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Sleep easy, our democracy is ‘almost’ safe, for now!

Benedicta Dube

29 May 2012

I cannot say I’m disappointed - no, actually I am. I’m let down that City Press editor-in-chief Ferial Haffajee has buckled under pressure and brought down “The Spear” painting off the paper’s website, in what she called “the spirit of peacemaking - an olive branch”.
I had penned a piece ready for yesterday, lauding the bravery of South African journalists and their ability to stand up to power. I’d titled it “Sleep easy, our democracy is safe”.

Unfortunately, I now have to rephrase that and say, “Our democracy is not quite safe”!

I have a lot of respect for Haffajee (@ferialhaffajee), not only as an industry colleague, but also as one of the greatest journalists I have come to know.

Lamented the decision

But I have to agree with Eusebius McKaiser (@Eusebius) who wrote an open letter to Haffajee yesterday, Monday, 28 May 2012. In it he lamented the decision to bring the portrait down, describing the move as a gigantic mistake and buckling to political bullying.

Indeed, it is fair to assume that Haffajee did not expect such a backlash for just reviewing a painting. By her own admission, the decision to bring down the image was also driven by fear. It is a shame.

It’s a shame for journalism when editors make editorial decisions and then buckle under pressure; as Haffajee put it, “It’s simply not worth it.”

I think it’s worth every minute of every breath. It’s worth it for the vibrancy of our democracy and the independence of the fourth estate. The role the media is supposed to include encouraging robust intellectual debate - it remains our responsibility as media practitioners to drive that and to guard it with our lives.

Enough and no further!”

Just because the South African political landscape has sunk to a state of gangster and ghetto engagement, where opposing views are not tolerated, does not mean that we should pack our spears, excuse the pun, and bury our heads in the sand. This is, in fact, the time for us to say, “Enough and no further!”

We can take consolation, though, in the events of two weeks ago that proved that there are still those who believe in robust journalism and shall not be cowed. They make us sleep better at night.

Two weeks ago, those who thought they wielded power attempted to intimidate Sunday Times journalists who exposed the controversial intelligence boss Richard Mdluli - I don’t know if I should call him suspended intelligence boss, former intelligence boss, top intelligence officer without portfolio; he has been moved around and suspended so many times, I really cannot keep track. But I digress.

A story was peddled about alleging that the same journalists who exposed Mdluli were bribed to plant stories in the Sunday paper. In my book, that is more serious than watching a bunch of hooligans burning copies of the City Press newspaper on the streets of Durban. No shred of evidence was presented, but rather a lot of innuendo and rumor-mongering.

Put up or shut up”

Sunday Times editor Ray Hartley came out with guns blazing. In a front-page editorial, Hartley demanded that evidence in support of the claims be presented; in the absence of firm evidence, he asked the “hyenas to put up or shut up”. I think they did just that, because we have not heard anything from the “hyenas” since.

Hartley’s statement was a clear signal to the bully boys, that his newspaper can stand up to the rabble mob seeking to suppress the truth through what can only be equated to apartheid dirty tricks.

No sooner than we’d said Richard Mdluli, “The Spear” controversy sprung up. The ruling party immediately latched on it, accusing the paper of stripping the president of his dignity. The idea of this column is not to argue the merits or demerits of protest art and whether the City Press were correct in publishing the offending artwork; suffice to say, in my view it’s just a portrait and the president’s fiddly bits, one would assume, remain behind his zippers. But that’s a debate for another day.

Outside of the ANC running to the courts, in what has become its vexatious nature in recent times, to have the painting removed from the paper’s website and from the gallery that started all the trouble, senior members of the ruling party made a call that alarmed a lot of level-headed South Africans.

Boycotting a newspaper

I’m not trying to cast any aspersions about the quality of leadership within the ruling party, but you have to wonder about their state of mind, when they made the call for a boycott of the City Press newspaper.

Of course, a majority of South Africans did not heed the absurd call. I wish Haffajee had taken comfort in the fact that a majority of South Africans still woke up on a cold autumn Sunday morning to get their copy of City Press as a sign of protest to those who want to tell us what we should and should not read. Unfortunately, she did not. In fact, I’m curious to know how many copies the paper sold this past Sunday, as compared to any other ordinary Sunday.

I had thought that Haffajee’s initial position to refuse to take down “The Spear” restored confidence in the brevity and robustness of the SA press. It told a story of a SA press with integrity, and a far cry from the days when newspapers were found compromised. A case in point is the very City Press that Haffajee now edits, which a few years ago found itself compromised under the leadership of one Vusi Mona, during the battle towards Polokwane. It was the lowest point in SA journalism in post-apartheid SA.

Refresh your memory

Allow me to refresh your memory. The year was 2003 and the battle towards Polokwane was hotting up. City Press, under Mona’s leadership, published a report accusing the former national head of public prosecutions Bulelani Ngcuka of being an apartheid spy - an accusation that led to the establishment of the Hefer Commission, where Mona made an utter fool of himself under cross-examination.

Years later, Mona was to return to public life as head of communications in president Jacob Zuma’s office of the presidency. I’m tempted to say he must stay there - journalism certainly does not need his services - but then again, SA is a democracy: some tabloid newspaper might decide to hire him some day.

There was, of course, journalist Ranjeni Moonsammy (@RanjeniM), who was a scribe for City Press and later ran the “Friends of Jacob Zuma” website at the height of the president’s legal problems. She’s been quoted recently as saying she found some of Zuma’s ethics questionable while she was working with him. The less said about her, the better.

We are at a crossroads

We are at a crossroads, and for us, the key question should be whether South Africans are prepared to defend the freedoms so many died for, or whether we are going to be bullied into little laagers and continue reporting about ANC press conferences and writing speculative pieces about the succession battle within the ruling party.

Let’s hope that Haffajee’s move has not taken us 10 steps back and that South Africans can sleep easy knowing that their democracy, which protects freedom of expression, will remain guarded, and that corruption and abuse of power by those in charge of this teenage nation will be exposed at every turn. And I use the word “expose” with absolutely no reference to the president’s genitals!