Publication: City Press Issued: Date: 2004-06-12 Reporter: Tawana Kupe

Arms Deal : A Media Maelstrom



City Press

Date 2004-06-12


Tawana Kupe

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The controversy surrounding the arms deal - or scandal, as the media, some sections of the opposition and civil society call it - has sucked many key institutions into its orbit.

In particular, allegations that there was corruption involving high-ranking officials simply won't go away .

It is useful to run through some of the institutions and individuals that have been sucked into the controversy and review the role of the media.

Some in the media consider President Thabo Mbeki to be soft on corruption because of his alleged failure to appoint an independent judicial commission to probe the arms deal.

Deputy President Jacob Zuma is at the centre of the controversy, in which he has faced a "trial by the media".

Some consider him guilty even though he has not been charged!

In these accounts, the notion of "innocent until proven guilty" appears to be of no consequence.

The media statement by the national director of public prosecutions, Bulelani Ngcuka, that there was prima facie evidence, but not evidence strong enough to convict, served to fuel the fire .

Some claim that the whole controversy is about whether Zuma is corrupt or not. And if he is corrupt, he is therefore unfit to succeed Mbeki.

This line of thought is then linked to alleged succession battles within the ANC. It is further alleged that Mbeki might be orchestrating the succession end game In an ironic twist, Ngcuka the investigator became the subject of an investigation into allegations that he was an apartheid spy - in a probe by the Hefer Commission, which was appointed by the president.

The spy allegations generated controversies which reverberate even today. At least one editor and a senior journalist saw their careers tarnished.

The SABC, and the rest of the media featured wall-to-wall coverage of the Hefer Commission. Some saw this as a staged diversion from the allegations of corruption in the arms deal .

Parliament has also been drawn into aspects of the controversy. Two key committees, the Select Committee on Public Accounts (Scopa) and the Ethics Committee, had to handle aspects of the controversy.

They too suffered media criticism and allegations of succumbing to pressure from the ANC.

It appears that Scopa's media image has been severely dented. Scopa has also been a battleground for the ANC and opposition parties, principally the Democratic Alliance, which categorically declared there was corruption in the arms deal.

In 2001 the public protector, national director of public prosecutions and the auditor general, who were mandated to jointly investigate the allegations, were also sucked into the controversy, especially with regard to the rigour of their investigation.

At one point it was alleged that the joint investigating team, as it was called, had allowed the executive to censor their report to parliament. The outcome was a perception that they had let the public down.

The courts were then drawn into the controversy with the trial of former ANC chief whip Tony Yengeni .

Finally Zuma's complaint to the public protector about Ngcuka's media statement has drawn that institution into the controversy as well, opening up another drama currently playing itself out in the media and parliament.

The public protector is reportedly mulling over a charge against Ngcuka and former justice minister Penuell Maduna, who in their anger at his finding in favour of Zuma called him names What is interesting to note is that the media appears to have learnt its lessons from last year. Almost all newspapers have come out with editorials and analytical pieces which strike a balance between criticism of Ngcuka's emotional reaction to the Public Protector Lawrence Mushwana's report and his more professional achievements as director of the NPA. If anything, the controversy has so far proved that it can be anyone's graveyard.

It is set to continue, given that Parliament is considering the finding by the public protector, and the upcoming trial of Zuma's financial adviser, which might see him implicated.

It will be wise for the media and all involved to keep sober heads and not become casualties of the controversy.  

Prof Kupe is head of media studies at the University of the Witwatersrand

With acknowledgements to Tawana Kupe and the City Press.