Max du Preez

Has Zuma been treated unfairly by the media?

2015-08-18 08:54

Max du Preez

It will come as a surprise to South African media users that the big question now confronting journalists was whether they had treated President Jacob Zuma unfairly and maliciously over the last few years.

If it were true that there was/is a grand media conspiracy against Zuma, it would be a serious indictment on the influence of the media: Zuma is as entrenched in his position today as ever before.

The allegation comes from inside our own ranks. In one of the most absurd episodes in my long career as a journalist, the editor of The Citizen, Steven Motale, last week tore his clothes, put ashes on his head and wailed: Mea culpa! I was part of a great injustice against my president!

If Motale’s strange opinion piece stood alone, one could have dismissed it as the silliness of a journalistic and political upstart.

What is happening behind the scenes?

But it was significant that it was lauded as profound, honest and meaningful in several published opinion pieces and comments on radio and social media. Newspapers in the Independent Group also published Motale’s article.

If one also keeps in mind that Motale’s piece came shortly after an opinion piece by the editor of The New Age and ANN7, Moegsien Williams, in which he accused “the media” of playing the role of an unelected opposition, one wonders what was really happening behind the scenes.

What is the real agenda? Who is applying pressure on whom; who is promising what to whom? Are we being subtly prepared for new efforts to institute state control over the media?

The subtext of Williams’s writing was that media that are critical of the ANC are also against economic transformation and the struggle against poverty, inequality and unemployment.

I would say the contrary is true. The Zuma administration’s record in this regard is pathetic.

I had a sad feeling of déjà vu when I read Williams’s piece. During the 1970s and 1980s I heard many similar arguments by Afrikaans journalists defending their support for the National Party government. It makes me sad, because Williams was once a fellow editor in the ranks of the “alternative” media during the harshest days of apartheid in the 1980s.

An old argument

Motale is aggrieved that the media had found Zuma guilty of corruption while no court has made such a ruling. He regurgitates the old argument that the media had wrongly reported that a judge had called the relationship between Zuma and convicted fraudster Schabir Shaik “a generally corrupt relationship”.

Motale does not mention (deliberately, or perhaps out of ignorance?) that a full bench of judges of the Supreme Court of Appeal had independently of an earlier judgment called Zuma and Shaik’s relationship a “sustained corrupt relationship” and “an overriding corrupt relationship”.

It is true that no court has convicted Zuma of corruption - he has not had a trial. But the evidence in the Shaik case was overwhelming and clear and there is a clear prima facie suspicion that Zuma could be as guilty as Shaik, who was sentenced to 15 years in jail.

It is very simple, really: if Zuma were innocent of all the charges brought against him earlier, why has he used every legal trick in the book to prevent a trial?

Moegsien Williams raised other, legitimate criticisms of the media, such as “juniorism”, the proliferation of telephone journalism, short-cuts being taken and fact-checking taking a back seat to the sensational.

These concerns are real and worrying and should focus the minds of editors, journalists and media owners.

The media has to inform the public in a fair and balanced way on what is happening in their world.
But it also has an age-old obligation to guard over the public interest; to serve as watchdog over those in power.

The state – the government in all its manifestations, bureaucracies and security forces – has by far the most power over citizens and influence over their lives and future.

The relationship between committed journalists and those in power will always inevitably be a prickly and at times downright adversarial one, at least in a democracy.

We journalists are supposed to serve the people and keep the politicians honest. Our job is to peek under rocks and shine a torch into dark corners and inform readers, viewers and listeners of what we find.

A serious crisis

In my opinion, Williams’s newspaper and television channel do not play this watchdog role properly. This is also true of Independent newspapers such as the Cape Times and certainly of the mighty SABC.

Does The Citizen now also prefer the role of praise singer over the role of watchdog? Is sucking up to power simply in its genes as the child of the apartheid government’s Information Department in 1976?

When the ANC and its sycophants complain about “the media”, they’re actually only referring to City Press, the Sunday Times, Business Day and the Mail & Guardian, newspapers that don’t reach the majority of the people. These critics don’t care much about Afrikaans newspapers.

South Africa is facing a serious crisis right now. The disastrous consequences of years of maladministration, corruption, policy confusion and poor leadership are obvious all around us. Much of this damage was done during Zuma’s presidency.

There are media institutions that should urgently get their house in order and up their standards, yes. But this shouldn’t distract journalists from campaigning harder against the decline of our country, the assault on the openness of our society and the abuse of power.

That’s what all principled, “patriotic” journalists would do. We’re not in the business of snuggling up to politicians.

- Follow Max on Twitter.

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