Mpumelelo Mkhabela

Mpumelelo Mkhabela: eNCA's boycott of EFF conference made it a political player, not the messenger it's supposed to be

2019-12-19 13:06
The writer questions the wisdom of eNCA's decision to not cover the EFF's elective conference in Johannesburg over the weekend.

The writer questions the wisdom of eNCA's decision to not cover the EFF's elective conference in Johannesburg over the weekend. (Chanté Schatz, News24)

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As it stands, it looks like eNCA effectively banned its journalists from covering the conference, thus ironically putting itself in the position of the wrongdoer, the EFF, whose actions were the cause for concern. eNCA newsroom managers might have violated media freedom from within, writes Mpumelelo Mkhabela

The decision by eNCA to boycott the coverage of the elective conference of South Africa’s third largest parliamentary party was as wrong as the decision by the party itself to ban Daily Maverick from the conference.

It was a classic case of two wrongs.

There are many objectionable things about the EFF which journalists and commentators regularly point out. The banning of critical journalists in party events are some of the things that call for engagement with the EFF.

Not a boycott.

The EFF is a legitimate political party. It did not steal the 10 percent of the vote. Its direct and indirect influence in the exercise of public power in South Africa justifies consistent scrutiny of its activities by the media.

Party leaders must be matured enough to tolerate robust critical reporting and commentary. For good reasons, the role of the media is constitutionally enshrined.

eNCA should not emulate the lack of tolerance.

By boycotting the EFF conference in solidarity with Daily Maverick, eNCA wittingly or inadvertently entered the political terrain as a player rather than a messenger.

This is a terrain a media organisation will find it difficult to survive. It must exit it.

It is not for news organisations to employ the tactics of political parties such as boycotts, threats and throwing tantrums. The strongest power in the hands of media organisations is telling the truth, provide a platform for critical debates and, in the process, hold those in power to account. 

Over the years, telling the truth has never been popular. Journalists have faced threats. During apartheid, banning orders were routine and cost lives. What will happen to critical media if the EFF becomes the governing party? 

EFF leaders should appreciate that, to adherents of media freedom this is a relevant question that drives a chill to the spine. The banning doesn’t do any good for a party operating in a constitutional democracy.

The exercise of the power of truth-telling and balanced commentary by eNCA would have been to cover the EFF conference, ask questions and invite EFF leaders to debate with viewers who might hold different views. It was lazy and strategically unsound for eNCA to abandon its duty to its audience in this manner.

At an emotional level, it sounded commendable that Daily Maverick received this kind of solidarity from eNCA. Indeed, some in the media applauded. It's the kind of solidarity that is neither in the interest of the media nor its audiences.

Frankly, Daily Maverick could do without it because everyone knows why it was banned. Now, how does eNCA deal with the EFF from now on? Was the boycott temporary? Will it invite EFF leaders as studio guests in future? Will it cover the EFF's contribution to parliamentary debates? 

The implications of the decision to boycott the EFF conference are so serious that it should not have been taken without soliciting input from all journalists on the channel. The decision on the show of support of whatever kind to Daily Maverick should have been anchored on eNCA's editorial policies and a robust debate within the newsroom. 

As it stands, it looks like eNCA effectively banned its journalists from covering the conference, thus ironically putting itself in the position of the wrongdoer, the EFF, whose actions were the cause for concern. eNCA newsroom managers might have violated media freedom from within.

These developments at eNCA have created an environment for the channel to be attacked from all angles.

Its human resources practices are being questioned. The treatment of journalists on the channel and recently the unprofessional manner in which the resignation of reporter Samkele Maseko was handled have put eNCA in a position firmly as the subject of news, not the messenger.

eNCA has over the years grown in influence.

When the SABC experienced turbulence, leading to questionable editorial decisions in the past including banning of certain political analysts on some of its channels, those who had access to eNCA had options for news coverage.

As things stand, the new management at the SABC is proving that it is possible for the public broadcaster to report impartially and fairly. The SABC is recovering; eNCA is slipping backwards.

Our democracy needs strong and diverse media institutions.

The decline of eNCA and the crises in many newsrooms typically precipitated by strange motives of media owners poses a danger to the sustainability of our democratic project. A weak media cannot contribute to a strong democratic culture.

eNCA must go back to the drawing board and revisit its editorial and human resource practices. 

- Mkhabela is a regular columnist for News24.

** Want to respond to the columnist? Send your letter or article to voices@news24.com with your name, profile picture, contact details and location. We encourage a diversity of voices and views in our readers' submissions and reserve the right not to publish any and all submissions received.

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.

Read more on:    eff  |  johannesburg  |  elective conference  |  politics
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