Government spokesman Jimmy Manyi says the media is failing to communicate government activity, and suggested it would favour those that did with advertising.
He was briefing the media on Thursday following the cabinet’s approval of a new communication strategy that would see the government’s advertising budget centralised under the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS), of which he is also the head.
“Government has got a truth to communicate. Government has got programmes of action; this government has been busy doing good work, and so now this government would like the citizens to know the truth,” he said.
Asked whether, when he said the government wanted more bang for its advertising buck, he meant it would reward favourable reporting with advertising, he said: “As (the) government we do not want to be done any favours by anyone, but what we report as government we would like to see that covered, because we think media has a role, not only as a watchdog, but …also to provide information.
He said the government would “focus” on media that “pass on our content much more effectively to the public of South Africa”.
“So all the people that want to work with (the) government to make sure that the people of this country know the truth about service delivery … clearly we will work with those people,” said Manyi.
However, the SA National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) condemned the move, saying it was a plan by the government to “bribe newspapers to be its propagandists”.
“This incredible plan which was approved by the cabinet means the government wishes to bribe newspapers to become its propagandists, or even its mouthpieces, by publishing only the government’s view of news and affairs,” said Sanef chairman Mondli Makhanya.
He said the decision constituted a “serious offence” against the freedom of the media clause in the constitution which the government had sworn to uphold. “Freedom means liberty and particularly conduct where financial inducement or threat play no part,” he said.
He said aside from the “abhorrence” with which media houses would view “this attempt to coerce the press” – which was in contravention of the Press Code of Conduct and the Advertising Standards Authority – the consequences for the government’s reputation internationally, especially among investors, and that of the news media which enjoyed high regard internationally, were being ignored.
Makhanya reminded the government that several attempts to use the threat to withdraw advertising as a means of punishing newspapers for being outspoken and critical of official malpractice and corruption in South Africa, had failed, while in Botswana the Supreme Court had forced the government to abandon such practices.
Advertising experts expressed their concern about Manyi’s statements, especially in light of the proposed media appeals tribunal and the Protection of Information Bill, now before Parliament.
Communications expert Gordon Patterson, managing director of Starcom, said Manyi’s reasoning was “immature”. While the centralisation of media buying was a good idea, he warned that co-operative governance, in a structure where you have the client and the agency under the same umbrella, could be undermined.
“Historically we’ve seen that the focus became corrupted... Politics and communication must be kept at arm’s length,” he said.
Manyi said reports on budget votes in Parliament the previous day showed media had “done very well, 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”.
Currently the 34 national departments are responsible for the procurement of their own advertising space and airtime.
“GCIS will (now) procure media space and airtime for national departments in order to realise economies of scale,” said Manyi.
It was estimated that the departments’ combined budgets totalled just under R1bn, said Manyi, adding that the numbers still needed to be consolidated.
Of the government advertising budget, 52 percent goes to television and radio and 41 percent to print.
The government, through GCIS, would monitor and enforce adherence to the government brand, said Manyi.
Following his earlier statements during the briefing and under a barrage of questions from journalists, Manyi later said he needed to “rephrase” his statements so as not to “create confusion”.
“Even if you do write badly about (the) government, we will still work with you. The criteria, if anything else, is to report on government work, that is the issue.
“Once you have reported on government work you can do what you like to criticise.”
The government, he said, was battling to get its message across to its audiences.
The challenge was that the media were not subscribing to the “role which we want the media to play, that of passing on information of government”.
“The only thing that is happening is just criticism, so we are saying just create a balance. Criticise, yes, carry on criticising, you will help us, we want it. But as you do, please also communicate that which the government is trying to communicate otherwise it means we will have to resort to our own means, as it were,” he said in reference to the monthly tabloid Vukuzenzele, which the government launched recently and which he hailed as publishing “the truth”.
“So this partnership (mainstream media and the government) that we must have must be a partnership that is mutually rewarding, it must be mutually beneficial. We have content, please pass on the content and by all means criticise it as much as you can, but first pass it on, that is the issue,” he said.
Questioned on what guarantees there were that media critical of the government would not be prejudiced in the allocation of the government’s advertising budget, and whether more sympathetic media publications, like the New Age or the SABC, might be favoured with advertising, Manyi said: “The mainstream media will get its fair share. Of course, 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 “scientific approach” would be determined by “we get the bang for our buck as the government”. - Political Bureau