Sipho Hlongwane
Sipho Hlongwane

Gird your loins, chaps

I had the rather dubious pleasure of attending a discussion on the matter of the proposed media appeals tribunal and protection of information at the University of Johannesburg last night. Let me warn you from the outset: if you want intelligent, honest and frank discussion, do not go to these events. Just don’t. “Honest” discussion you’ll find alright, but it isn’t of the frank and intelligent sort.

This particular panel discussion was pitched to the public as a matter of media freedom. “Is media freedom really under risk?” the bumf read. Professor Adam Habib, the referee at this discussion, admonished the gathered parties to speak “with” each other, rather than “past” each other. The professor wanted a meeting of minds.

It’s precisely what he didn’t get.

The panellists were Mondli Makhanya, editor-in-chief of Avusa Media (newspapers); Baleka Mbete, national chairperson of the ANC, and Richard Louw of the Freedom of Expression Institute. Things got a bit personal between Mbete and Makhanya. But, more on that later.

Each panellist was given 15 minutes to make opening remarks (fashionable disregard for time limits deferred to). Makhanya and Louw made the expected pro-media and pro-transparency noises, Mbete made the obligatory pro-media appeals tribunal and pro-Protection of Information Bill noises. The battle lines were set. Everyone knew who was for whom, and who to clap for.

As any person who frequents this sort of gathering knows, the sparks only really fly when the floor is opened up for audience members to make remarks. The panel chairperson always says “questions”, but almost everyone interprets this as “remarks”.

Mbete immediately set the tone by accusing Makhanya of having a personal hand in her own negative experience with the press. She said his paper had erroneously reported that she had fudged up her travel expenses, and when she had requested her assistants to submit records to the journalist who erroneously reported on her, the journalist in question had refused the proof that she was “clean” so that he could continue writing false allegations against her. Mbete said that she had approached the Press Ombudsman in order to settle the matter, and the eventual apology that had issued forth from the newspaper in question, as a result of a ruling by the Ombudsman, was far from satisfactory.

Clearly then, according to Mbete, something was wrong with the current system of redress against false media allegations. Or more to the point, Mbete and the media are not exactly the best of friends. The former deputy president didn’t seem to keen to engage with Makhanya and Louw on matters concerning the media appeals tribunal, but focused on nitpicking examples raised to illustrate broader issues, rather than tackling with the issues themselves.

The discussion was quite poorly attended, the politically-interested chattering classes perhaps convened in their numbers at the Wits media debate, but a group of student hecklers made it out nonetheless. They sat right in front of the auditorium, a few metres away from Makhanya, and interrupted the Avusa editor quite a few times, forcing Professor Habib to intervene.

Despite the overall poor impression that the talks made, several key issues could be extracted from the exchanges:

  • The government has at least conceded that parts of the Protection of Information Bill are over-reaching and draconian. The key issue is the “national interest” clause, which is so vague and broad that it is encompasses anything. A suggestion is that the government should frame the Protection of Information Bill as a “national security” issue, rather than a “national interest” issue.
  • There is no such budging on the issue of the media appeals tribunal. The ANC seem quite adamant on this one. For their part, the media are just as adamant that the tribunal is about muzzling critical reporting, rather than protecting those victimised by the press.
  • There is consensus from the ANC and members of the public that the Press Ombudsman is toothless. There is agreement that an apology from a newspaper for inaccurate reporting is not enough. The media say that an apology is quite hurtful and is the best and most accepted system of redress, and the governing party would like to see harsher penalties. However, the media and Press Council concede that the complaints procedure may need redress, but not of the statutory kind.

Knives are out for newspapers. The most concerning thing is that the public seems to be for the media appeals tribunal, either because they genuinely believe the ANC’s contention that people have lost jobs, family and careers because of untruthful journalism, or because they cannot yet stomach “Western-style” reporting that does not revere “elders” and leaders.

It’s going to be a long fight, and could get quite nasty.

Stephen Grootes was at the same event — read his assessment in the Daily Maverick.