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In response to a protest outside a white editor’s home, the South African Editors Forum (SANEF) sought court orders to stop Black First Land First activists from harassing, intimidating and threatening journalists and editors over their reporting. But SANEF did not show similar concern when Black journalists came under attack. Why the double standards?

As the ANC was debating the colour of monopoly capital at Nasrec in Johannesburg on 29 June 2017, activists of Black First Land First (BLF), an organisation campaigning for land and an end to racism, descended on the house of Peter Bruce, the editor-at-large of Tiso Blackstar‚ formerly Times Media‚ which owns TimesLIVE‚ and a former editor-in-chief of Business Day and Financial Mail.  Subsequent to the protest at Bruce’s house, the BLF issued a statement defending its action against some white journalists and identifying other black journalists who it deemed servants of white monopoly capital in South Africa. In its press release on 30 June 2017, BLF argued, “Black First Land First (BLF) respects freedom of expression and the independence of the media. However, BLF will not tolerate racism, slander, fake news and the covering up of white corruption under the guise of journalism”. The statement then mentioned names of white and black journalists who “masquerade as journalists, in defence of white monopoly capital”.

A subsequent communique titled “White monopoly capital unleashes 450 lawyers on BLF [Black First Land First]” (dated 1 July 2017), noted that BLF has been under assault from Webber Wentzel, a law firm. The communique reads: “The second letter was sent to us on Friday 30 June by the same Webber Wentzel – now ostensibly under the instructions of the so-called South African Editors Forum (SANEF). BLF does not recognize SANEF which is an organization founded and funded by Johann Rupert [a representative of WMC] and other representatives of white monopoly capital.”

SANEF approached the Gauteng South High Court on 6 July 2017 and asked the court “to stop the group [BLF] from harassing, intimidating and threatening journalists and editors over their reporting on alleged state capture”.  The next day, Judge Corrie van der Westhuizen delivered a judgment interdicting BLF to stop intimidating and harassing journalists and political commentators. BLF was also asked to issue a statement denouncing attacks on journalists.

In evaluating the actions of both the BLF and SANEF one cannot avoid dealing with matters of principle. It is well known that journalists, media houses, and analysts hold certain views, beliefs and have political agendas. In a ground-breaking article on the role of the media in South Africa and titled “He who pays the piper calls the tune,” media specialist Mushak Parker (New African, 8 September 2014) demonstrates how mass media reinforce the power of powerful economic groups, and shows that these old  media networks have a history of aiding racism and apartheid.

In their book titled, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, which reinforces the views of Parker, American-based Professors Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman argue that, while the role of mass media may be about informing and entertaining, it also propagates and instils values, behaviours, and practices that seek to make sure that populations conform to the dominant capitalist society.

Leslie Sklair in Social Movements for Global Capitalism: The Transnational Capitalist Class in Action correctly argues that businesses use the media to create conformity with capitalist hegemony in society. In fact, in the majority of cases, mass media is controlled by monopolies who have a direct interest in maintaining and expanding a system which breeds inequality, homelessness and poverty.    

It could, thus, be argued that BLF is correct to view the mass media as being part of those who may raise critical comments on inequality and poverty occasionally but in the final analysis seek to maintain the status quo, which is characterised by racial and gender inequality. In addition, BLF is right in viewing even the mainstream analysts and commentators as those who do not want to unmask the structural problems of a system which uses laws and regulations in many instances, and in some cases blatant corruption, to transfer wealth and value from the working class to capitalists.  These analysts want to tinker with the unjust system under the guise of formulating “proposals” which, in the final analysis, seek to reproduce racial and gender inequality.

In his “radical economic manifesto”, Peter Bruce rightly argues, “No stable society can live with our levels of poverty”. However, instead of developing proposals that seek to deal with poverty, inequality, and unemployment created by an economic system that produces these social ills, Bruce, in a veneer of sounding “radical”, gives us ‘solutions’ proposed by our local version of social democracy of the 1990s.

That is to say that South Africa must adopt Germany’s “codetermination”, which basically means that labour and capital should cooperate in order to sustain the system that inherently reproduces racial and gender divisions. Bruce does not see a need to explain why codetermination was not implemented in South Africa and is under stress even in its countries of origin.  Bruce promotes labour flexibility by arguing that our “wages and working conditions are not competitive” (Businesslive 11 May 2017). Labour flexibility will definitely attack the black working class and sustain the transfer of wealth to white monopoly  capital.

As we have indicated earlier in the article, all media houses adopt a particular political line. Of course, they can be flexible and creative, but they cannot cross that line. This view is supported by Steve Motale’s open letter titled “I’m sorry, President Zuma” (Citizen, 13 August 2015). On 28 November 2016, Motale reported that he had been dismissed by the Citizen “without any hearing”, lending credence to Mushak Parker’s critique of the mainstream media.

As shown, media houses, journalists, editors such as Bruce, and political commentators hold particular political and ideological views seeking to defend the racialised capitalist system. This is not to say that journalists and analysts do not think! Of course, they do, but they dare not transgress from the script. Unlike Peter Bruce, who wants to tinker with the system so that it does not collapse, we have had isolated instances of bravery and radical thinking out of the racist and capitalist box espoused by the late Ruth First and other radical journalists, which were committed to the eradication of the system that inherently breeds inequality and racism. Ruth First edited the Guardian, a radical newspaper, and she dedicated her entire life to the struggle for the total overthrow of racial capitalism. It is safe to say that Peter Bruce is not a radical journalist.   

Consistent with the views of Bruce and others, the mainstream rhetoric has to include “fiscal consolidation”, “fiscal discipline”, “inclusive growth”, and all other concepts which maintain capitalism and its racial distribution of wealth. That is why the mainstream media ridiculed and vehemently opposed Wits Professor Chris Malikane’s proposal for radically transforming the economy in order to address racial economic imbalances created by apartheid capitalism and deepened by the post-apartheid capitalist state. Malikane proposes the “Expropriation of white monopoly capitalist establishments such as banks, insurance companies, mines and other monopoly industries, to industrialise the economy (Christopher Malikane, 7 April 2017).

While all mainstream media houses correctly complain about the Guptas, Zuma and corruption, they want the public to forget Oupa Lehulere’s critique of the politics of “fiscal discipline which transfer the wealth and values from the black working class to WMC. Lehuere elaborates, “What is equally clear is that Pravin Gordhan and the finance ministers that came before him have presided over the growing impoverishment of the mass of black working class South Africans. Under their watch, wealth has become more concentrated in South Africa and has remained deeply racialised"(Pambazuka, 6 April 2017).

Should journalists, media houses and political commentators be intimidated for holding and propagating views that seek to defend and advance the interests of WMC? My answer is a big NO. Here I disagree with BLF as a matter of principle. Protesting at Peter Bruce’s house was a wrong tactic as it exposed him and his family to some form of violence and intimidation. In the same vein, we did not see media statements and commentary from political analysists aligned to mainstream media condemning the marches to the Gupta house which exposed the Gupta family and its children to violence and intimidation. Is this a case of different strokes for different folks? 

How should we respond to capital, its defenders and corruption? Violence and intimidation are not tools of those fighting against South Africa’s racialized capitalism, which continues to produce inequality, an increased social burden on black working class women, and new black workers faced with deepening precariousness. Peaceful and patient organising and popular education seeking to expose the agenda of capital, media houses, political analysts and journalists aligned to capital and corruption are weapons to be used in this political and ideological warfare. In fact, the left should be discussing the building of its own media which will contest the ideas and the political programme of the bourgeois mainstream media.

Writing in a different context, Lenin in 1901, in What is to be Done? viewed an alternative media of the working class and the marginalised as an “educator“, organiser” and an “agitator”. Under the current conditions, social media can be part of a broader strategy for educating, agitating and organising against racism and capitalism. Popular education which views the working class and the poor as reservoirs of knowledge remains an appropriate tool for educating the masses in the townships and rural areas. To put it bluntly, we cannot expect to make white monopoly capital,  its journalists, its media houses and its analysts masquerading as being objective and “having balanced views” to give us a platform to agitate against this racialized economic system.     

One of the biases and factionalised defences espoused by SANEF is how the organisation fails to adhere to its own non-partisan role. The organisation says, “SANEF stands in defence of media freedom”. Section 1.1 of SANEF’s constitution states that its members “commit themselves to a programme of action to defend and promote media freedom and independence”. One of the great leaders of social justice movements, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his very last public speech to striking sanitation workers in Memphis Tennesse on 3 April 1968 said: “All we say to America is, ‘Be true to what you said on paper’”. All we are saying for now to SANEF is be true to all journalists regardless of their affiliation.

In its press conference, in February 2016, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) intimidated the Gupta-owned media houses and further said the EFF could “not  guarantee the safety” of journalists employed by ANN7 and The New Age. ANN7 recounted several incidents of verbal and physical abuse on its journalists on 7 July 2017. A shocking video has surfaced of allegedly EFF members pouring water on a black female ANN7 journalist, Nomusa Phungula, during one of the anti-Zuma marches in Pretoria on 7 April 2017. Evidence is also available of allegedly EFF members attacking an ANN7 cameraman outside the court during the hearing of Bonginkosi Khanyile, a student leader, in Pietermaritzburg on 22 December 2016. 

How did SANEF respond to these incidences of violence against ANN7 journalists? Besides meeting with the EFF leadership and issuing press statements condemning these incidents, nothing was done! There was no army of lawyers to defend these black journalists!  This is contrary to the treatment given to a white journalist, in whose case a court order was sought to stymie any further acts of intimidation against the said journalists and political commentators. More scandalously, there was no public outcry when ANN7 journalists were physically attacked. 

Perhaps the direct association of ANN7 with the Gupta family and the generalised focus of the mainstream media on allegations of corruption linked to the Guptas is the main source of SANEF’s bias against ANN7 journalists. Could it be that they saw no need to seek an interdict in favour of journalists who are perceived to be working for the Guptas? If this is true, SANEF would have violated its own principles. Staying true to the principle of fairness is difficult in our factionalised society and polarised politics, especially for those who have the power to maintain conformity, such as the bourgeois mainstream media. The challenge for SANEF is to be true to what it says on paper and defend all journalists regardless of their affiliation and political views.

* MONDLI HLATSHWAYO is Senior Researcher, Centre for Education Rights and Transformation, University of Johannesburg.



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