story.”

“But this one is bad. It happened in my street and it makes our neighbourhood look bad,” says the junior journalist. “Remember the story in Katlehong in Gauteng where a four-year-old child was found killed?

“It’s similar. Just too much bad publicity for our country in one week,” she adds.

The five-year-old daughter of her neighbour, who is also a family friend, went missing for two weeks and was found murdered. She had been raped.

Not a story to be told? Well, this junior student was warned three years ago in 2013, in Cape Town, by the country’s then President Jacob Zuma, that such news is not good for the country and so should not be reported.

Even corruption stories, drug cartels and service-delivery protests that turn violent should not be reported on. How can you write stories about people revolting against the government? That’s unpatriotic.

The problems in Eastern Cape hospitals, the lack of text books at schools, really? What do you want investors to think?

The same as when friends of the president landed at Waterkloof Air Force Base to attend a private wedding — why is that anyone’s business? There is good news like the launch of SABC’s 24-hour news channel that should be covered.

The junior journalist is one of those who in September 2013 were (un)fortunate to receive a special lecture on the future of journalism from Zuma in Cape Town. Zuma told aspiring journalists at Tshwane University of Technology (Tut) that when they join other scribes, they should make sure they report only good stories, or else he will relocate to Australia. “When in South Africa, every morning you feel like you must leave this country because the reporting concentrates on the opposite of the positive,” he told Tut students in a special lecture in Parliament.

He went on to talk about using good journalism as being patriotic, giving an example of Mexico — yes, the South American country where more people are killed in drug-fuelled incidents than in the war-torn DRC. Apparently, Zuma’s counterpart there told him the best way to market the country is by getting journalists to write about the sun rise in the Kruger National Park, as opposed to, say, the shooting of Andries Tatane by the police during protests. “That, my friend, is dirty linen, and should not be told in public,” the Mexican president told Zuma. “It’s called patriotic reporting here.” Really?

Mr President, no democracy can flourish without a free media. That much you should know.

The truth is, our president has never liked the media. This is the same media that exposed his dealings with Schabir Shaik and the use of taxpayers’ money to build his private residence in Nkandla. It would have been asking too much to expect him to tell the journalism students to expose corruption, for example. Or to probe ANC chair Baleka Mbete’s R28-million stake in Goldfields. For him, the media should be focusing on the beauty of Table Mountain and the warm beaches of Durban.

The president once said: “Freedom of the media … only if the media stick to an entirely new set of rules about publishing stuff we feel should be state secrets and generally anything that the governing party feels is giving the wrong impression about us or the country.”

This triggered an uproar from journalism schools, which wrote scathing letters to him, reminding the president that as journalists, they “are not blind to the faults of the South African media … but critique can only bear fruit in an environment that allows for unhindered investigation, the gathering of sound empirical evidence and the free exchange of ideas”.

I am against bad news always being reported about my country, especially when misreported by international media. I have written in the past, slamming international media for always showing how Africans died and not how they lived.

But I have also argued that if they report accurately about the continent, they will be helping us identify the faults so that we can fix them.

Just a few days before writing this article, Hlaudi Motsoeneng, the acting chief operating officer at the SABC, called on staff journalists to start reporting only good stories. What a coincidence.

If there is any advise Zuma and Motsoeneng should listen to, it’s what one Tut student told Zuma: “People are not stupid, we report the news we don’t create the news.”

• Masilo Mangena waga Makgoba is

a communicator and a former journalist.

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