ANC’s Mantashe suggests the Press Ombudsman is biased. In fact, he’s been rather kind to the government.

July 7, 2010

African National Congress (ANC) secretary-general Gwede Mantashe has resurrected the idea of a statutory tribunal to police the media. According to a report in Business Day, he accused the media of “negativity” in their coverage of the ANC government and said the Press Ombudsman is unable to deal effectively with unethical journalism, which he claimed was “very prevalent”.

I don’t think we have to worry too much about this; a statutory media council would be too gross an infringement of media freeom to pass constitutional muster. Be that as it may, Mantashe should be called to account. What exactly does he mean by “negativity”? Reports about failures of service delivery? About corruption? And can he give examples to support his blanket statement that “self-regulation does not work”? Mantashe states that the current Ombudsman cannot fairly adjudicate complaints against the press because he is a former journalist, making him inherently biased. But is that the case? In fact, the evidence suggests the opposite.

I did a quick analysis of Press Ombudsman rulings over the past three years, and found only five cases in which the ANC, the government or a senior government official submitted a complaint to the Ombudsman. Two of those were upheld, two were partially upheld, and one was dismissed on appeal. Hardly evidence of pro-press bias!

If Mantashe and his party have genuine grievances about press coverage, perhaps they should make use of the Press Ombudsman’s complaints mechanism before declaring that it doesn’t work. They may just be surprised.


E-tv and the World Cup thugs: Section 205 subpoenas may damage media’s credibility, but so does shoddy journalism

January 22, 2010

Media lobbyists are jumping to the defence of e-tv after police served subpoenas on journalists who interviewed two criminals planning to prey on World Cup visitors. Police are demanding the unedited footage of the interview, as well as the identities of the thugs, one of whom has already been arrested. The other is likely to be nabbed soon, which would obviate the necessity fot the subpoenas and allow this issue to disappear quietly. But the debate around the use of Section 205 of the Criminal Procedure Act to force journalists to divulge information won’t go away.

Business Day argues in an editorial today that the legislation should be used circumspectly, not as a tool for lazy policemen who don’t want to do their own investigation.

“…in the saga, there is little to be gained from forcing journalists to reveal their sources and much potential to damage the media’s credibility with the public and ability to extract information from interviewees in future.”

I agree with Business Day’s argument in general. But I have to add: in the e-tv case, it is the broadcaster itself which damaged the media’s credibility with the public by manufacturing a Read the rest of this entry »

E-tv manufactured, not reported, the news in World Cup crime story

January 19, 2010

Back in the apartheid era, it was not uncommon for journalists to be subpoenaed to reveal the identity of confidential sources. This was usually done at the behest of the security police, who wanted to get their hands on the identities and whereabouts of political activists. Several journalists, to their eternal credit, served time in jail for refusing to comply with a dreaded “Section 205” subpoena. Since 1994, however, “Section 205” subpoenas against journalists – so called because they are served in terms of Section 205 of the Criminal Procedure Act – have become rare. It came as a surprise, therefore, when two e-tv journalists were subpoenaed this week to reveal the identity of two thugs they had interviewed for a programme on crime and the Soccer World Cup.

According to Business Day, reporter Mpho Lakaje’s story, aired last Friday, featured interviews with two criminals. One said he would rob tourists during the World Cup. Another said he would shoot his way out of a standoff with police if he felt his life was in danger. Lakaje and news editor Ben Said have been subpoenaed to appear in court next week unless they voluntarily surrender the identity and contact details of the interviewees, original footage, and details regarding the firearms featured in the story.

Legally, e-tv doesn’t have a leg to stand on. Section 205 gives a judge or magistrate, upon the request of the prosecuting authority, the power to order any person who may have Read the rest of this entry »

More on the media and Caster Semenya

September 15, 2009

OK. I am  obviously in the minority with my view on the media’s handling of the Caster Semenya saga. I still think the media are being unfairly blamed for what must be a harrowing experience for Semenya and her family. But both GenderLinks’ Colleen Lowe Morna  and Wits University’s Professor Anton Harber believe the media unjustifiably invaded the athlete’s privacy.

“Journalists always have choices,” writes Lowe Morna. “They balance the right of the public to know against the right of the individual to privacy. A central pillar of media ethics is to ‘do no harm.’  The harm done by this leak is immeasurable.”

Harber writes: “I can see no justification for this terrible and hurtful intrusion into the personal life of Semenya. There are times when public interest may justify an invasion of privacy, but these should be the exception rather than the rule.”

It is true that the publication of this leak has caused harm. But “do no harm” is most certainly not, as Lowe Morna states,  “a central pillar of media ethics”. If that were the case, most of what passes for investigative journalism would be inadmissable. Journalists would be unable to function as society’s watchdogs. Lowe Morna is probably referring to one of Jay Black’s oft-quoted “guiding principles” for journalists, one of which is “Minimise harm”. Minimising harm means being compassionate, and recognising that your reporting could cause harm. But it also means balancing that compassion with the need to tell the truth and serve the public interest.

Harber, no stranger to invading people’s privacy during his years as a journalist when the public interest demanded it, argues that there is no public interest in this case. But given the speculation around and politicisation of this case, and the role played by bodies such as Athletics South Africa (ASA) and the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), I would argue that there is a legitimate public interest. If someone has agenda, then all the better for the facts to be aired.

Remember: the media did not first raise questions about Semenya’s gender. The media did not conduct gender tests on her without her knowledge or consent. The media did not try to cover this up. The media did not ignore medical advice to withdraw her from the World Championships. The media did not then try to persuade her to feign injury and withdraw from the 800m final. The media did not turn Semenya into a political football in South Africa. The media did not leak confidential results of the gender tests conducted by the IAAF. The media did not ignore the IAAF’s requests to speak to Semenya about the test results. The media reported those developments, and, assuming they are based on facts, you, the public, had a right to know about them.

Yes, some of the reporting around this saga has been ignorant and some of it has been intrusive. But I still maintain that the media had, and still have, a duty to keep the public informed abut the facts, and that blaming the media for Semenya’s plight is a case of shooting the messenger.

Don’t blame media for Semenya tragedy

September 11, 2009

I feel desperately sorry for Caster Semenya, and outraged at the way the IAAF and Athletics South Africa have handled this matter. But I fail to understand why everybody seems to be lambasting the “Australian media” for breaking the story that she has internal male sex organs, as if there is some giant media conpsiracy afoot to deny South Africa’s star athlete the glory due to her.’s Victoria Guedes goes so far as to apologise for being a journalist! “I would hope,” Guedes writes, “that if I were a news hound in an office in Australia who got hold of the information about Caster’s ambiguous gender, I would think twice about leaking a sensational story that could ruin someone’s life through no fault of their own.”

Oh come on! The Australian journalist who obtained the information and published it was doing his (or her?) job. Any journalist worth her salt would have run the story. It is of immense public interest, given the speculation and politicisation surrounding the case. The IAAF official who leaked the information to an Australian journalist, however, was committing a serious breach of confidentiality, and should bear all the blame for ruining her life, if that in fact transpires. Athletics South Africa should take a long, hard, look at itself too, because it simply hasn’t done enough to prepare Semenya for the storm that awaits. If some media reports are to be believed, ASA has refused to put the IAAF in contact with Semenya to discuss the results of her “gender tests”.

The media are not to blame this time, I’m afraid.

Teaching economics journalism: Why? What? Who for?

September 6, 2009


(Paper presented at “Journalism Education and Training: the Challenges”. Conference, Department of Journalism, 16 – 18 October 2008, Stellenbosch, South Africa)


A recent survey of South African business editors revealed a need for specialist training of business journalists (Rumney 2008). But editors held widely differing views about the focus and form of training, while none offered a coherent vision for the further education and training of their staff. This raises important questions about the relationship between educational institutions offering economics journalism courses and the business media. What do we teach? Whose interests do we serve? An approach which simply attempts to replicate current practice runs the risk of turning economics journalism education into a commodity, with the business media as the consumer. What about the interests of society, and of the educational institution itself? This paper argues for an approach that attempts to produce reflexive journalists who are able to practice their craft, but also to question and challenge accepted practices and procedures and reflect on the role and effects of their work. It sees journalism teaching as a form of social intervention that has the potential to change the way journalism is practiced. The challenge is to design a curriculum that not only straddles the theory/practice divide, a common challenge in journalism education, but that also accommodates the imperative simultaneously to teach and to question prevailing practice.


The turmoil in financial markets over the past five weeks has focused attention on economics journalism[2] as never before. The credit crisis, bank failures, government bail-outs, stock market crashes and the deepening global recession have played themselves out day after day, relentlessly, on television, in newspapers, on the radio, in the blogosphere and on the internet – and not only in specialist financial or business media, but in mainstream news bulletins, current affairs programmes and newspapers.

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Between privilege and subpoena: the protection of journalists’ confidential sources

September 6, 2009

(Ecquid Novi African Media Studies 2006 27 (2): 111 – 134.)


 Recent events in South Africa and elsewhere have focused attention on the position of journalists faced with legal action aimed at discovering the identity of confidential sources. It is widely accepted in the journalism community that journalists have an ethical obligation to protect the identity of confidential sources. The obligation derives from the central role that journalism plays in democracy, yet in South Africa it may bring journalists into conflict with legal measures aimed at forcing disclosure, such as Section 205 of the Criminal Procedure Act. Journalists may find themselves in a position where they have to choose between acting ethically or upholding the law. This article explores the rationale for the protection of confidential sources and compares the normative ethics and jurisprudence relating to protection of sources in various jurisdictions, including South Africa. It examines processes currently under way to establish legal protection of journalists against forced disclosure, considers a number of options that may be pursued. It concludes that any such measure should cover both criminal and civil proceedings, and suggests that the answer may lie in the proper interpretation of the right to freedom of expression to accord a qualified privilege to journalists.

 Keywords: Confidential sources, Criminal Procedure Act, democracy, ethics, freedom of expression, journalism, media law, media freedom, privilege, South Africa, subpoena, freedom of expression.

1.         Introduction

The duty to protect confidential sources of information “is a basic tenet of journalistic ethics” (Kruger, 2004: 190). It is a near-universal feature of journalism ethics codes in South Africa (Retief, 2002), Europe (Ronning & Kasoma, 2002) and the United States (Son, 2002). Although there is wide acceptance of the ethical obligation to protect sources who have been promised confidentiality, the question of whether this obligation should be recognised in law is more controversial. It is embodied in some form in jurisdictions as diverse and far-flung as Mozambique, Sweden, and all but one state of the U.S.; in others, including South Africa, legal protection is not yet established.

Read the rest of this entry »