A letter sent by Independent Newspapers’ special projects division soliciting advertising for a ‘special feature’ about the African National Congress’s (ANC) centenary celebrations in January has raised the ire of DA leader, Helen Zille.
In a strongly worded letter featured on the DA’s website, Zille accuses Independent Newspapers of “feeding the hand that bites you”.
The letter sent out by Independent Newspapers’ special projects team is accompanied by an endorsement from Baleka Mbete, the ANC’s national chairperson, which exhorts potential advertisers to support the “historic supplement with advertising”.
“It is deeply ironic that Independent Newspapers would choose to run an advertising feature glorifying the ANC when the very same party is attempting to shut down the free press,” Zille says.
Zille said the letter was a “one-sided endorsement by a newspaper of a political party to solicit prospective advertisers”
She said it appeared to be in violation of section 3.1 of the Press Code that states: “The press shall not allow commercial, political, personal or other non-professional considerations to influence or slant reporting. Conflicts of interest must be avoided, as well as arrangements or practices that could lead audiences to doubt the press’s independence or professionalism.”
Julie Reid – media academic, analyst and media freedom activist at the Department of Communication Science at the University of South Africa (UNISA) – says she believes the letter doesn’t fall foul of the Press Code as section 3.4 that states “Editorial material shall be kept clearly distinct from advertising”.
“My feeling is that if it is advertorial, and clearly identified as such, then technically it’s not wrong. As long as the ANC and Independent Newspapers make it clear that it is advertising, then they don’t violate the press code.”
But Reid says ethically, she has a different view. “From a moral standpoint, with everything that’s going on, Independent Newspapers have egg on their faces. I couldn’t believe that they would do something like this. Considering the state of affairs between the media and the ANC, what with the ‘secrecy bill’ and the Media Appeals Tribunal, they look as if they’re selling out,” Reid says.
Independent media consultant, Ray Joseph, says “In light of the recession, I’ve seen the harsh realities newspapers are facing. We might not like it, but if the space is paid for, and clearly demarcated as advertorial, there’s not much editorial can do about it.
“My problem is the letter,” he says. “It reads as if Independent Newspapers endorse the ANC and that crosses a line. It’s written on an Independent Newspapers’ letterhead with the ANC logo. I can’t believe Independent Newspapers’ editors saw this letter. They would not have approved the way in which it was approached or its content. It’s quite extraordinary.”
Zille says that the letter, written on an Independent Newspapers letterhead alongside an ANC logo, is a “glowing endorsement of the ANC” and referred to such excerpts as “Our aim is to enlighten, educate and inform our readers of all that the ANC stands for and not only from a political perspective but as a principled way of life.”
She said the “pick of the bunch” was “…we would like to highlight the intended national celebrations planned for the Centenary year and communicate the strategy that will drive the next 100 years.”
“Who is the Independent Group to confidently predict that the ANC will be around for the next 100 years – and why are they promoting the strategy?”
Zille wrote to the press ombudsman to complain but the South African Press Association (SAPA) reported yesterday that the deputy ombud, Johan Retief, had “distanced” himself from the issue. Retief said the Ombudsman only dealt with editorial copy, not advertisements.”Prior to publication, the decision to publish is in the editor’s hands, as it always should be,” he said.
Editor in chief of Independent Newspapers, Moegsien Williams, had not responded to questions regarding the issue at time of going to press despite numerous attempts to get comment.