Help put an end to ‘fake news’ about nuclear power

2017-04-03 21:12

This past weekend, social media was awash with rumours that one of the first acts of the new controversially appointed Finance Minister, Mr Malusi Gigaba, was to ‘sign the nuclear deal’. In a Facebook post, Sibusisiwe Mngadi, a Facebook user who lists herself as an ANC member, went on to further allege that one of the main beneficiaries of this deal was to be flamboyant businessman and nephew of President Zuma, Mr Khulubuse Zuma. In a separate post, former ANC MP Vytjie Mentor posted on Facebook that Minister Gigaba had signed the nuclear deal into law at an estimated minimum cost of ‘R6 trillion with over-runs’. Predictably, spokespersons for the Finance Minister were quick to deny these allegations and took to social media to do so.

In both cases, users were very vague on the source of their claims. There is thus no way to establish the accuracy thereof. Under these circumstances, the prudent approach would be to treat these allegations as untrue and to refrain from speculating on the basis upon which they were made or the reasons which those making these claims have for doing so. Arguably, given this background, such posts may be inadvertently damaging to calls for greater openness and transparency when it comes to the government’s nuclear dealings in particular or for a more free media environment in general as they are likely to strengthen calls for government to regulate social media in a bid to clamp down on ‘fake news’. Notwithstanding one's opinion that these claims ought to be treated as untrue until users provide firm supporting evidence to the contrary, one nonetheless believes that such claims and their immediate popular appeal have been made possible by the climate of secrecy and intrigue that has been fostered by the government’s conduct during its nuclear dealings. With secret deals reportedly concluded between the government and Russian company Rosatom, senior civil servants’ unwillingness to engage (let alone convince) the public on the underlying reasons for nuclear power and low levels of public knowledge of nuclear power, it can be readily seen how South Africa became a society in which speculation about leaders’ true motives runs rampant and where rumours flourish.

A tactic government could adopt to prevent these rumours from spreading and show it is serious about clamping down on ‘fake news’ is if it endeavoured to make the public space more open and to give the public a greater say in decision-making about its nuclear plans i.e. if it reinforced a culture of democracy One way, perhaps the best way, for the government to demonstrate its commitment to increasing public knowledge on this issue and enhancing public participation in decision-making thereon is if it submitted its nuclear plans to a public referendum.

A referendum, by compelling all stakeholders in the nuclear debate to share greater information on nuclear power with members of the public in bids to court them for their votes and support, would shift ordinary people’s concerns to the centre of the nuclear debate and confine the narrow interests of a few select members of favoured groups that are rumoured to be driving public decision-making in this regard to the periphery. Doing so would go a long way toward assuring the public that government is committed to conducting its nuclear dealings according to the highest standards of openness and transparency and making decisions that are genuinely in the nation’s best interests.

If you believe that putting the government’s plans to a referendum could bestow these benefits and restore citizens’ beliefs in the capacity of our democracy and our political processes to yield socially optimal outcomes, then we invite you to support our call for a referendum on nuclear power by visiting and liking our Facebook page (www.facebook.com/CRNPSA) and signing up for the petitions which we have posted there.

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