Sanef: media freedom for all or for some?

File Picture: Believe Nyakudjara

File Picture: Believe Nyakudjara

Published Oct 13, 2022


The South African National Editors’ Forum’s (Sanef) recent full and “unequivocal” support of News24’s specialist legal writer, Karyn Maughan after she was cited as a respondent in the latest court papers filed by former president Jacob Zuma, has raised questions about the organisations’ standing for media freedom.

Experts have raised the question of whether Sanef’s support favoured some media houses and its journalists over others.

“Violation of the rights of African people has become so common that it seems strange when people say enough is enough,” said political analyst Sipho Seepe.

Sanef is an organisation founded by the merging of two previously polarised groups with one vision – to champion South Africa’s hard-won freedom of expression and fighting for media freedom for all.

However, their latest noble act of support was rendered to Maughan and News24 following serving of summons on Maughan by Zuma’s legal team – a level of support that was never offered to another heavyweight journalist in the industry, Thabo Makwakwa.

Independent Media’s journalist Makwakwa and his employer, have been in an ongoing court battle with the State Security Agency (SSA) over Makwakwa’s possession of a “secret” intelligence report on the alleged activities of the CIA in destabilising the ANC.

The SSA claimed Makwakwa was unlawfully in possession of the report, which had not been declassified, however, the report in question was compiled by the SSA called: “US interest in ANC party dynamics”, was handed to Makwakwa by concerned sources within the SSA in December 2021 at their instigation.

The SSA was recently granted an interdict to prevent the publishing of the report, an act media professionals believe to be an infringement on media freedom.

Following Sanef’s “outrage” and “ disgust” over the attack on Maughan by Zuma’s legal team, questions remain as to why Makwakwa was not offered similar support.

In an opinion piece written by political analyst and author of “No White Lies: Black Politics and White Power in South Africa”, Kim Heller says that the “Hands Off Karyn Maughan” campaign appears to have less to do with media freedom and more to do with the preservation of a singular master narrative.

Heller said that if this matter was about media freedom, pundits of this campaign and journalist bodies would have stood with the many black young journalists whose rights, dignity and livelihoods have been deeply compromised and who have been insulted by influential figures such as Pravin Gordhan and Trevor Manual. “They did not,” she states.

“The image of Downer and Maughan in the dock seems to have caused distress among many who have never spoken out against the sight of black social justice activists who have appeared in the dock.

“Even when Fees Must Fall activist Mcebo Dlamini, appeared in court in ankle-irons, mainstream media, justice crusaders bodies and civil society were largely mute.

“But for mainstream journalists and Sanef, Maughan can do no wrong.

“The language of defence for Maughan is deceptively couched.

“Her defenders would have us believe that she serves a higher purpose. But Maughan is no arch angel of media freedom; she is simply a protagonist of a partisan media,” Heller writes.

Even Seepe said Sanef was “less than frank” in how it continues to deal with this matter.

He said that while there is a difference between journalism and the conduct of an individual, some journalists have made it their business to harass and denigrate African people.

Seepe said that Sanef should also take exception whenever the rights of African people are violated for it to be taken seriously and it must also reflect on the sense of support that the opening of this case enjoys among the ordinary people “who are the recipients of vile treatment and denigration by white journalists”.

“The most fascinating aspect of this is that it is only when black journalists leave the profession that they begin to talk about the racist nature of the profession. The fact that one can find confused Africans in support of the denigration of their own does not come as a surprise. We have always had Uncle Toms in our midst. We saw this happen in the legal profession, hence the establishment of the Pan African Bar Association of SA (Pabasa).

“Black journalists should not pretend that they are immune from the kind of racism that afflicts members of their communities,” Seepe said.

Makwakwa spoke of how he begged for support from Sanef which never came, and how he was surprised to see their unwavering support for Maughan later.

“They never supported me, I begged them for support but no support was received,” said Makwakwa, who also shared a screenshot of a text message he sent to Sanef executive director, Reggy Moalusi.

In his text message to Moalusi, Makwakwa writes, “Bhuti, I was thinking. I know there are issues but in the interest of justice, freedom of speech and right to know, can’t you please look beyond the tension between INDY and Sanef and support me as an individual. A statement from Sanef will go a long way. I am under siege and I feel the pressure.”

But none was forthcoming.

However, in an article published on News24 titled, “Sanef ‘outraged’ as News24 journalist cited in Zuma private prosecution”, Sanef said it was “also worried” about Makwakwa’s battle with SSA.

“Sanef believes there are several avenues for recourse the SSA could have explored in resolving this matter rather than approaching the courts.

“The continued efforts to privately prosecute journalists are worrying as they present an environment where media freedom is restricted, an anomaly in any constitutional democracy.

“South Africa cannot afford to allow a culture where individuals and institutions are quick to sue journalists.

“Sanef is getting legal advice on both matters,” Sanef was quoted in the News24 article.

Makwakwa said he was surprised to see this statement in the article.

“The only thing I saw was a paragraph from that News24 article speaking about being worried that I was being targeted.

“They never issued any statement in support of me but only put a paragraph far below after the Karyn matter came to light.

“They had to add it to appear as if they were concerned,” he said.

Independent Media editor-in-chief Aziz Hartley said Sanef’s double standards, while not unexpected, were “sickening”.

“The manner in which they clamour to show support to a white reporter as is the case with Maughan, and their complete silence when a black journalist is muzzled, betrays the subtle racism of the forum.

“An organisation which claims to promote freedom of expression would register its abhorrence when a journalist is ruthlessly silenced, irrespective of what media group that reporter is associated with. Instead we witness a forum selective in its defence of media freedom,” Hartley said.

Legal expert Mpumelelo Zikalala told the national broadcaster, SABC earlier this week that Maughan and Downer’s appearance in the dock was one of the few instances where legal principles would go head-to-head with freedom of speech.

Zikalala said that while the courts did not state that journalists must not do their job in terms of collecting information, “but it must be done within the confines of the law”.

“The NPA spokesperson should be the channel between one and the other… but the use and exchange of exclusive information that has not been used or seen by anyone else allegedly took place between Downer and Maughan.

“The court is being asked to draw the line,” Zikalala said.

Sanef was contacted for comment earlier this week, however none was forthcoming.

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