President Jacob Zuma said this week he had discovered the concept of what he called “patriotic reporting” in Mexico where he was told journalists didn’t cover stories on the country’s brutal drug wars as this would deter investment and tourists.
He was surprised, because in South Africa, you can “read about everything”. And that, he implied, was not a good thing. What Zuma didn’t mention is that journalists in Mexico live with the threat of death every day of their lives. A WAN-Ifra report, ‘A Death Threat to Freedom: A Report on Violence Against Mexico’s Press’, tells of the “unprecedented level of violence faced by the Mexican press as a result of corruption, organised crime and the ongoing armed offensive against drug traffickers. 39 media professionals have been killed since the outgoing president, Felipe Calderón, declared a ‘war’ on drugs in 2006”.
“Targeting journalists as a means of controlling news output undermines democracy and violates freedom of expression. The incoming Mexican government must do more to ensure its press is free and its journalists are safe to report the news,” said WAN-Ifra’s Larry Kilman, deputy CEO and director of communications and public affairs.
Perhaps Zuma should watch his words. While South African media is nowhere near the kind of crisis journalists face in Mexico and other county’s where they stand on the violent frontlines of the stories they’re covering, the antagonism some members of the ANC and government display towards the media here could have unintended – or intended – consequences.
Who can forget the ANC’s former regional chair of the Nelson Mandela Bay area and mayor of Port Elizabeth who called for party members to burn down the offices of The Herald newspaper. With an ANC flag on his shoulder, Nceba Faku said the party celebrated an “important battle that is between the ANC and the media” and added the party’s “primary battle” was with the media.
Last Saturday night, the premises of Karabo FM in Sasolburg, were burnt down. Armed men stormed into the building, ordered the presenters and staff out of the building (thankfully) and set it on fire.
The South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) said it was “deeply shocked at this vicious physical attack on a media institution which operates at the heart of a local community”.
It said although newspapers are threatened, this was the first time a community radio station had been targeted. “… this is the first attack resulting in the destruction of a media outlet in the new democracy founded in 1994 in South Africa”, it said in a statement.
Professor Franz Kruger, director of the Wits Radio Academy, added his voice to that of Sanef, saying it was an “appalling attack on media freedom, committed with great impunity”. “It highlights the extent to which media freedom at local levels is far from guaranteed, he said, adding that “it would be good if the media freedom community were to make their voices heard about the issue,” he said.
Perhaps Zuma realised how his words were perceived during that address to 70 journalism students from the Tshwane University of Technology.
A statement issued by his spokesman, Mac Maharaj, said Zuma had “welcomed” the debate on “nation building” his comments to the students had inspired and sought to clarify his remarks.
“The President’s view is that the profit motive influences content as media products need to sell in order to make money and warned journalists of the future to be mindful of this imperative against their role of informing the South African public in a balanced and truthful manner,” Maharaj said.
He also “emphasised the role of media owners and their responsibility to ensure that their products reflected a balanced view of the country and not only negative news”.
But there was no word on the thoughtless comment about Mexico’s “patriotic reporting”, except a reminder that the president hoped “the business side of the media does not negatively impact on the telling of the South African story, especially as we head towards 20 years of freedom”.
BDlive summed it up. In his column for Business Day, Sipho Hlongwane wrote that Zume “doesn’t’ get it”.
“He does not understand the point of the media. He certainly doesn’t understand how a news organisation works. Most troubling of all, he still does not understand his proper place and power in a democratic country.
“To Zuma, the press has to function as a communications desk for the government to report on its regular business, whatever that may be. It must ‘note’ progress and service delivery and speeches and achievements, and report these as good news.”
Absolutely (as the president is wont to say). In the explanatory statement issued after the address to students, Maharaj pointed out that media chose to report that South Africa ranks 53rd in the World Economic Forum competitive index. And ignored the fact that SA “took first place on the regulation of securities exchanges and second place on the availability of financial services. Further, the country ranked second out of the 148 nations for the availability of financing through local equity markets”.
Zuma did praise some contributions from the media towards “nation building”, singling out Primedia/Independent Newspapers’ LeadSA project, SABC;s Touchling Lives and eNCA’s Heroes and Against All Odds programmes.