Opening the eThekwini municipality’s reports for public scrutiny before they were deliberated by the council was not in the ratepayers’ interest, according to eThekwini city manager S’bu Sithole, because the media slanted the debate, often impeding deeper understanding of an issue.
He was speaking to The Mercury about a decision by the ANC in the council to embargo agendas for the executive committee and portfolio committee meetings.
These documents had always been available to the media but were restricted for the first time this week and would now only be available on the day of the meeting.
Sithole said the media did not understand some issues because they were technical, and not all reports were for decision-making – some were for noting purposes.
The city was not censoring the media but protecting the integrity of its processes, he said.
“If you look at custom and practice everywhere, the executive committee must discuss issues without any negative influence.
“Most issues that are debated are already in the newspaper and they take a particular slant. It makes our jobs very difficult,” he said.
In Cape Town, meanwhile, agendas, reports and the minutes of all City of Cape Town meetings are still available to journalists before council meetings. Hard copies are also made available from the metro’s media office and information is available on the city’s website.
Ian Neilson, Cape Town’s executive deputy mayor, said: “This is part of the city’s commitment to openness and transparency.”
The DA caucus leader in Nelson Mandela Bay municipality (Port Elizabeth), Leon de Villiers, said eThekwini’s actions were a “gross abuse of power”.
“We do not have such a rule in Port Elizabeth and, if we did, we would oppose it. The public should be encouraged to come to all council meetings and they should be well informed about what will be discussed, more so because it has an impact on ratepayers,” he said, adding that putting an embargo on agendas worked against all principles of open democracy.
City of Joburg spokesman Nthatisi Modingoane said council agendas and reports were made available to the media on the day of the council meeting on request.
“Portfolio committee meetings and executive committee meeting are, by law, not open to the public. Therefore journalists are not allowed to attend these meetings.”
The DA’s eThekwini caucus leader, Tex Collins, said his party was “appalled” by the decision.
“The ANC is rotten to the core, and this foolish and unconstitutional effort to gag the media will backfire on them badly,” he said.
“It has become increasingly obvious that the ruling party has no answer to the many problems Durban now faces and, as a result, will use every available method to prevent the truth from being exposed.”
Collins said the city’s action had not come before exco or the council for debate, making it illegal.
“It also flies in the face of good governance and transparency… It is hoped that the media will fight this action as vigorously as the DA. The DA will never accept a gag of this nature,” he added.
Right2Know national co-ordinator Mark Weinberg said this was another example of the veil of secrecy creeping over society. “In a democracy, elected leaders should have nothing to hide. The public has every right to be informed and discuss issues before decisions are taken, precisely to inform those decisions,” he said.