The South African National Editors Forum has accused the Provincial Government of the Western Cape of calling for a “government boycott of the Cape Times”. This followed a directive from the provincial cabinet, headed by Premier Helen Zille, to director general Brent Gerber to stop subscribing to the Independent Media owned regional newspaper. Glenda Nevill reports.
This is the latest salvo fired in what has become a massive row between the Western Cape government and the Cape Times. It follows a story published in City Press on Sunday in which Gerber was quoted as saying the decision to end the subscription was the result of “the ongoing decline in the quality of reporting in the Cape Times”. He said the cabinet considered subscribing to the newspaper “fruitless expenditure”. “You are therefore requested not to renew or initiate further subscriptions,” Gerber wrote.
Zille’s spokesman, Michael Mpofu, told The Media Online the PGWC had 120 Cape Times subscriptions “across various government departments” and that it was the only Independent Media title affected. The PGWC still subscribes to other Indy titles including the Cape Argus, the Weekend Argus and the Daily Voice.
“We get a cutting service (of the Cape Times articles) every day in any event, so if there is any article of any relevance we get it anyway. We are retaining the subscriptions to libraries (because this is a public service) but not to government departments; i.e. we will not renew subscriptions when the current subscriptions run out (about 120 subscriptions to various government departments will be affected),” he said.
Zille took aim at the Cape Times in her weekly newsletter, SA Today, on Sunday over a story published on 5 March headlined ‘Foetal alcohol syndrome’s sad legacy’ and subtitled ‘Tragedy of Baby Thomas’. She said as FAS is a huge issue in the Western Cape, and was an awful legacy of the notorious “dop system” in which farm workers were paid in wine, she was “deeply concerned” when she read the story that “purported to be the tale of a baby boy born called Thomas, born to an alcoholic mother called Rose, near Wellington in the Western Cape. Rose was described in the article as ‘a product of the Western Cape farming community’s infamous dop system’,” Zille wrote.
“But two aspects of the piece made me immediately suspicious: The story of ‘Baby Thomas’ is told with no clear time frame and scant details, making it impossible to gauge whether Thomas is still a baby, a school-age child or even a grown man.
“Secondly, and perhaps more worrying, the piece seemed very familiar — as if I had read the exact same FAS description and statistics before,” she wrote. On investigation her office found a piece written by a researcher called Eric Graham, and published on the World Socialist Web Site in August 2012. It was “in large parts identical. At least half of the Cape Times piece was lifted verbatim from Graham’s article. The only additional information was the opening vague anecdote about Baby Thomas and a quote near the end attributed to an ‘anonymous’ source, stating that payment by wine ‘is still common practice on many farms’ in the Wellington area,” she wrote.
Zille said her office immediately contacted Cape Times editor Aneez Salie as they wanted to track down Baby Thomas to ensure he’s receiving the right support. They also asked for help in identifying farms where the dop system is still being used.
“The written response from the editor was one word, written in capital letters: ‘NO’.”
“When pressed for an explanation, we were simply told that the newspaper wanted to protect their sources,” Zille said.
The letter from Gerber followed.
The Media Online asked Cape Times editor Salie to respond to various questions on the matter, including why the newspaper didn’t name and shame the wine farms believed to be perpetuating the dop system, and for his response to accusations of plagiarism by the premier. But we received only a statement from Salie via the group executive of communications and marketing, Lutfia Vayej.
In it, Salie accused Zille and her cabinet of “unprecedented abuse of power” which “completely unacceptable”.
“The nature of the top-down instruction and deliberate move by Zille, the leader of the opposition and the Premier of the Western Cape, to dictate the position she personally holds to all her departments, on the basis of editorial quality which she has not directly engaged us on, is particularly disturbing,” Salie said. “Ms Zille supposedly values editorial independence and freedom of expression in the media, yet chooses to dictate to her departments what their position should be, which we find extremely problematic and hypocritical.”
He said all Independent Media editors were open to engagement with readers and subscribers and that it was a pity Zille and her officials did not do so. This, he said, “goes against the promotion of a free press”.
Sanef appears to agree, but did not comment on the alleged plagiarism issue. “Sanef finds it appalling that the executive committee of the Western Cape government, led by a former journalist, Ms Helen Zille, interferes at this level in the affairs of provincial department heads, who should have the freedom to choose which news mediums they find useful or not,” the editors’ forum said in a statement.
“If the Western Cape government has an issue with the quality of content in the Cape Times, they should address it with the editor of that newspaper or through complaints to the office of the Press Ombudsman, and not by effectively calling for a government boycott of the Cape Times.”
But Zille is unrepentant. In the City Press story, she said the latest example of the “shocking reporting” in the Cape Times is “just one of very many.” She said, “publishers can publish what they like; readers can read what they like”. “That seems to me a logical starting point in an open society,” in a City Press follow up story.
The Cape Times has come in for much criticism recently. Salie says the paper is “undergoing a period of considerable transition. It is a title with a very proud history as Cape Town’s premier morning newspaper, but one also with a painful recent history of racial inequality and discrimination, symptomatic of the state of transformation in South Africa’s broader media industry, which our company is committed to addressing head-on”.
In the meantime, Zille said she was doing “everything possible” to track down Baby Thomas to get him the help he needs, and will “do whatever it takes to track down any farmers in the Province who may still be paying their workers in wine”.
“And I will request the SAPS to launch an urgent investigation into the matter of the alleged continuation of the ‘dop system’ in the province, using the leads contained in the Cape Times piece”.
The ANC’s Zizi Kodwa issued a statement condemning the PGWC’s actions. “The DA-led government is using its financial muscle derived from taxpayers’ monies to punish those who dare publish independent views it perceives as being at odds with the DA’s misguided, sensationalist and anti-ANC narrative,” Kodwa said. “This deplorable behaviour is a direct assault on the freedom of speech and media freedom that the DA pretends that it promotes and defends.”
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