Journalists and the South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) have pushed back against ANC national spokesperson and national executive committee member Jackson Mthembu’s scathing criticism of media. Mthembu accused them of compromising their ethics and objectivity by expressing their opinions on the #ZumaMustFall campaign on social media. 

In the party’s online publication ANC Today, Mthembu used tweets that various editors and journalists had posted to demonstrate how the #ZumaMustFall campaign had revealed the bias in media reporting. 

“The media have lost sight of their responsibility to run a filter through the ‘truths’ being presented to the public,” Mthembu wrote. 

“The ANC notes with interest that while the publications and newscasts themselves attempt to maintain the veneer of objectivity, the journalists who report for these same media have let their colours slip on another, arguably more influential, platform — namely social media.” 

The ANC spokesperson went on to write that while social media channels were the go-to platforms for breaking news, journalists should still be mindful of the responsibility they have to maintain objectivity and neutrality. 

“Considering this, we should view in a dim light the claim by all the so-called serious journalists that ‘views expressed are personal’ on social media, and not reflective of their employers.
And that retweets are not endorsements,” Mthembu wrote. 

“With their coverage of #ZumaMustFall, the mask has slipped. There is a double game being played, and it is there for all to see. The bogeyman and ruse of ‘looming media censorship’ should no longer fool anyone.”

Mthembu then quoted tweets by prominent media professionals such as City Press editor Ferial Haffajee, TechCentral editor Duncan McLeod and Mail & Guardian editor Verashni Pillay to justify his stance that media objectivity had been compromised. 

He quoted an excerpt from a tweet Haffajee had sent following the presidency’s announcement that Pravin Gordhan would be finance minister, which read: “President Zuma is now lame duck.” He also quoted McLeod’s tweet on the same issue: “You can’t make a mistake this bad and this embarrassing and damaging and stay on as president. Next step is recalling him. I give it a week.”

Haffajee told the M&G that she agrees with Mthembu that journalists should not use the hashtag #ZumaMustFall, because it amounts to political campaigning. She said, however, that journalists reporting on the marches could use the hashtag as long as it was clear that they were using it to report and not expressing a view. 

“The first thing is yes, he’s right. Journalists shouldn’t be using #ZumaMustFall in a political fashion, or at least I wouldn’t. It’s a call for everything from a recall of the president to impeachment, and that’s firmly in the realm of party politics and also of political campaigning. I don’t think that’s something that I would be comfortable doing,” Haffajee said.

The City Press editor said that as long as journalists abide by the press code, there is no wrongdoing in them expressing an opinion on social media, and that her tweet was “a piece of political analysis and a completely fair one that I’ve seen at least one hundred times more”. 

She added: “As long as I keep it in the terms of the press code, comment is fair on Twitter and so is opinion.”

Speaking to the M&G, McLeod defended journalists’ right to express their opinions, saying that media workers are members of the South African citizenry and therefore have the right to free expression as entrenched in the Constitution.

“Mthembu seems to think journalists shouldn’t have an opinion. Of course journalists have opinions and they’re entitled to those opinions — and they’re entitled to air them, too. We’re part of South African society as much as everyone else and it’s our right, as much as it’s the right of any South African, to air an opinion on social media,” McLeod said.

For the TechCentral editor, Mthembu’s accusations are misdirected, given the economic instability the country faces and the public criticism of the ANC and President Jacob Zuma’s leadership. 

“Instead of attacking journalists for daring to express an opinion on a social network, Mthembu ought to expend more energy looking elsewhere for what’s really ailing South Africa today,” McLeod said.

Sanef, meanwhile, has said that according to the press code and the code of ethics, journalists have a right to express their views —as long as it is clear these views are opinion and they are not motivated by bribes or other external influences.

“Our code of ethics [entitles] them to their comment and also to columns, which are based on fact, so long as it is clearly stated that they are comment,” said Sanef council member Moshoeshoe Monare. “I would really be cautious when someone says the media or journalists should not express their views.”

Recently, the ANC has been criticised for its reaction to the #ZumaMustFall campaign, with former finance minister Trevor Manuel writing a letter to Small Business Development Minister Lindiwe Zulu in response to an interview where the M&G quoted her as saying that had business supported Zuma’s decision to appoint Des van Rooyen as finance minister, the economic fallout would not have been as severe. 

Mthembu’s piece also drew ire, but Sanef believes his column is an example of politicking to protect party interests. 

“Unfortunately, the media and sometimes public institutions become victims of attack just because they tend to disagree with them [politicians],” Monare said. 

“It’s unfortunate, because our democracy means that there should be an open debate and open discussion about matters of public and national interest without anyone feeling that the media, or the judiciary or other public entities, are banding together against the political party.”