By Pinky Khoabane
It must be a worry for all of us when free speech advocates are all quiet in an orchestrated manner about an issue relating to free speech and media freedom. The bigger question is how the silence is orchestrated. Do our doyens call each other or are these decisions made over some alcohol at a bar? How do you get an entire industry of commercial media to shut their mouths and have no opinion even in their personal capacities on social media sites?
When Sunday Times employed the Democratic Alliance’s former spin doctor Gareth van Onselen as political journalist some years back, our media freedom advocates had nothing to say. Their response was dead silence.
Last year, former Sunday Times journalist Piet Rampedi was bullied by a cabal of white journalists following the newspapers’ retraction of its stories on an unlawful unit at South AFrican Revenue Services (SARS). We have all come to know it as the Rogue Unit. Rampedi challenged the retraction and accused the paper of having made a deal with Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan. And so the war between Rampedi and Alec Hogg, Adriaan Basson and a few others began. At the time, I questioned the silence of the black journalists who watched while Rampedi was being harangued by fellow journalists. It wasn’t as if he was the first to get a story wrong but the bigger question was not directed at the Sunday Times’ internal processes that had led to two years of writing what it was essentially acknowledging was FAKE NEWS. These journalists were attacking Rampedi personally. I don’t recall South African National Editors Forum (SANEF) intervene in the matter.
In its retraction the Sunday Times said it had written over 30 stories on the unit, some of which were incorrect.
“Today we admit to you that we got some things wrong.
It is clear that SARS received approval to set up the National Research Group within the National Intelligence Agency from then finance minister Trevor Manuel. The unit was not in the end set up within the NIA but became a unit within SARS.
“In particular, we stated some allegations as fact, and gave incomplete information in some cases. In trying to inform you about SARS, we should have provided you with all the dimensions of the story and not overly relied on our sources. Granted, it is our responsibility to build, sustain and protect a relationship with our sources, but we should have allowed you to make your own judgment based on all sides of the story.
“In a front-page story headlined “SARS bugged Zuma”, published on October 12 2014, we stated that a former SARS official, known as Skollie, blackmailed SARS into paying him R3-million to keep quiet about how members of the unit broke into Zuma’s house and planted listening devices. The story and headline stated as fact that members of the unit broke into Zuma’s home and planted listening devices there. It should have been made clear, both in the headline and in the story, that this was an allegation, not a fact. The allegation was also not properly attributed”.
When Phakamile Hlubi resigned from eNCA, she wrote an open letter exposing rife racism at the television news channel. There was dead silence from journalists and the guardians of free speech and media freedom.
The same has happened to Citizen editor, Steve Motale who was sacked following stories he published. Again our guardians were dead silent. Motale went to court to challenge his unlawful dismissal and won. The court ordered he be reinstated in his position as editor. When some of this country’s neo-liberal press decided to write on Motale, it was to investigate past business dealings with his long-time friend and businessman Kenny Kunene. This is again a means of digressing from the real issue of The Citizen’s refusal to abide by a court order and to allow Motale to return to work. The liberal press is questioning the stories for which he was sacked. This is well and good but it does not mean that The Citizen is above the law and can violate court orders. The judge was clear: Let him return to work and put him through a properly constituted disciplinary hearing.