I was hurt and angry when officials from the ruling party called me and my colleagues the “real opposition” of the ANC.
That was a few months ago when ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe and other senior officials were at pains to explain why they thought a media appeals tribunal and other oppressive statutes would be the best ingredients for our democracy.
And just as I began basking in the glory of being on the side of the right, I read in the papers recently that we have the members of Parliament of the country’s opposition embedded within our press clubs.
Ouch! Now I found myself wondering whether Mantashe and others weren’t right after all.
The story of Minister of Agriculture Fisheries and Forestry Tina Joemat-Pettersson refusing to address a Cape Town Press Club where her shadow counterpart from the main opposition — the Democratic Alliance Pieter Van Dalen serves — has raised many eyebrows, especially in the newsrooms.
Not much because of the initial refusal of the minister to address what was clearly a networking opportunity with the media but because there was a politician among us disguised as a journalist.
The minister is quoted as saying she was “under the impression that being invited to a press club meant addressing members of the media, not politicians”, otherwise she would have attended in her capacity as an ANC national executive committee member.
This saga raises questions about whether politicians should be allowed to become press club members.
As a journalist, myself, I think the minister’s statement was fair enough, and NO, I don’t think it can be right for a press club to have a politician as a member.
This is for the simple reason that it would open the forum of journalists to abuse and raises questions about our integrity and impartiality.
And the insults from people like Mantashe that we are ganging up with the opposition will begin to hold water.
And it doesn’t help that we had begun to go as far as allowing ourselves to be used to lobby (with the opposition) and get petitions signed to oppose government projects (e-tolls) instead of ONLY reporting on why it may be wrong or right and exposing corruption behind such projects.
I took this issue with my friends on Facebook, most of whom are journalists, to gauge their feelings.
“It’s about what this does to public confidence in journalists’ ability to just be journalists,” well-known spin doctor and columnist Chris Vick said.
“In my book they shouldn’t be, precisely because they are newsmakers and not newshounds”, added former journalist Themba Sepotokele.
Pinky Khoabane had a mouthful, but her shock can be summed up by “Its madness [that a politician should serve on a press club] …”
But it appears like those who are entrusted with heading these clubs don’t see anything wrong with a politician sitting in a club of journalists.
“Van Dalen is a fully paid-up member of the Cape Town Press Club and as such is entitled to attend any Cape Town Press Club event he chooses to attend,” said club chairperson Donwald Pressley.
But Pressely, really now? Putting friendship and party loyalty aside, why would you think journalists should accept someone who they are supposed to be holding to account into their fold? Are they able to talk against some of the bad things the DA is doing, or they’ll be scared to hurt him? What value does a member of the opposition bring to the journalists’ forum anyway, except perhaps a very exclusive access to his bosses and a perfect chance to distribute opposition press statements and regalia? Oh wait, and some money I guess.
What’s up for discussion in your meetings? How bad the ANC run the country? How the IFP should be fed up with their ageing leader? How Cope lost hope? Because I am sure these parties are not represented in the CPC, and I doubt any of their officials would be allowed if they asked?
Was CPC formed to be used by (or as an arm of) the main opposition to grill “others”, like it was nearly the case with Joemat-Pettersson had she not picked it, as if the stage the opposition is given in Parliament is not enough.
The minister’s conduct is “disrespectful” and “smacks of arrogance and this nonsense must stop,” National Press Club chairperson Yusuf Abramjee added to the insults that followed.
Nonsense? Perhaps Abramjee should explain why he thinks its right serving alongside a politician in a club of journalists. And I wonder if he would allow, say for example, Collins Chabane, Tony Enrenreich or even Julius Malema to be a member of the NPC.
“It’s about the gross violations by journalists of their own code of conduct. Yusuf Abramjee who heads the NPC has no idea of what media ethics are. This Business Report journalist (Pressely) has no idea the extent of his violations are in accepting an MP to be a member of a press club. My view is that the entire 4th estate is a fallacy ‐ no balance or fairness in reporting & complete violation of media ethics,” Khoabane lashed in Facebook debate.
I am sure Khoabane’s sentiments about the fourth estate are shared by most of the public. The media has taken the whipping recently because of our reporting and many retractions we were forced to be published ‐ as per the Ombudsman’s report this year which showed there was 70% increase in complaints against the press.
Already the ANC is having a meal of this following the scandal and questions the non-partisan way the media is supposed to operate.
“This has been vindicated … This anomaly is symptomatic of an institution that is founded on questionable grounds given the fact that generally the membership of a press club is a preserve of professionals in the media space who are expected to be objective and non-partisan when it comes to party politics.”
We cannot allow the media to be infiltrated by people like Van Dalen or any politician for that matter. It’s either he becomes an MP or a journalist, not both. The line that separates the two should be very clear if we are to regain the little confidence left in the public about the media.
And how the CPC allowed him to remain there until now boggles my mind. How many times did he use the space he’s given to push for his political ends? His immediate comment “I am even more resolute in my belief that the minister is unfit to hold public office,” suggests he wanted to use the opportunity to finish his battle with Joemat-Pettersson that he failed to win during her budget debate in Parliament.
I support ANC chief whip Mathole Motshekga when he said press clubs need to revisit the membership criteria.
My friend Tapiwa Gomo, who is a public relations practitioner, asked a question about who is qualified to be on a press club.
“[It] still goes back to the Constitution on who can be a member or not … We had this debate in Zimbabwe over who must register as a journalist; a trained journalist [who is not practicing] or one who is practicing. If it is one who is practising how you do handle a non-media contributor such as a columnist, etc?” Gomo asked in Facebook debate. Maybe the CPC allowed for opposition politicians to be members, we don’t know.
But as Motshekga said, the media is capable and competent enough to hold the government to account and did not need the assistance of opposition politicians, especially in a press club.
We can have a debate on whether journalists are not supposed to belong to a political party. But even if we do, we still have a duty to be neutral, and to hold politicians to account whether they belong to the ruling party or the opposition.
Hellen Zille studied journalism and practiced as such. It would be tragic and scandalous if we allow Abramjee to hand over the baton to her as the chairwoman of the NPC, whenever he decides its time he retires.