Publication: Cape Argus Issued: Date: 2003-09-17 Reporter: Jeremy Michaels

Media Reports Wars but Should it Report Rumours?



Cape Argus

Date 2003-09-17


Jeremy Michaels

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The escalating row around Deputy President Jacob Zuma has already divided South Africa's ruling African National Congress.

Now it is threatening to tear apart the country's media.

The journalistic community is in the throes of a heated debate over the fact that a senior correspondent and her editor have themselves been making news in recent days.

Did Sunday Times political writer Ranjeni Munusamy act in the public interest by passing to a rival newspaper a story branding the country's top prosecutor, Bulelani Ngcuka, an apartheid spy after editor Mathatha Tsedu had refused to publish it?

Or was Tsedu within his rights to withhold the story based on his editorial judgement?

And are these vexed questions further complicated by a meeting that Ngcuka, the National Director of Public Prosecutions, held with a group of black editors before the spy allegations surfaced?

What the saga points to is that journalists covering the bitter battle between Zuma and Nguka are themselves deeply divided over the way the story is being covered.

The division tends to centre on the degree to which individual journalists take seriously Zuma's claim that the investigation into him is politically motivated.

At the heart of the rift between Munusamy and Tsedu, it seems, is the issue of whether publication of the spy allegations against Ngcuka was in the public interest.

But even if it was, editors would always defend their right to make judgement calls about what is or is not in the public interest. "Otherwise we would face anarchy in our newsrooms," said one editor.

After extensive investigations that Zuma had allegedly been involved in attempts to solicit a bribe from a French arms company, Ngcuka set the scene for a monumental clash.

While announcing that Zuma would not be prosecuted, Ngcuka nonetheless said the deputy president had a prima facie case to answer, effectively hanging the country's second-in-charge out to dry by denying him the opportunity to challenge the allegations before a judge.

To complicate matters even further, justice minister Penuell Maduna - who had had a heated clash with Zuma in cabinet a few days earlier - sat along side Ngcuka at the press conference, effectively politicising what should have been a purely prosecutorial matter.

And that was where the trouble started - Zuma believed that Ngcuka had smeared his name in public.

Charging that he had been "stripped" of the right to a trial by Ngcuka, Zuma charged in court documents that Ngcuka had "come to the conclusion that he cannot win a case against me" but went on "to tell the nation that I am nevertheless guilty".

Against this background, Munusamy believed the spy allegations could shed some light on the acrimonious fallout between Zuma and Ngcuka.

But was it in the public interest for a newspaper to publish such damaging allegations against the head of the country's prosecuting authority?

Idasa political analyst Judith February argues that it is indeed in the public interest to know whether such allegations are being investigated.

"The allegations go to the heart of what of what's becoming a very public struggle between Zuma and Ngcuka, and as such we have the right to know what the root of that struggle is."

Furthermore, Zuma had raised the allegations in court, which "takes it to a public level and so there's an even greater imperative then to consider those allegations".

February also argues that the publication was justified by the fact that the cabinet had taken the allegations seriously enough to set up a committee to investigate them.

Veteran journalist Allister Sparks argues that Tsedu's decision was correct because the spy allegations were "no more than a rumour".

"The personal damage outweighs the public interest factor," said Sparks, adding that there was no compelling hard evidence that Ngcuka was a spy.

"You don't just go publishing rumours that damage individuals," he said.

However, Ngcuka had also blundered by saying he had a prima facie case against Zuma, instead of simply saying he had evidence but not enough to go to court with.

Vusi Mona, editor of City Press - which finally published the story - says Ngcuka "politicised the issue" in his meeting with black editors "when reference was made to political organisations".

He questioned why Ngcuka had approached the editors "to say I need your support'."

"That for me has raised a concern about his motives", said Mona. And the fact the group was exclusively black was "in itself politicising the matter".

With acknowledgements to Jeremy Michaels and the Cape Argus.