Why Is The Media Credibility At Stake?

PICTURE: New York Times

The smear campaign against Ramaphosa reminds me the 2016 United States (US) presidential election. “Russia, if you’re listening,” said US President Donald Trump, calling on Russia to hack his contender Hilary Clinton’s private email account. Clinton used a private email account during her tenure as secretary of state, writes Molifi Tshabalala.

As I read a set of leaked questions that Steven Motale, a Sunday Independent editor, had sent to Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa about his extramarital affairs, two things came to mind. First, a discussion I had with my lecturer on media credibility, which is at stake in this period of fake news, an extreme form of information warfare.

The lecturer asked me who sets a news outlet’s editorial agenda. “The owners do,” I said, and he nodded in agreement. In other words, Dr Iqbel Survé, an executive chairperson of the Independent Media, which owns The Sunday Independent, and shareholders set the newspaper’s editorial agenda.

“His appointment is aligned with our approach to transformation at senior editorial and executive level and supports our objective of pursuing black excellence in the media space,” said Survé, welcoming Motale, who left The Citizen over an editorial dispute, back to the Independent Media. Motale’s appointment followed his two open letters to President Jacob Zuma.

In the first letter, penned while he was an editor at The Citizen, a product of fake news itself, Motale says he was party to an anti-Zuma media agenda and apologises. A year-and-seven-month later, he penned another letter, published on Weekly Xposé, a fake news peddler owned by Kenny Kunene, to alert Zuma about a plot by former finance minister Pravin Gordhan and some in his cabinet, the ANC NEC, and Parliament who have joined the media agenda to “demonise and bring” him down, thus bring about a regime change. He, along with BLF chief anarchist Andile Mngxitama and other pro-Zuma panelists at ANN7, promulgate a propagandist view that the media want to bring about the regime change.

“The media has long played the role of unelected opposition to government in South Africa, taking its constitutional duty of being a watchdog to levels beyond what the fourth estate is meant,” writes Motale, whose appointment brought into questions not only the newspaper’s editorial credibility henceforth, but also Survé’s assertion that the Independent Media “has taken a non-partisan approach to political issues in the country.” More so, considering how his predecessor Wally Mbhele left the Media under a dark cloud.

The Independent Media sent Mbhele packing for running a story that former Eskom CEO Brian Molefe, a friend of Survé, was parachuted to Parliament, according to Sunday Times. The Independent Media lost a complaint against its competitor over the story.

Unless Motale draws a professional line between himself and fake news peddlers, such as Gayton McKenzie, Kunene, and Mngxitama, against three of whom the EFF opened a case of espionage, and maintains a high editorial ground, he would turn the newspaper into The New Age (TNA), a pro-Zuma factional fake news peddler. He says his personal relationship with Kunene comes a long way and owes “no one explanation” about it. Nevertheless, he should ensure that it does not compromise the newspaper’s editorial credibility, if it has not.

Second, Ranjeni Munusamy’s opinion piece, “SA’s Intellectuals: Who is speaking the truth and exposing lies”. Besides Professor Mcebisi Ndletyana, Professor Sipho Seepe, and their ilk of professorial intelligentsia, Munusamy herself, Motale, and other journalists in general are intellectuals who should speak the truth and expose lies.

As opposed to Motale, Munusamy and Karima Brown were party to a pro-Zuma media agenda. Undoubtedly, if the ANN7 and TNA had come into existence in the run-up to the 52nd ANC National Conference wherein Zuma beat Thabo Mbeki for ANC president, the duo would have joined Mngxitama, Seepe, who was part of Zuma’s ‘brain trust team,’ former ANC spokesperson Carl Niehaus, and others, most of whom, if not all, with controversial backgrounds, at the news outlets to advance the pro-Zuma factional agenda.

In an open letter to Brown, gender activist Nomboniso Gasa reminds her about a discussion the duo had on a suitable candidate for ANC president between Mbeki and Zuma. She says Brown focused on “what Mbeki did wrong”. She, on the other hand, focused “on Zuma and what he represented,” specifically asking Brown whether she supports “a man whose sexual predatory extended to someone who called him uncle.”

This question, Gasa says Brown did not answer. Instead, she stuck to her “arguments that Mbeki was overbearing, divisive and authoritarian.” Post the 52nd ANC National Conference, Gasa says Brown’s career was flourishing.

The same, however, cannot be said about Munusamy, who was part of Schabir Shaik’s defence team, dealing with sort of public relations matters, and one of the Friends of Jacob Zuma. “After his election as ANC president,” said Munusamy, referring to Zuma, “[T]here were plenty of people who thronged around him and I knew he didn’t need me.” This is not the reason she disassociated herself from Zuma, though.

“There were some things about Zuma and the things he did that were completely contrary to my own morals and values,” continued Munusamy, who drafted Zuma’s resignation letter as ANC president and managed his foundation’s website, “I didn’t want to try to justify or excuse them anymore.”

In speaking the truth and exposing lies, the journalists should differentiate real news from fake news, which often take a form of smear campaigns in the run-up to the ANC’s National Conferences. Motale, for example, says his sources told him that they gave other journalists an “original tranche of emails” as well and he suspects that their editors might have ordered them “not to pursue the story to protect Ramaphosa’s reputation.” Nevertheless, their editors might have classified the emails as a smear campaign against Ramaphosa and decided not to run the story.

The smear campaign against Ramaphosa reminds me the 2016 United States (US) presidential election. “Russia, if you’re listening,” said US President Donald Trump, calling on Russia to hack his contender Hilary Clinton’s private email account. Clinton used a private email account during her tenure as secretary of state.

“I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” added Trump, whose sexual scandals also featured during the election campaign. As an election day drew closer, WikiLeaks released a tranche of Clinton’s missing emails to influence the election in favour of Trump. It is either Russia heeded Trump’s call or Russia had already hacked Clinton’s email account and Trump knew about it, if not party to it.

Similarly, Social Development Minister and ANCWL President Bathabile Dlamini may not know how to open her own emails, as her spokesperson Lumka Oliphant revealed, but her assertion that the government is replete with leaders who are worse than former deputy education minister Mduduzi Manana, alluding to – as EFF leader Julius Malema revealed – Ramaphosa, implies that she knew about the smear campaign, if not party to it. Manana has pleaded guilty to charges of assaulting two women at a nightclub in Johannesburg.

The smear campaign is meant to discredit Ramaphosa in favour of his contender Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, which speaks volume of the ANC’s ideological backwardness. While monogamy and safe sex practices are important behavioral and cognitive practices to expect from any leader, especially in a country like South Africa, where 3.4 million people are on an ARV treatment, South Africans want to know how Ramaphosa, Dlamini-Zuma, and other ANC would extricate the 30.4 million people from poverty and fight corruption among other things.

I had long sensed a Russian hand in our domestic politics to propel into power someone who would forge ahead with a nuclear energy deal and Ramaphosa, whose campaign has hitherto centred on state capture, is not that person, before the Sunday Times could reported that McKenzie has, in recent months, flown to Russia “either to collect information on certain people or to get some intelligence training.” If Russia could influence the American election with sophisticated intelligence services and propelled Trump to power, what is South Africa with the poorest intelligence services in the world?

Unsurprisingly, our so-called intelligence services have not determined the Russian hand in our domestic politics, an overriding national security threat.

Molifi Tshabalala is an independent political analyst and author of the book, “The Thoughts of an Ordinary”.