Brad Cibane
Brad Cibane

Zille, the press and tyranny of the twitterati

“We support a free press and we encourage journalists to write about us. But if they write rubbish, we will find them and hang them in a public square.” This, surprisingly, is not what Helen Zille said, but it might well have been. She said: “I will defend journalists’ RIGHT to write rubbish. But I will not remain silent about the rubbish they write. Others also have rights.”

Zille said this during a stomach-churning attack on journalists Carien du Plessis (City Press) and Shanti Aboobaker (Independent Newspapers).

What sparked this unfortunate and disparaging rant was an article Du Plessis wrote about the DA and land reform and a tweet. Here is how it went.

Carien (re)tweeted this: “@TrendsSthAfrica: #daisajoke is now trending in South Africa http://trendsmap.com/za” with the comment that, “elections war heating up on twitter”.

All hell broke loose.

Zille responded with: “@carienduplessis And you, as a reporter, are trending for distorted, inaccurate, biased and unprofessional reporting. Top of the log.”

From then on, Zille let out the big guns. She tweeted that: “[Carien] is a seriously biased journalist desperate to curry favour with the left because of her background.” She tweeted again that: “[Carien] is trying so desperately to hide the Missus class from which she comes from. Shame.”

Minutes later, she tweeted that: “[Carien] is so terrified that she will be damned by her own complexion that she has to bend over to prove her political correctness.”

Zille then accused Carien of being an agent for the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). She tweeted: “[Carien] once told me she was planning to vote for EFF, and it is quite obvious in her writing.”

When somebody (@noblinkers1) tweeted that: “agent Carien come out of the closet, it’s the right thing to do,’ Zille responded affirmatively: “She is [out] already. [She] loves red.” (“Red” is presumably a reference to the EFF, which is sometimes called the “red berets” or “red brigade”.)

This is a wild departure from Zille and the DA’s supposed liberal dispensation. What greater sacrilege to a liberal than attacking journalists and press freedom?

If Zille’s outburst shows anything — other than that Zille is a compulsive tweeter who gives little thought to the impact of her public rants — it shows that she either misunderstands freedom of press or she is willing to spin its meaning if and when it suits her.

Freedom of press does not only implore us to create an environment where journalists can write freely, without fear, favour or prejudice — but it also invites us to engage critically with journalistic endeavours. Instead of engaging critically with Du Plessis’s writing, Zille resorted to vitriol.

She did not bother to produce evidence of Du Plessis’s bias and unprofessionalism. She decided to prosecute her and Aboobaker in the court of public opinion. This is dangerous and damaging to the press institution.

By dubbing Du Plessis an “agent” of the red party, she invited her army of 382 000 plus Twitter followers to vilify and disparage Du Plessis and Aboobaker in public, without reference to their supposed lies.

A few months ago, South Africans debated legislative regulation of the press. Civil society, including the Democratic Alliance, opposed regulation of the press by the government because of fears of “chilling effects”. The reason is simple: a free press must self-regulate. The South African press does just that.

There is a press ombudsman to investigate complaints of unprofessional or unethical behaviour by a professional journalist according to the press code. When that fails, there are courts. These are credible avenues Zille should have used to impeach Du Plessis’s supposed unprofessional, unethical and biased reporting.

But Zille didn’t and in her own words, she didn’t have to. Because, when you have a public army of sheepish followers to support you, you can be a law unto yourself.

We must all endeavour to defend and advance the Constitution and the rights and values it entrenches. This obligation belies all of us, more so the official opposition in Parliament.

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    • RollPlayer

      There is no rule, law, constitutional obligation or other compunction that requires Zille or anyone else to engage with journalists in the way you prescribe.

      Everyone is entitled to shout and call each other names. Some people will agree and join in. Others would prefer to engage in a more emotion-free manner. Neither is necessarily wrong and both are allowed. Certainly, shouting and name-calling (including on Twitter) is disagreeable, but especially when it’s done by people you don’t like.

      But the meandering doodles of these two particular journalists are just not worthy of a serious discussion.

      The thing is that Zille’s tweets were not aimed at the constituency this writer imagines she was talking to. Zille’s dog whistle words and adjectives were actually pretty much tuned for white people, and they worked. Carien has been “shamed” in her own community, damning her to continuing the desperate quest for EFF approval.

      Zille was quite cynical, ruthless — and just like a politician — in doing what she did to Carien.

      Journalists in SA long ago gave up trying to be fair and reasonable. They have their bias as much as anyone else. The only change nowdays is that they are quite unashamed to show whose side they are on.

    • bernpm

      Oh, my dear…if we go to the level of verbatim twitter stories, we sank very deep in the non intelligent conversations as on twitter and similar outlets for one line verbal exchanges.

    • http://www.vibrantmedia.co.za Mike Jones

      Brad, I cannot understand your point. Surely by attacking Carien for what she had published, she was following her stated aim of “defending journalists rights to write rubbish”.

      Had she kept quiet and tried to introduce a Secrecy Law, which would have muzzled Carien, then she would have been betraying her own words.

    • rmr

      I am a white Afrikaner with the DA (now that Agang has imploded) the only party I could vote for. Zille’s reactions to Carien du Plessis (along with all the other mess ups in that party) have put me off to such an extent I would be hard pressed to vote at all.

    • Graham

      “We must all endeavour to defend and advance the Constitution and the rights and values it entrenches”.

      What on earth is the big deal? If what Zille said is defamation, du Plessis can lay a charge.

      Was it stupid? yes. Was it unconstitutional? Nope.

    • Call for Honesty

      No carefully reasoned debate can be conducted on a platform like Twitter. Proper debate is what we really need in South Africa. Claims need to be well substantiated. Logical flaws need to be exposed. Personal attacks need to be shown to be red herrings – distractions deflecting our attention from reality.

      I believe that the print media need to become a responsible public watchdog. This means that journalists need to do their homework and not be spokesmen simply echoing one or other political view – “his master’s voice” – but should be ruthlessly honest. Sadly shoddy journalism has become the norm. Even the Johannesburg Star which was an excellent SA newspaper – fifty years ago – is a mere shadow of what it once was.

      Journalists like Carien du Plessis need to go to the archives and read these old newspapers. Helen Zille needs to do the same and to recognize that many of the views of the DA and of her opponents if implemented will simply lead down a wasteful political cul-de-sac, a dead end or blind alley. However, both the media and the DA also need to continually shame the ANC for their aversion to careful, well reasoned and substantiated debate.

    • Nimue

      I think Helen takes these distortions personally partly because she was a journo herself. She outed the Nats for killing Biko whilst he was in custody so “getting the facts right” is important to her. Every news story is part of our collective history and should be approached with professional concern for accuracy as well as lack of bias. It’s personal to Helen but as a politician she cannot afford to be drawn into spats with journos. That is what “spokespersons” are for. Helen, let them do their job whilst you do yours: leading your party to at least a 25% share of the vote!

    • http://hismastersvoice.wordpress.com The Creator

      I get the impression that Helen Zille is gradually turning into Tony Leon in an ill-fitting skirt. Perhaps it’s something in the air pollution down in Cape Town.

    • Si

      Newspapers publish what their readers want to read for the sake of selling papers. The idea that they can be impartial with the pressure the markets put on them is laughable. Every day they must fill their pages with scandals, so it’s hardly far-fetched to think that most of them are fabricated, or at least blown out of proportion.

      It’s easy to see why politicians get frustrated. The notion of the press as a credible watchdog needs to be seriously interrogated.

    • Delinquent

      I see the same twiteratti that have been making and issue of this remained silent on the ANC opposition to a debate on Ugandan gay bill. SOme of them activist have retreated to their ANC laager. I think it is convenient to suggest the ombudsman its all nice and clean. Carien writes a factually incorrect article on front page before an election. The facts get disputed over months at the Ombudsman after the elections a page 3 apology issued.

      I think if something is in the public domain expect a response in public. This will ensure journalist check their facts properly.

    • fraud

      Zille is doing exactly what the ANC is sometimes accused of when they defend themselves against ‘distortions’ and ‘inaccuracies’. The same people who are now defending Zille on this platform, are usually the first to critisize the ANC for doing the same thing (even though Zille is much worse because of the character assassination she inflicted on the journalist, something the ANC never does). So why the double-standards? Political solidarity or racial solidarity? Either way, it’s very obvious, and very disappointing, but hardly surprising.

    • RollPlayer

      @fraud: Shurely shome mishtake? The ANC never inflicts character assassination on journalists, you say?

      How, then, should we describe the ranting and raving at journalists of people representing the ANC? Does the “bloody agent” stuff no longer count because Julius has moved on?

      Read the letters to the editor of a daily business newspaper and you will see ANC apologists a couple of times a week assassinating the character of the journalists on the paper.

      Or, is that you prefer to call what the ANC does something like “constructive engagement”?

    • fraud

      @RollPlayer…..I see you have (not so) cleverly avoided the point I was making in my comment, and have rather hung on for dear life to the little ‘inaccurate’ statement I made in passing. Okay, let’s deal with it. Yes, the ANC have on numerous occasions critisized media houses and the media industry at large. But when have you seen Zuma, or any of the top leaders, spending an entire day, dedicated to not only critisizing a particular journalist, but attacking the journalists character? Yes, Malema called the British journalist a bloody agent (and many other things), but did he dedicate the rest of his day hounding him publicly to a point of being abusive? Letters from “ANC apologists” bashing journalists, really? You want to go there? Have you seen what you and your kind write in the same letters and comments sections about the ANC and/or black people on a daily basis? Have you seen what ‘you guys’ have written about this City Press journalist? Before this small issue gets in the way, let’s go back to my original point. In fact, let me concede and agree with you that the ANC also attacks journalists personally, so that we can move one, and not have to go back to this non-issue.

      The main point remains: you, RollPlayer, are probably one of many who critisize the ANC for this behaviour. So why is it okay when Zille does it? Surely you see the double standards and/or hypocricy?

    • RollPlayer

      @fraud: in your first post you say the ANC never engages in character assassination.

      In responding to me, you spend a bit of an effort clarifying and asking when last did Jacob Zuma spend a day attacking a journalist or a journalist’s character.

      That’s an untidy attempt at the neat trick of re-framing your original point and defending something different that seems more defendable.

      All I asked was how could it be true that the ANC never attacks journalists and their characters? In imputing motives and emotion to the critics, you went to the other extreme.

      And then, and this is first prize for me, you say that I am “probably” one of those that criticise the ANC for this kind of behaviour. So what you just did there is exactly what you say you and yours in the ANC never do. You made assumptions about the person criticising because without those made-up beliefs about me, you’ve got even less to back up your claim that the ANC NEVER attacks journalists’ character.

      Google up what Comrade “Whisky” Nzimande said in Parliament the other day about the journalists of the Times Media Group. Was that really an example of the ANC NEVER attacking journalists’ character? That was in the past seven days or so, so your computer skills should be up to that.

    • fraud

      Hehehehehehe! @RollPlayer, you have successfully and impressively avoided my main question. Your sterling efforts in desperately hanging onto everything other than my main point must be lauded! The moderator should give you a bells!

      So I ask once again, but not to you RollPlayer (since you have seemingly committed to not answering this very simple question), but to anyone else who might be reading this: why is it wrong for the ANC to critisize the media, but it’s completely acceptable for Zille to do the exact same thing? Someone, anyone, please shed some light on this. Thanks.

    • Jeffrey Jones

      ANYONE who tweets is a tw*t, in my opinion. Why anyone bothers to “follow” a tw*t is beyond my comprehension.