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Tensions between media and ANC on display in South Africa

The African National Congress (ANC) appears adamant about a new media appeals tribunal. The media are just as adamant that the tribunal is an attempt to muzzle critical reporting.

By Sipho HlongwaneGuest blogger / August 30, 2010

A woman holds a newspaper inside a shopping mall in the Sandton suburb in Johannesburg on July 10. African National Congress leaders argue that local news organizations often misstate or misreport the news, and that current bodies set up to correct such mistakes are inadequate. The ANC has proposed a new media tribunal and information bill that critics call 'draconian.'

Radu Sigheti/Reuters

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Johannesburg, South Africa

I had the rather dubious pleasure of attending a discussion on the matter of the proposed media appeals tribunal and Protection of Information Bill at the University of Johannesburg. Let me warn you from the outset: If you want intelligent, honest, and frank discussion, do not go to these events. Just don’t. “Honest” discussion you’ll find alright, but it isn’t of the frank and intelligent sort.

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This particular panel discussion was pitched to the public as a matter of media freedom. “Is media freedom really under risk?” the bumf read. Professor Adam Habib, the referee at this discussion, admonished the gathered parties to speak “with” each other, rather than “past” each other. The professor wanted a meeting of minds.

It’s precisely what he didn’t get.

The panelists were Mondli Makhanya, editor-in-chief of South Africa's Avusa Media (newspapers); Baleka Mbete, national chairperson of the African National Congress (ANC); and Richard Louw of the Freedom of Expression Institute. Things got a bit personal between Mbete and Makhanya. But more on that later.

STORY: In ANC bill, South African media see threat to press freedom

Each panelist was given 15 minutes to make opening remarks (fashionable disregard for time limits deferred to). Makhanya and Louw made the expected pro-media and pro-transparency noises. Mbete made the obligatory pro-media appeals tribunal and pro-Protection of Information Bill noises. The battle lines were set. Everyone knew who was for whom, and who to clap for.

As any person who frequents this sort of gathering knows, the sparks only really fly when the floor is opened up for audience members to make remarks. The panel chairperson always says “questions,” but almost everyone interprets this as “remarks.”

Mbete immediately set the tone by accusing Makhanya of having a personal hand in her own negative experience with the press. She said his paper had erroneously reported that she had fudged up her travel expenses, and when she had requested her assistants to submit records to the journalist who erroneously reported on her, the journalist in question had refused the proof that she was “clean” so that he could continue writing false allegations against her. Mbete said that she had approached the Press Ombudsman in order to settle the matter, and the eventual apology that had issued forth from the newspaper in question, as a result of a ruling by the Ombudsman, was far from satisfactory.

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