Malema and the EFF lead the charge in trying to intimidate the media
'It is no secret that many people are fearful of Malema and his tirades at public events, media briefings and on Twitter. Some journalists self-censor'
In his final column published by the Washington Post after his death, Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi wrote that Arab governments "have been given free rein to continue silencing the media at an increasing rate". People in these countries are uninformed or misinformed, he wrote.
"They are unable to adequately address, much less publicly discuss, matters that affect the region and their day-to-day lives. A state-run narrative dominates the public psyche, and while many do not believe it, a large majority of the population falls victim to this false narrative."
As international outrage mounted over his disappearance, Khashoggi's point was underlined. Twitter suspended a large spam-bot network that engaged in an "influence operation" on behalf of the Saudi government to change the narrative.
The horrific details of Khashoggi's torture and dismemberment after he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul are a chilling reminder of how independent-minded journalists are a threat and detested by powerful people in some countries.
The media is in the spotlight in many politically contested societies, including our own.
I've never been scared of anyone. If Floyd has stolen money, he will be punished accordinglyJulius Malema
We thankfully eluded Hlaudi Motsoeneng's attempts to create a state-run narrative through the SABC and instead have many colliding narratives. The mainstream media is not always the purveyor of national discourse and faces contestation even within the industry.
Some people believe the media is doing its part for democracy by exposing corruption, keeping public representatives on their toes and providing a platform for debate on major issues. Others believe the media has selective focus, for example neglecting private sector corruption, and that journalists are colluding to drive particular agendas.
Social media is a frontier of battle, and what could be unfettered space for democratic participation has been weaponised through thousands of bot armies creating false narratives, altering public opinion and seeking to intimidate those with differing views.
Bell Pottinger ran an effective campaign on behalf of the Gupta family to condemn the mainstream media as collaborators with white monopoly capital. Some journalists were targeted as "paid agents" and opponents of radical economic transformation.
The EFF has sprouted its own campaign. It charges that critical commentary and questioning of the party emanates from a "mob" of journalists serving a racist agenda.
At a media briefing this week, EFF leader Julius Malema said he was "not scared" of his deputy Floyd Shivambu, who has been drawn into the VBS Mutual Bank looting scandal due to a R16.1m payment to his brother Brian. "I've never been scared of anyone. If Floyd has stolen money, he will be punished accordingly," Malema said.
Whether Malema is scared of anyone should not matter. What is of concern is whether the leader of the second-largest opposition party seeks to intimidate other people, particularly journalists reporting about his party.
It is no secret that many people are fearful of Malema and his tirades at public events, media briefings and on Twitter. Some journalists self-censor as reporting on the EFF constitutes self-inflicted pain.
If it is not invective from the EFF's leaders that journalists and commentators have to endure, it is the online onslaught from the party's supporters, including race baiting and death threats.
Sometimes it seems Malema's preference is that we do not report about the EFF at all, but he also rages against the broadcasters for not giving his party sufficient coverage. He seems to want the media to act simply as a medium for his bluster.
The VBS case is a good illustration. Malema told the media that the EFF leadership had examined Shivambu's financial statements and believed there was nothing untoward in the movement of money between Floyd and Brian.
Malema made a concerted effort to shift focus away from his deputy
While the EFF has the liberty to decide not to pursue the matter further, it cannot bludgeon the media to shut up, especially when the issue is still unfolding and is under investigation by the Hawks and the South African Revenue Service (Sars). Malema made a concerted effort to shift focus away from his deputy.
Among other things, he proclaimed that a "rogue unit" was still in operation at Sars, despite this having been exposed as completely false. He claimed that public enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan was running it and that his agents had broken into Shivambu's house to plant a listening device.
When challenged that such a unit would be a threat to national security and that he had an obligation to report that a cabinet minister was running an illegal intelligence operation, Malema backtracked, saying it was "Pravin's people" who were responsible.
It is almost predictable that if Sars should try to pursue Shivambu over undeclared income, the rogue unit narrative will be resurrected to discredit the tax authority.
Transparency, debate and a vibrant media are more important than ever in a world overtaken by fake news and manufactured narratives that serve the power elite.
Khashoggi campaigned for a free media out of love for his country, and was killed as a result. It is sometimes hard to love our country but we should never be intimidated into not fighting for it.