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Politicians need to make peace with the fact that journalists cannot and must not report only about the good and nice side of politicians and politics, writes Melanie Verwoerd.
Last week we saw President Donald Trump attacking CNN's White House correspondent Jim Acosta during a press conference. Acosta's questions were tough, but perfectly legitimate – exactly what you want from a White House correspondent.
But Trump did not like it and he threw a "Malema tantrum". (Remember the days when Malema was still ANC, hated the press and shouted a BBC journalist out of a press conference?)
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Trump told Acosta to sit down and said he was "a terrible and rude person". Later Acosta's credentials were revoked for allegedly putting his hands on a White House staffer who tried to grab the microphone from him. Video evidence showed that his hands were nowhere close to her and all he did was to politely say: "Excuse me, ma'am, I'm still busy."
Trump makes a habit of insulting journalists and portraying certain sections of the American press as the enemy. He even suggested at a recent political campaign rally that a Republican candidate who body slammed a journalist was his "kind of man".
In the last two weeks he accused Peter Alexander of NBC of unleashing violence and told ABC's Cecilia Vega: "I know you are not thinking, you never do." He also targeted three African American female journalists, calling their questions stupid and racist saying that one was "a loser".
Closer to home we have also seen politicians attacking the press. Apart from Julius' tantrum years back (he now seems to enjoy holding court with journalists during press conferences), we have seen politicians of all parties insulting and even threatening journalists.
Over the last few days Tito Mboweni caused grave concern when he declared war against the press in a tweet. (Minister, did you not learn from Helen Zille? Perhaps it will be wise to stay off the Twitter late at night?)
A few months ago the ANC Women's League secretary-general‚ Meokgo Matuba‚ sent Sunday Times journalist Qaanitah Hunter a photograph of a gun.
Qaanitah had written the story about the secret meeting with then-president Jacob Zuma and had texted a few questions to Mathuba after which she received the picture by text. Matuba claimed that she did not know who sent the picture since other people also used her phone. (She and Malusi Gigaba must use the same PR consultant.)
Of course, Zuma frequently attacked the press – most prominently at his retirement speech during the ANC Nasrec conference – when he accused the media of working against the ANC and taking instructions from Washington.
More recently both Free State premier Ace Magashule and ANC spokesperson Pule Mabe have had a go at the media.
It is important to first realise that there is no such thing as "the media". There are only individual publications and journalists. They don't form some homogeneous monster as many politicians would like us to believe.
There are good and bad (some, very bad) publications and journalists, and yes, from time to time they make mistakes. Sometimes journalists become too embedded and start to push certain agendas. Or they and their editors do not verify sources and incorrect stories are sent into the world.
It is for this reason that strong codes exist for journalists that the Press Ombud enforces. Politicians and citizens can also turn to the courts if they feel that they had been unfairly treated by the media, which could ultimately result in financial penalties to the publications and journalists.
However, what politicians need to realise, is that they cannot survive without the media. It is a tension filled, but symbiotic relationship. Without the media, their achievements and messages will not reach the voters. The public wants to be informed about the actions of their elected representatives. This is what journalists do and politicians want. However, they will (and are supposed to) report on both the good, the bad and the ugly.
Imagine if we did not have some critical media globally during the apartheid years – people such as Aggrey Klaaste, Percy Qoboza, Donald Woods, Allister Sparks and many others. These journalists were hated and persecuted by the apartheid regime. Yet, they HAD to tell the stories of the brutality and abuse in South Africa.
It was again the press which played a major role in exposing state capture through, amongst others, the Gupta leaks as well as the abuses during the Zuma years.
Politicians need to make peace with the fact that journalists cannot and must not report only about the good and nice side of politicians and politics. They are not allowed to serve politicians and this is often where the tension arises. Politicians love and crave media attention until that media becomes critical of them. Then they tend to lash out at journalists, accusing them of colluding with, or even becoming, the enemy.
It is absolutely crucial that South African politicians do not copy Trump's attacks on the media. The one thing we are still complemented for abroad (together with the independence of our judiciary) is the freedom of the press.
A strong, independent, fair press is one of the most important cornerstones of democracy and, in an era of fake news increasingly being pushed into our lives by non-journalists with political agendas, we have to protect the publications and journalists who fearlessly do their jobs.
- Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and South African Ambassador to Ireland.Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.
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