Publication: Business Day
Reporter: Jacob Zuma
With Freedom Comes Responsibility
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.
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
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
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
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
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".