Durban - ANC councillors are considering curtailing media access to eThekwini municipal meetings following a “barrage” of negative media reports about the council.
While ANC councillor Thembo Ntuli stopped short of calling for media restrictions to City meetings, he said that it was unacceptable that while there were many other municipalities in the province, eThekwini seemed to be the only one reported on.
Council meetings, executive committee meetings and portfolio committee meetings are public meetings that can be attended by the media and members of the public. They are private only when they have been classified as in-committee.
The issue of media reporting on the City came up after opposition parties raised concerns that they were receiving critical information about municipal operations through media reports.
DA councillor Thabani Mthethwa said it was concerning that he was asked questions by the media about City reports that he had not seen.
He used as an example the story published by The Mercury on Monday that revealed that the investigation into the alleged over-expenditure on the contract for installing street lights in the City had been completed and had been sent to the financial misconduct board.
Ntuli said he was concerned about the leaking of City reports.
“I have raised the issue of the media before, whether we should be sitting like this with the media in the meeting or whether we should be engaging them (after the meeting). We should look at what other departments are doing,” Ntuli said.
Ntuli noted that there were many municipalities in the province that were not subjected to the negative media reports that eThekwini was facing.
He took aim at councillors whom he said participated in the portrayal of the City in a negative light, adding that those who speak negatively about the City in the media should be charged.
Another ANC councillor, Nkosenhle Madlala, cited how reports were leaked by people fighting in the municipality.
He added that this was worsened by reporters who did not verify their facts before publishing.
“I support councillor Mthethwa (in the complaint about learning of critical information through the media). The reports in the media put us on the backfoot. We need to put a lid on the leaking of reports, because the municipality is taking a beating due to this bad practice (leaking of reports),” he said.
Madlala added that councillors who breached the councillor code of conduct should be sanctioned.
Mthethwa cautioned against any attempts to curtail media freedom. “These committees are public and we as the executive committee cannot be seen questioning the presence of the media in these meetings.”
William Bird, director at Media Monitoring Africa, said comments made by public officials about seeking to limit access to public meetings or meetings that the public should have access to were deeply disturbing and showed a distinct absence of understanding of the role of the media.
“In principle any public meetings cannot exclude the media without there being exceptional circumstances. Saying they want to avoid negative coverage because of what is discussed is not a valid reason and would almost certainly result in a legal challenge.”