The recent visit by the media to President Jacob Zuma’s Nkandla homestead is a victory for the South African National Editors’ Forum (SANEF). That’s the view of the organisation’s chairperson (and editor of the Sowetan), Mpumelelo Mkhabela. Michael Bratt spoke to him to find out more about what the body does and how it currently sees the South African media landscape.
For those who do not know, SANEF sees itself as the guardian of the South African media industry. When asked what the organisation strives for Mkhabela said, “At the heart of our work is the promotion of freedom of the media and freedom of speech. We take our mandate from what is enshrined in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. We are unashamedly pro free speech and pro freedom of the press. We look out for, not only what affects the media, but also what affects the public. So it is not just self-serving, what we do.”
The conversation quickly turned to the visit to Nkandla by a group of journalists, currently a hot topic in the South African media space. Mkhabela describes the development as, “From the threat of being arrested to being welcomed to come into Nkandla and take pictures and having demonstrations done for you to see how the so-called fire pool is going to work.” He referred back to the beginning of the Nkandla saga when SANEF defended the newspapers who published pictures of President Jacob Zuma’s controversial homestead and threats of punishment were being mentioned for the media that published those pictures. He said that SANEF’s continued campaigning led to the media being allowed access.
“As the result of the pressure we have been putting journalists were now allowed to go to Nkandla and take pictures. It was not a 100% inspection but at least we have been able to set foot there, people were able to take pictures, people were able to ask questions, people were able to formulate their opinions about what is going on in Nkandla and how public money was used. The President said that as a result of SANEF’s continued demand, they let us in there. Had we not done that they wouldn’t have been able to do that. They understood why we wanted access to Nkandla, it’s a huge public interest matter.”
Another matter which SANEF has continually fought against is the Protection of State Information Bill/the Secrecy Bill (POPI). POPI remains unsigned by Zuma and Mkhabela says this is, in part, due to the continuous campaigning from SANEF. “We continue to highlight the flaws in that Bill. But if you compare the original version of the Bill which was presented to Parliament, to the one that is now waiting for the President to sign, the two are radically different. Through our campaigns we have managed to convince the lawmaker to tone down the Bill. There are few areas of concern right now.”
SANEF recently took aim at another politician, Western Cape premier, Helen Zille. The organisation was very vocal about the Democratic -led government withdrawing its newspaper subscription to the Cape Times. Mkhabela explained that the issue was not around Zille withdrawing her subscription, due to her citing a deteriorating standard of journalism at the publication, but rather her direction that all provincial departments withdraw their subscriptions. The matter of plagiarism, raised by Zille as one of the reasons for not renewing the provincial legislature’s subscription to the newspaper, was referred to the Press Ombudsman by SANEF. The story, about ‘Baby Thomas’ and foetal alcohol syndrome, was later proved by the newspaper itself to have been plagiarised and the journalist left.
Asked how SANEF sees the South African media landscape currently Mkhabela responded, “We have a very vibrant media in South Africa. We are able to say as much as we like within the confines of the law of the country. We are not in that space like other countries where harassment of journalists is a normal thing. If something like that happened in South Africa we shout enough that we won’t accept it as if its normal.”
He cited the example of the robust debates that happen between the media and government, which at times can be “very harsh and very hard on both sides.” He also said SANEF is not worried about the Secrecy Bill, if it came into being, reiterating that it has been toned down and the remaining concerns could easily be challenged in the Constitutional Court. However he went on to say that SANEF does not want to challenge the government in court, instead preferring Zuma to refer the Bill to the court to see if it would pass, before signing it into law. The other point that Mkhabela made was that, “The laws that govern media in South Africa are very favourable. Journalists are generally very independent in the country. Besides SANEF, there are many other organisations who campaign for the media. We also have very good training institutions, which produce journalists that are independent and who know that their interests are with the public.”
However the picture is not all rosy for South Africa media. Mkhabela did stress that one of the challenges which publications are facing in South Africa is financial constraints. But went on to say the digital space is growing which is a very healthy sign, as it shows diversification of media streams. Touching on racial transformation that South African media has seen since the dawn of democracy Mkhabela said, “A report two years ago said there was a lack of transformation in media ownership and there was transformation, but it was slow in the empowerment of women in the media. The only way SANEF can assist in transformation is through the empowerment of journalists.” In terms of what the media is reporting in terms of transformation Mkhabela said that it is happening across all media in South Africa.
In terms of regulatory bodies of the South African media industry, Mkhabela said, “The Press Ombudsman is working very well. More so after the changes that were made following the commission that was headed by the former chief justice, the late Pius Langa. Also with the Press Council now you will have the public advocate, whose main job is to assist the public who lodge a complaint against a newspaper.”
Looking ahead, Mkhabela said SANEF is looking for more senior journalists, not necessarily editors, to join the body.
IMAGE: eNCA’s Lester Kiewit reporting from Nkandla
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