Publication: Business Day Issued: Date: 2006-11-22 Reporter: Jacob Zuma Reporter:

With Freedom Comes Responsibility



Business Day

Date 2006-11-22


Jacob Zuma

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To what extent does our journalism still remain true to the ethics of the profession? To answer this would require a review of the extent to which ethics and independence of the media could be held hostage by the external environment, in particular the quest for profits, or economics and politics. The quest for sales and profits is partly responsible for the entrenchment of “pack journalism” in our media industry. Media products chase the same stories and people, without stringent individual investigation to ascertain the truth, or another side to the story. Some reporters have told me stories about the pressure they are put under to take a particular line on issues and individuals.

They say their stories get dropped or changed simply because the angle they have taken won’t sell papers, or because it goes against the popular opinion or stereotype that the media have created about that individual or organisation.

To survive and increase circulation, stories must grab attention and sell, regardless of the consequences and impact on individuals and families. I have discovered the word “Zuma” on a front page sells. And I have seen some really bizarre headlines: “Zuma for Sale”; “Zuma’s plan to hijack ANC”; “Zuma not a shoo-in”; “End of the road for Zuma”; “Zumania!” and, among the most absurd, “Fear Factor ­ Bad Boy Zuma”.

Chasing sales and profits through unfair and sensational reporting compromises the individual’s right to be treated with dignity and fairness. It causes enormous pain to families, associates and many others to whom that individual is more than just a subject of news, but father, husband, brother, colleague, neighbour or comrade.

Besides plain economics, there is the politics. Journalists operate in a vibrant political environment. They may see a need to get close to certain political personalities to access news and gossip. While there is nothing wrong with this per se, it has its drawbacks as it often leads to a dangerous form of advocacy journalism. We have seen the result of such relationships, for example the kind of journalism that followed the “off the record” briefing held with select editors by the former national director of public prosecutions. I believe that we will never truly know just how much that event altered the course of history of our country.

Generally, we have a situation where some journalists have become active participants in the events unfolding in the country. The end result is the blurring of the lines between fact and opinion. These days one no longer needs to go to the leader pages for opinions. The emotions, views and prejudices of reporters and their anonymous sources flow through hard news stories. Allegations are treated as fact.

We also now have in this country “dial a quote” commentators who are experts on every issue. They can be relied upon to provide the right quote which will fit into the angle of the story. This type of advocacy journalism affects media independence and freedom. It makes journalists and commentators or so-called analysts become full-time purveyors of the world view of certain people.

There are many examples of this phenomenon, but an excellent one is the judgment of Judge Hilary Squires. Volumes of newsprint and airtime have been used to report that Schabir Shaik and I had a “generally corrupt relationship”. I was painted as a man who has been found guilty of corruption in absentia by a court of law.

My reputation was torn to pieces. Before then, there had been numerous reports about my personal finances. Allegations that I accepted or asked for a bribe had been repeated so many times, many people started believing this to be factual.

It is now a matter of public record that Judge Squires never made the “generally corrupt relationship” statement or finding. Interestingly, journalists started questioning why the judge was correcting the error now and not earlier, why my lawyers did not raise it sooner, and many other excuses. No explanations were forthcoming as to why they had repeated this lie for more than a year. I have noted the loaded apologies from one or two publications.

A most interesting development is the revelation that even the judiciary may not be immune to media influence. Five members of the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) also attributed the “generally corrupt relationship” statement to Judge Squires in the civil judgment in the appeal of Shaik. Now these are people we are supposed to look up to, who are meant to look at cold facts and not be influenced by the media or public opinion.

Of immense concern as well is the fact that Judge Squires attempted to correct this error first at the beginning of the year. However, on each occasion the correction was deliberately ignored. The SCA has commendably acknowledged the error in attributing the finding to Squires *1.

This grave error by the media cannot be wished away. It provides an opportunity for the media to conduct a serious introspection, to evaluate to what extent they are independent in thought and action, with regards to the events unfolding in our country.

The independence of the media is critical for the protection of the human rights and human dignity of South Africans. The defence and promotion of media freedom therefore should include freedom from manipulation and abuse, and independence from all interests and agendas.

This brings to mind another issue that demonstrates the way the media at times takes a particular slant on issues, that of my so-called presidential ambitions. The media continues to peddle this story despite the fact that I have never said I have such ambitions. Anyone who knows how the ANC operates would be alive to the fact that one cannot campaign for the presidency, or any other position for that matter. At an appropriate time, the democratic structures of the ANC nominate potential leaders.

The nominated individuals then accept the nomination or decline it. Only then can a person be a presidential candidate. What makes this peddling even more problematic is how it influences the tone and angles of stories written. Every story or opinion piece is then driven by the “We must stop Zuma at all costs” mentality. Fairness flies out of the window.

All we are asking for is fairness and adherence to the ethics of the profession. Having fought for freedom, including media freedom, we understand its importance and why it is enshrined in our constitution. That is why we will always fight for this freedom not to be the preserve of a few, or be used to ride roughshod over the human rights of others.

Zuma is deputy president of the ANC. This is an abridged version of his address to the South African National Editors Forum Council dinner in Sandton earlier this week.

With acknowledgements to Jacob Zuma and Business Day.

*1      And superseded it with a finding of their own that there was an "overall corrupt relationship".