SUGGESTIONS by cabinet spokesman Jimmy Manyi that the government’s R1 billion advertising budget will be allocated in favour of media houses that best communicate the “truth” are tantamount to bribery, says the SA National Editors’ Forum (Sanef).
Manyi, who also heads the Government Communication and Information Service (GCIS), said yesterday that the cabinet had approved a communication strategy which would see its advertising budget centralised under his department.
He would oversee procurement of advertising space and airtime for all 34 government departments, which had previously done this independently.
The government was “frustrated” by constant negative media reports that paid little heed to the good work it was doing, said Manyi.
Asked whether “positive” reporting on the government would influence its ad spend, he said the government did not want any favours but would like to see the work it was doing being communicated.
Media houses that “are helping us to ensure the content gets to where it must get” would be preferred.
The media had “done very well” in reporting budget votes in Parliament over the last few days, “so I want to say, keep it up… I see my boss, Mr (Collins) Chabane, has been well reported, so keep on doing that, then we will be friends”.
Sanef condemned Manyi’s comments and questioned whether the government wished to “bribe newspapers to become its propagandists or even its mouthpieces”.
Sanef chairman Mondli Makhanya said the decision constituted a “serious offence” against the freedom of the media clause in the constitution.
“Several attempts… to withdraw advertising as a means of punishing newspapers for being outspoken and critical of official malpractice and corruption in South Africa have failed, while in Botswana the Supreme Court has forced the government to abandon such practices,” he said.
“Sanef calls on the government to drop this scheme immediately and to revert to accepted professional principles in the placing of advertising before further harm is done.”
On what checks and balances would be in place to ensure media critical of the government would not be prejudiced and more sympathetic media favoured, Manyi said mainstream media would get their fair share, but that in a bid to extend the government’s reach into rural areas “not everybody will continue to get their fair share of the cake, as it were, but I think what will determine all of this is a scientific approach”.
The government, through GCIS, would monitor and enforce adherence to the government brand, said Manyi.
Anton Harber, Caxton Professor of Journalism at Wits University, said that if the government started using ad spend to favour papers which “tell the truth”, or its version of it, it would be in breach of the law and the constitution.
“If spending is driven by the kind of raw and crude media hostility we are seeing from Mr Manyi – completely inappropriately for a man in his position – then this new policy is laden with serious dangers,” he said.
Apart from its “dubious legality”, Manyi’s policy would prevent the government getting its message across, Harber said, adding that “it will only be talking to its cosy friends, and its messaging will be undermined and lack credibility”.