Azad Essa
Azad Essa

The Rocky Horror Media Show

In a dramatic turnaround, South African journalists have welcomed the proposed changes to the Protection of Information Bill and the Media Appeals Tribunal, as vetted by the national government last month. The South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) hosted a press conference in Pretoria on Tuesday issuing an apology for the initial “hysterical” reaction to the proposed tribunal.

“We want to apologise for the manner in which this issue has been exaggerated in the press,” said Mondli Makhanya, chairperson of Sanef. Makhanya owed the initial hysterical outcry in the country’s media to a deep-seated ignorance of working African democracies. “We implore our colleagues in the media to be more responsible in their criticism of the bill.” Makhanya, a former editor of the Sunday Times and nemesis of cowboy columnist David Bullard added that after rigorous debate within the forum, the editors unanimously agreed that the proposed tribunal, which could result in journalists being imprisoned for mistakes, “to be not only acceptable, but absolutely necessary for an emerging economy like ours”.

“Let’s face it, we saw how great our country could be during the World Cup. There were happy stories on the front pages, bronzed, Brazilian tourists in Sandton and an international sporting event on SABC television. South Africa was more liveable, it was more exciting and there were no poor people anywhere. This was only achievable through Fifa’s own draconian media legislation that forced us to focus on only the good angles to every story. It has proved to be an eye-opening experience for the practice of journalism in South Africa.”

Makhanya further added that South Africa needed a media that would help disguise its problems and rid itself of Afropessimism. “We understand now that this is the legislation we’ve been searching for all our lives.” The proposed Protection of Information Bill would make it illegal to leak or publish classified information effectively ruling out South Africa as a safe haven for Wikileaks chief Julian Assange. A key aspect of the bill is an extension to the widely-held definition of “national security”.

The bill will bring with it a new understanding of “national security” allowing government to classify all information under this category thus barring the media from publishing it. After initially raising the ire of the country’s journalists, it appears members of the media have now reconciled with its eventuality. “Look, we need to be realistic. This is Africa after all,” remarked Makhanya.

Sanef’s altered stance has come as no surprise to experts. “The fact that only small media houses, like the New York Times, The Global Post, and Al Jazeera covered the issue indicates that the international community hardly regards this as a serious threat to South Africa’s democracy,” said Guy Berger, media activist and academic.

Berger, a prominent columnist and blogger, described journalism as a “dynamic career”. “Yes, by censoring anything worth reporting the bill strips journalism of its ability to challenge the centres of power. This is true, but journalists will have to just find other things to write about. “They can write about the weather,” added Berger, “the subterfuge of global warming should be a core concern of the South African public”.

An ANC NEC insider, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the government could not be faulted for concocting such draconian measures against pesky journalists and their white minders. “By definition, we are a corrupt government, come on, you know that, and we have to protect ourselves if we want to keep governing this beautiful country. “Don’t take it personally,” he added with a hint of concern.

According to the Freedom of the Press index, created by Freedom House, the independent watchdog organisation that supports the expansion of freedom across the globe, including supporting democracy, human rights and monitoring media freedom, just 17% of all citizens live in countries with a free press. The index says that press freedom in sub-Saharan Africa suffered the greatest setbacks, with both Namibia and South Africa dropping from “free” to “partly free”, meaning that there are longer “free” countries in Southern Africa.

The ANC said the statistics showed that South Africa was indeed meeting international benchmarks. “If we want to stand tall amongst international norms, we must take into consideration and conform to what is going on around the world.” “If 83% of all global citizens are living without a free press, we have to ask ourselves if a free press is what we actually need,” said Jackson Mthembu.

Mthembu said that the media shouldn’t become obsessed with freedom and lauded Sanef for their decision to drop their opposition to the new proposed legislation. “The about-turn Sanef has made on the media tribunal proves my statement was accurate, the ANC have received overwhelming support in favour of the proposed bill. Freedom of expression doesn’t put food on your table; the media finally understands the poor aren’t interested in their freedom, they just want to eat,” said Jackson Mthembu. “Most of our African comrades have experienced better control of the media over the past year.”

The freedom index said that press freedom declined in Senegal, Niger, Guinea, Benin, Botswana, Togo, Guinea-Bissau, Gabon, Ethiopia, and The Gambia, with Madagascar being declared “not free”, while they noted marginal improvements in Mauritania, Zimbabwe, Sudan and Kenya. Zapiro, South Africa’s premier cartoonist, who is currently facing a multimillion-rand lawsuit from President Zuma over defamation charges because of a cartoon, has shrugged off the bill, claiming it was not likely to affect his work.

“My material rarely comes from leaked documents, besides, if I could survive the Muslims and that Prophet debacle, I guess I could survive just about anything.”

But the ANCYL has hit hard at the editor’s forum, accusing the elite gathering, which hosted some of the most important editors in the country, of being condescending. ANCYL spokesperson Floyd Shivambu said that the league was bothered by the statement. “We don’t believe this official statement from the journalists, it almost feels like a Cosatu resolution.” The ANC has long held that South Africa’s print media was virulently anti-change. Shivambu said that it was one thing for journalists to “pledge” their allegiance to protecting government; it would be quite another in practice. “We realise that too many of these journalists are concerned with their truth. We don’t want their truths; we want the newsroom to be an extension of the ruling party. “Truth is a threat to our democracy,” he added.

The Mail & Guardian newspaper have since announced that they will be turning the Amabhungane Centre for investigative journalism, based at the newspaper’s offices in Johannesburg, into a canteen.

“We realise that we if not longer needed an entire centre to run top-notch investigative journalism at the Mail & Guardian, we might as well open the canteen that we’ve planned for years,” said Nic Dawes, editor-in-chief. “Everyone is just excited to still have a job, besides, Ilham (Rawoot) also makes a mean curry,” said Dawes with a smile.

Dawes said that though the media would no longer oppose the proposed Media Appeals Tribunal, he was concerned that it would not be abetted by the Constitution. “It would be disappointing because jailing journalists for their mistakes would surely improve journalism in this country.”

  • James

    Is this an April fool or what? Media cannot act like Gods, they are driven by commercial interests. They must be hit hard by penalties similar to the competition board.However, more clarity is needed around what exactly is undesirable.

  • X Cepting

    Something like: the freedom not to speech? It is such a relief to me (and others, I’m sure) to have our minds made up for us on this matter and that an amicable solution was reached between government and journalists without wasting the taxpayer’s time in asking their opinion. Another side effect of this wonderful tribunal would be a huge saving in govt. funds because much less negative press obviously means huge savings in legal fees to defend govt. officials against libelous accusations, instigated by negative reports.

    I must also admit having had a change of heart about Mr Shivambu. He has obiously read the definitive work on the subject of the truth and journalism called “The Truth” (Terry Pratchet) and gleaned from it that nugget of wisdom; “the truth shall make ye fret. One obviously, quite right Mr Shivambu, must always guard against the sinister intentions of those bloody agents from the West with their strange ideas of democracy and who not all realise what African democracy means.

    Which brings me to the phrase that brought tears to my eyes: A Working African Democracy, WAD. Wow, so true.

    It is good to know that I will once again have the watch dog on my mouth that I so missed from my childhood years.

    Would the canteen have a forum of its own where we can perhaps contribute our own curry recipes or will only one recipe be distributed as appropriate to our needs. Just asking because I cannot abide small rooms with bars on the windows.

  • RDB

    Ooh, nice one Azad. I’m tempted to tell you to watch that acid tongue of yours in case any ANC members come gunning for you, but that would mean that they’ve learnt not only to read (the M&G at that) but have mastered the complex thought processes needed to work out your biting sarcasm. I’m sure you’re safe enough…

    Interesting though, how many of SA’s problems wind back again and again to a lack of education. Never mind understanding sarcasm, how many people in this country really understand what freedom actually means? Too few, I reckon, to really make a difference any time soon.
    Sarcasm is such dark humour – it is going to be all we have left soon?

  • Vince Rautenbach

    Oh man, my beer is outta my nose again! Great satire! Thanks for a great synopsis…

  • Judith


  • Shocked

    Absolutely shocked at what I’m reading. This is surreal. You cannot be serious?

    If this article is true, then this media group Sanef has received some very healthy deposits in it’s bank account to warrant such an abrupt change in stance.

    “People don’t care about freedom, they just wanna eat”… !?!

    Words cannot express how scared I am for this country.

    I can’t help thinking that this is it… This is the moment in history when we choose to act or forever hold our peace as the country falls apart.

  • Dave Harris

    As someone once said: Sarcasm is the refuge of the weak. Sounds like just another lackey beholden the the elite media monopoly.
    Now Azad, let me understand the pecking order in this M&G canteen. So if Ilham makes a “mean curry”, then I suppose you would be manning the cash register eh? 😉

  • Maria

    Excellent spoof, Azad!

  • retr0queen

    It just goes to show that some people need a big flashing neon sign that says “SATIRE” on the top of the piece. Jeez…

  • Macy

    Azad Essa…tongue firmly in cheek! You deserve the Wooden Spoon prize for stirring. Good article!

  • MLH

    However, I do think that members of the media remain too concerned about the effects the bill would have on their own lives.
    Surely the priority is that all South Africans would be denied the right to know and their right to justice simply because they have received information which they may not have asked for?
    Although the media act as go-betweens in this respect, it is the rights of all citizens that count the most.
    If the papers considered pointing out to their readers all the types of information that could be kept from them, they might join forces with the media more readily.

  • tottie

    Yes,it can only be an April’s fool. Did somebody say that people are not interested in the truth, but food? This must be stuff horror stries are made of.

  • Shelley

    Outstanding piece of tragi-comedy there, Azad.

    Dave Harris, you often make me wince, but this is the first time I’ve actually cringed in embarrassment at your stupidity.

    Shocked, you and Harris should swop phone numbers.

  • X Cepting

    Just think, if it all works according to plan we can look forward to opening only The Daily Harris each morning! I’m so exited!

  • Kristi Hansen

    Who needs anyway, when we have ThoughtLeader!

  • Hugh Robinson

    @dave harris another said some are thick and confused that they cannot see the wood for the trees. Then someone else said wake up and smell the coffee.

    Thank you Azad for a great laugh.

  • brenden

    This is exactly what we need to hear! You get a sense from these readers how gullible the public is. This is perhaps why the ANC wants to muzzle the media- because so many readers just swallow what is presented to them and believe it as truth. The ANC should be writing a bill on educating critical readers not on media freedom, information etc. The point of contention in this whole debate does not center on the media or the government but the lack of criticality on the part of media consumers. This is a literacy problem.

  • Michael Liermann

    @Dave Harris: “As someone once said: Sarcasm is the refuge of the weak.”

    That must be why you so often attempt to use it, then, because your arguments resemble the 98-pound weakling in the old Charles Atlas ads. Nothing worse than a lickspittle trying to be funny at the same time, unless it’s a lickspittle who can only remember three talking points and regurgitates them ad nauseam.

    Nice piece, Azad. Enjoyed it a lot.

  • Nasdaq7

    I know of corruption in government. Can I expose it? Or will it be more negative news for the ANC that will be swept under the carpet…?

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  • Maryam

    I am seriously outraged by this Protection Of Information bill.i mean its a HUGE threat 2 south africas democracy,& freedom of expression is in the constitution and a part of peoples rights!By doing this the government are contradicting themselves!

  • IHateBadManners

    So much for freedom of speech! Azad, I pity you and your pathetic avoidance of my previous comment. All I did was air the truth… You are clearly just like the rest – two-faced.