Brave journalism vs expedient labels

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Freedom of press picket over the treatment of editor Alide Dasnois outside Newspaper House, with counterprotesters shouting the odds. Picture: Michael Walker

Songezo Mjongile’s accusations against the Cape Times are devoid of the truth, says Trevor Manuel.

 

Cape Town - I have avoided commenting on the dismissal of Ms Alide Dasnois, because I am a cabinet minister and would not wish to be seen to interfere with either a workplace dispute or circumstances that may impact on a range of matters related to freedom of the press. I am also loath to take public issue with an article in the name of Songezo Mjongile, my provincial secretary of the ANC, but I want to assume that he wrote in his personal capacity, and the ANC encourages debate among its members. The introspection occasioned by the passing of Madiba compels me to ask: “What is the right thing to do now?” My response, therefore, arises from a sense of duty.

Over the past few years, I have had several meetings with the SA National Editors’ Forum (Sanef), frequently as a member of delegations convened to discuss relations.

From these meetings, I accept the inviolable principle of editorial independence and the need to protect journalists and editors from the influence and possible tyranny of owners.

This is universally accepted as a necessary measure to ensure that editors can exercise control of their newsrooms and run their papers as an essential part of the public information mandate of the press. I am completely comfortable with the statement of December 13 that reads: “Sanef condemns any interference with the independence of editors and journalists when carrying out their duties. We call on Sekunjalo Holdings to clarify the issues relating to Dasnois’s sudden dismissal without delay and to desist from making threats against staffers.” I believe that the executive chairman of Sekunjalo Holdings has an obligation to the national editors’ forum that he has yet to discharge.

I want to address this point to Mr Mjongile because we can never permit expedience to trump values, nor should we ever tolerate that Madiba’s name be used to justify such expedience. I also want to take issue with the extreme labels that he uses without adducing any evidence to support this.

He makes the argument that “the Cape Times, (which) has traditionally been a mouthpiece for neo-liberal fascists”, and I have to question the historical correctness of this conclusion. The problem is that each of these labels has a heavy weight in political discourse, and we should not allow the abuse of them for the purpose of mere name-calling.

But the bigger problem is that they are devoid of the truth.

I really don’t know where Mr Mjongile was when Mr Tony Weaver broke remarkable stories that exposed the barbarism of the apartheid regime against our MK cadres. Mr Weaver was criminally charged for his part in breaking the story of the Gugulethu 7, but he stood his ground. I also do not know where Mr Mjongile was when the then-editor of the Cape Times, Mr Tony Heard, published a lengthy interview with ANC President, Oliver Tambo, while the ANC was a banned organisation. This brave journalism, in the face of the repressive laws of the time and angry media owners, is what some of us still refer to as high-quality, informative and transformational journalism. But, seemingly these are the efforts of “neo-liberal fascists” according to Mr Mjongile.

It is important that our arguments be supported by evidence. I was personally amused by the interview that Mr Weaver conducted with his supposed nemesis, Mr Wesley Douglas.

In spite of Mr Douglas leading the Movement for Transformation of the Media, and calling for the dismissal of Mr Weaver, he appeared to have no knowledge of the issues at hand. I commend Mr Weaver’s courage in conducting the interview, and I am sure that if Mr Douglas was misquoted, he has the right of reply. The lesson of that experience is that we must support our arguments with evidence, not hearsay.

Equality before the law is a fundamental principle in our constitution. It is one of the pillars that we have built from the Freedom Charter that states “all shall be equal before the law”. Because the constitutional phrasing is drawn so directly from the Freedom Charter, we in the ANC have a larger responsibility to uphold it. In this regard, the responsibility of media everywhere is to inform public opinion, in a manner that is fair.

The onus on editors is to ensure that the information is not only available, but that the sources are also verified and unimpeachable. I agree with Mr Mjongile that “we cannot be satisfied with trickle-down economics”, and the equality before the law is an important guarantee that the wealthy are not treated differently from the poor. If the executive chairman of Sekunjalo Holdings has a matter to explain in the court of public opinion he cannot be spared that accountability in our democracy by virtue of his ownership of a newspaper holding group.

These are the principles that Madiba lived by because these are the facets of the kind of society that he “hoped to live for, but if needs be was prepared to die for”. Mr Mjongile correctly argues, “the life of Nelson Mandela must spur us on to change for the better, change must occur in every aspect of South African society”. The quality and beneficiaries of that change must be clear.

Since Madiba’s legacy has been invoked, let us establish what he wrote of transformation.

“Among the multitude of those who have throughout history committed themselves to the struggle for justice in all its implications, are some who have commanded invincible liberation armies who waged stirring operations and sacrificed enormously in order to free their people from the yoke of oppression, to better their lives by creating jobs, building houses, schools, hospitals, introducing electricity, and bringing clean and healthy water to people, especially in rural areas. Their aim was to remove the gap between the rich and the poor, the educated and uneducated, the healthy and those afflicted by preventable disease.”

Who would argue against that expansive definition of transformation that Madiba offered (Conversations with Myself). The sting of Madiba’s belief is clear when he writes “there is universal respect and even admiration for those who are humble and simple by nature, who have absolute confidence in all human beings irrespective of their social status. These are men and women, known and unknown, who have declared total war against all forms of gross violation of human rights wherever in the world such excesses occur”.

If there is the apparent violation of human rights in the instance at hand, where is it? The onus is therefore on the accuser, Mr Mjongile, to explain why he has lost confidence in certain individuals at a newspaper, simply because the ownership of that newspaper has changed. Similarly, the onus is on him to explain his involvement in a dispute that could be of the nature between an employer and an employee when he argues, “unsurprisingly, the proposed redeployment of the Cape Times editor, Alide Dasnois, by the management of the Independent group, to another position in the group, was met with suspicion, scorn and even attempts to create a scandal where clearly none exists”. I need to understand on what authority the Provincial Secretary of the ANC has acquired and verified such information, and why he thinks that it is his place to drag the 102-year old ANC into this dispute in so unseemly a manner?

And then, I must declare, “Not in my name!”

We should never allow expedience to triumph over our history and our values. Too much blood has been spilled and far too much pain endured in the struggle to create the democracy described in our constitution.

Let us discharge our obligations to society openly, fearlessly and honestly, and let the request by Sanef be responded to.

Such clarity would help all of us.

* Trevor Manuel is Minister in the Presidency for National Planning.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

Cape Times


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