If you want media freedom

Ah – about time I passed comment on the Sunday Times journalist thing.
And by “thing” I mean the arrest of Sunday Times investigative reporter Mzilikazi wa Afrika on Wednesday by the Hawks. Since then, the charges against him have been thrown out, then (possibly) reinstated and he has now been freed on R5,000 bail.
Apparently, anyway – the waters around this are a little muddy since the media has got its panties in a right twist around the whole story and thus getting a reasoned and accurate version of what is actually going on is proving rather difficult.

What appears to be the case is that the charges allegedly relate(d) to a fax that wa Afrika allegedly received from the fax machine of a rural school in Mpumalanga, allegedly containing this allegedly fake letter of resignation allegedly from Mpumalanga Premier David Mabuza.
Doesn’t look much like a cut & paste job to me, oh no. (cough).

Obviously, there was no question of wa Afrika having actually written this letter – there simply aren’t enough spelling errors for it to be a Sunday Times piece.

But the media is complaining that this was intimidation and a clampdown on journalistic freedom ahead of the debate over the already much debated Media Tribunal.
Apparently, wa Afrika was simply making his way to Rosebank Police Station to hand himself in when, in the words of his editor Ray Hartley, “somebody decided they wanted to make something more dramatic out of it” and he was arrested by several officers from the Hawks.

So his handing himself over at Rosebank was to be a quiet, understated affair was it, Ray?
Weird that he chose to walk there, rather than hop in a car. Weird that you helpfully had several photographers with him along with someone videoing his short walk from freedom. Weird that, since you object to somebody deciding they wanted to make something more dramatic out of it, Times Live rather dramatically published a dramatic picture of wa Afrika’s empty desk.

If I were a cynic, I might be tempted to think that they were using this to try and win hearts and minds.

Of course, Hartley et al are vehemently opposed to the Media Tribunal. The M&G quotes Nelson Mandela in a full page ad today and The Times published an emotive audio statement by SANEF Chairman Mondli Makhanya in which he “reflects on the dark days of apartheid”.

So why do we need this Tribunal? Well, as Jeremy Cronin of the SACP states:

Media stories, especially sensational allegations about prominent personalities, have legs of their own.
Saying sorry after the event is just not good enough. Sorry doesn’t undo the damage, whether the sorry is prominently displayed or obscurely tucked away.

And these apologies range from inaccurate stories about cricketers to inaccurate stories about Christine Qunta and Ronald Suresh Roberts, incorrect allegations of corruption against the SABC and wildly inaccurate allegations against Transnet and the Land Bank, leading Chris Moerdyke to say:

Whenever I see front page apologies, which seem to be more and more common these days, I am saddened that once again the mass media in this country has had to admit that they have got things wrong. For those who believe so strongly in the freedom of the press and the integrity of South African media, it is just plain bloody embarrassing.

Words that the Sunday Times editor at the time of those sensationalist Land Bank and Transnet embarrassments would do well to consider.
That man is, of course, Mondli Makhanya. Hmm.

And he would be the same editor that stated:

…our relationship of trust with our readers is paramount and no damage to this trust can be tolerated

back in December 2004 as he reluctantly dismissed an investigative reporter “on charges of acting contrary to the Sunday Times code of conduct by allowing a conflict of interest to develop and of bringing the Sunday Times’s credibility into disrepute.”

That investigative reporter? One Mzilikazi wa Afrika.

Cronin’s statement yesterday might have only touched on one part of the alleged reasoning behind the proposed Tribunal. Many more cynical individuals would argue that it’s more about preventing genuine and negative stories about the Government from being published. But while the SA media keep publishing inaccurate rubbish, they are helpfully generating a handy reason for the ANC and its allies to instate such a body.

Simply, if you want media freedom, you must use it wisely.

UPDATE: Should have put this in the original post, as it’s an excellent point. As you might expect, because it’s by me.

There’s another hugely important point I have to make here – given their legendary sensationalist and wholly inaccurate reporting (read here: http://6000.co.za/the-times-they-arent-a-changin/), why would I be foolish enough to believe that same media on the possible effects and implications of a possible Media Tribunal? Why wouldn’t they spin this story like they seem to spin most others?
Why would I be so (rightfully) cynical about their other stories and articles and take this one at face value?
Why would anyone?


UPDATE 2: All the ANC wants to do is stick these sort of warning stickers onto your newspapers.