South Africa’s media came under sustained attack this week by ANC-aligned organisations and the party itself. But the party and its youth wing believe their intimidating actions are necessary in light of what they perceive as a ‘biased’ and anti-ANC media.
The ANC has asked the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) to investigate a cartoon published on the Eyewitness News website, a tweet sent by DA MP that showed dogs lining up to urinate on a poster of President Jacob Zuma and a comment attributed to public protector in which she allegedly likened ANC voters to abused women.
At the same time, members of the Gauteng ANCYL marched on the Mail & Guardian, accusing it of bias as a result of an editorial published prior to the 7 May elections exhorting voters to try and reduce the ANC majority in parliament in order to make it more accountable and receptive to the needs of voters. One poster held by a protester read, “Media bias = high treason.” [Watch the video here.]
Last week, a small group of demonstrators protested outside the offices of Primedia, owners of Eyewitness News, over the Dr Jack and Curtis cartoon that showed some ANC ministers as clowns and referred to ANC voters as ‘poephols’.
In his submission to the SAHRC, ANC chief whip Stone Sezani said since the recent elections, there had been an “unprecedented public onslaught directed at the great majority of those who turned out to … elect the government of their choice, in this instance the ANC”.
“These attacks have sought to undermine their democratic electoral expression, dignity and constitutional rights through publication and circulation of demeaning racial material and insulting media commentary,” he wrote in the complaint.
Sezani said the constitution entrenched the right to dignity, and that the “racist attacks” flagrantly violate the right to freedom of association, freedom of political choice and the right to dignity.
Why is there this complete breakdown of relations between the ANC, the government and the media so soon after the elections? The accusations and counter accusations that are escalating the tension instead of trying to deal contructively with the issues at hand?
The Daily Maverick’s political analyst, Ranjeni Munusamy, believes the mood in South Africa is extremely low, post elections. In a post titled ‘Another winter of discontent: Alongside temperatures, SA politics takes a plunge too’, she says political parties all expected to do better and it is this disappointment that is leading to the insults, marches, protests and the kind of divisive behaviour the country really doesn’t need right now.
But despite apologies and requests to engage constructively, the ANC remains intractable.
Primedia and the cartoonists immediately apologised for the satirical drawing, even before the ANC issued its first statements on the matter. “The apology was not the result of political pressure but due to EWN appreciating that an aspect of the cartoon had offended members of the community we serve,” Primedia said in a statement.
DA MP Waters deleted his tweet and wrote an apology, saying, “Hi all. If I offended anyone, I apologise.” But the ANC doesn’t believe this is sufficient. It said the tweet was an extension of the DA’s ‘racist’ attitudes.
Madonsela, in the meantime, has denied insulting ANC voters and made available transcripts of her speech to the University of Johannesburg convocation as well as video material.
Her spokesperson, Kgalalelo Msibi, said the public protector was responding to a question from the audience asking whether some of the ANC’s leaders should have been appointed to the positions they had been.
“Again, that is not my place to decide who should be in leadership, it’s for society. What I can say though, which we were discussing with my team, is when society puts people in leadership, it doesn’t necessarily mean you should repeat what you did yesterday,” Madonsela said. “Often the people they will vote in are people who made mistakes previously. I don’t think it is necessarily an endorsement of wrongdoing. It is probably in the hope that this time you are going to do things differently and you are going to do things better. It’s like an abused spouse, really.”
But the ANC is having none of it, proceeding with its SAHRC complaint.
In the meantime, Primedia called on its internal ombudsman, Nelson Mandela’s trusted friend and comrade, Advocate George Bizos SC, to evaluate the ANC’s complaint.
In his judgement, Bizos said publication of the Congress of Clowns cartoon aroused a “tumultuous response” that accused the broadcaster of “defaming the ministers and voters, accusing it of racism and threatening action in a letter from Attorney van der Merwe which has been handed to the broadcaster’s attorneys”.
“I am of the view that there is no basis for the allegation for racism and cannot understand on what basis Mr van der Merwe and others could have made such an allegation. The ANC correctly claims that it has the support of the majority of voters in South Africa from all the racial groups,” Bizos wrote.
“The contents of the cartoon may have been in bad taste. I believe that the almost immediate apology was a good response to the allegation but it is certainly not defamatory.”
Bizos added, “Cartoonists, comedians and satirists use hyperbole once being facetious and humorous, as necessary tools of their profession. Their right to use them is guaranteed by Section 16 of the Constitution”. He nevertheless called on the cartoonists to be less “facetious” in future.
Primedia said it would continue to safeguard editorial independence, but at the same time, said it appreciated that South Africa remains a young democracy that is” grappling with a long and divisive history and that the majority of our fellow countrymen and women were the victims of considerable indignity and abuse”.
The company’s CEO, Roger Jardine, said he was pleased with Bizos’ finding, but that being constructive was key given South Africa’s difficult and painful past.
“It is only through engagement on these issues that voices will be heard and problems resolved. We are committed to the letter and the spirit of the constitution and we will not be influenced in any way to soften our stance on editorial independence nor will we condone any action which tacitly seeks to promote any narrow political interests on our media platforms. Primedia Broadcasting remains committed to fair and balanced reporting,” Jardine said.
In the cases of both marches on the media houses, and in the face of threats by the marchers, the editors of Eyewitness News and the Mail & Guardian, were graceful under pressure. They made the point that both the right to protest and the right to freedom of expression were guaranteed in the Constitution and accepted memorandums from protestors.
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