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No ifs or buts for media tribunal - only when

Phylicia Oppelt | 2012-02-05 01:15:49.0
Phylicia Oppelt is the editor of The Sunday Times
Image by: Sunday Times

ANC's disturbing disrespect and contempt for anyone who disagrees with it goes on display at Press Freedom Commission

THERE they sat - the three brave ANC leaders who had come to put print media in its place.

Jessie Duarte, Gwede Mantashe and Jackson Mthembu came armed with their power-point presentation to illustrate why mainstream newspapers' freedom must be curtailed.

For some reason I had expected the recreation hall in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, to be packed with observers on Tuesday morning for the Press Freedom Commission hearings. But, as the ANC made its submission, there were probably more journalists in the room than all the commissioners, staff and observers together.

As I sat listening to Duarte reading out the presentation, I wondered how we had arrived at this hostile standoff? I had arrived in Johannesburg in 1994 and watched the world's media cover and celebrate the birth of a new South Africa. To be a journalist in this country after apartheid had died was a seemingly wondrous thing.

But here we are almost 18 years later, at a crossroads, an intractable place where we, the media, stand on one side of the road, being stared down by an antagonistic ruling party who believes we are a law unto ourselves, a menace to society.

What exactly are we guilty of when the ANC insists that we must be held accountable for our misdeeds, that we are untransformed on both racial and gender fronts, that we make it our mission to hold up a distorted mirror of South African society?

Am I always proud of my industry? No, I am not.

Do we always do the right thing? No, we do not.

But are we to blame for the conditions on which we report - maladministration, corruption, service-delivery protests, an inefficient bureaucracy, questionable decisions made in Luthuli House and the Union Buildings?

Did we invent the death of Andries Tatane when police fired on protesters in Ficksburg? Did we invent the scandalous conduct of officials who awarded multimillion-rand contracts for police offices?

For that matter, did we invent the fact that Duarte drove a car without a licence, or that Mthembu was stopped by police for drunken driving?

But we are held up as the scavengers of misery and the inept distributors of negativity.

There were two moments during the ANC's submission when I realised that, whatever we said, however we defended our position of self-regulation, a media tribunal was no longer "just" an idea. It was coming our way - of that the ANC was certain.

The realisation came when Duarte and Mthembu challenged former chief justice Pius Langa, who chairs the commission. He had just asked if the tribunal, with a suggested parliamentary oversight, could then really be interpreted as independent?

Duarte sniped back: "What is of concern to us is that an eminent person like yourself would have a concern about parliament's oversight in its entirety, and it is not entirely true that parliament cannot be an independent oversight body."

Then Mthembu asked Justice Langa if he believed in no media accountability at all.

Justice Langa quickly answered: "No, no, I did not mean that."

Wrapped in that brief interaction was a disturbing disrespect and a sense of contempt for anyone who dares to disagree with the ANC's position on the media.

The ANC three left the room, stopping here, stopping there. Mantashe stopped at Joe Thloloe, the man they had just described as having no real power as the press ombudsman. Then it was over and they left.

The only irony I could find on Tuesday came from elsewhere in the country, in the reports from Guguletu, in Cape Town, where the ANC had taken its Protection of State Information Bill for public comment.

In Guguletu, it was the unpretentious displeasure of the electorate holding court, insisting on talking about issues of delivery rather than issues of press restrictions.

Mlungisi Bleki, a resident of Crossroads settlements, said: "I see this bill as being an instrument to oppress people who are having nothing and no work. It is taking us backwards to the period of [a] government of suffering - or the apartheid government."

The undertaking by the ANC's Kgalema Motlanthe, in October 2010, that a review of the powers of the Press Ombudsman - then under way - would help determine if there was a need for a tribunal, no longer seems to have any meaning.

''If the process of reviewing the self-regulatory mechanisms produces mechanisms that can address the concerns about its shortcomings, we see no difficulty in accepting that right product, whatever it is, so we are in a sense allowing the space for the media to attend to that challenge," Motlanthe had said in October.

The tribunal will become a reality. It will alter the way we work. Between the info bill and the tribunal, we will either be imprisoned or fined.

I sense that my government wants me to be the child in its grotesque caricature of a family who obeys.

Pity, then, the ANC couldn't even control the one child Jacob Zuma said could be president of our country one day.


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