One upside of the Cape storms

Andrew Donaldson says world's journos were at least saved from a lecture on the free press by President Z


ONE upshot about the storm that battered the Western Cape is that it prevented Jacob Zuma from flying to Durban for Wednesday’s opening ceremony of the 69th World News Media Congress in Durban where he was due to address hundreds of international editors, publishers, academics and media professionals.

They were thus spared the embarrassment of sharing space with an individual whose resentment of an independent press is second nature. 

The awkward fact that the elephant, so to speak, would have been in the room just as the Turkish journalist Can Dündar was handed the Golden Pen of Freedom award by the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers, or Wan-Ifra, would not have gone unnoticed. 

It’s true that, just last week and ahead of the congress, Zuma told the National Assembly that his government took great pride in the fact that “media freedom is enshrined in the constitution”.

But this is the same government that wants to undermine that constitution with new legislation and old apartheid laws to replace critical journalism with a supine alternative.

Media interest in the upgrades to the President’s home at Nkandla, for example, prompted the exhumation of the National Key Points Act. Then there’s the Secrecy Bill, which, under the guise of protecting national security, is aimed at criminalising whistleblowers and investigative reporters for doing their jobs.

The latter seems particularly ominous at this time of the Gupta email leaks, especially as it would seek to sanction those who brought this state capture mega-dump to our attention while allowing business as usual to continue at Zupta Inc. 

Until then, however, they can do little at the Saxonwod Shebeen but echo official claims that the allegations contained in the 100 000-plus emails are fake.

It was a “fabrication” that the Guptas bought Zuma a luxury villa in Dubai, the Presidency said. “President Zuma does not own any property outside South Africa and has not requested anybody to buy property for him abroad. The president has also not received or seen the reported emails and has no knowledge of them.”

This was not very convincing and it has not deterred the headline-writers from suggesting that Somerset Maugham’s observation that the French Riviera was a sunny place for shady people now also applied to the United Arab Emirates. 

In Durban, where it will be also be sunny this weekend, the visitors were well aware of the ham-fisted threats to the media and the Wan-Ifra board called on government to ensure “the independence of journalists, notably in the face of proposed legislation that threatens a free press”.

The board drew attention to the Cybercrime Bill, describing it as “an assault on the right to digital privacy” and a threat to the protection of journalists’ sources, the Film and Publication Board Amendment Bill, which broadens state power to censor internet content, and the afore-mentioned Secrecy Bill.

Much to our approval, here at the Mahogany Ridge, the board also denounced the draft Prevention and Combating of Hate Crimes and Hate Speech Bill, which would outlaw “bringing contempt and ridicule” onto figures of authority.

Quite right. What cheer would life bring if we are not permitted to insult and make peurile fun of Venal, Anal and Rectal Gupta? For it does appear that it is they who are the real figures of authority here and not Accused Number One. 

The scary thing, though, is that had Zuma made it to Durban, he would have learned how proper ratbags deal with a meddlesome press. 

As a newspaper editor and a political writer, Dündar had campaigned against Turkish president Tayyip Erdogan’s assault on democracy and a free press. 

For his troubles, Dündar has been threatened and harassed by Turkey’s security establishment. He was arrested and spent 92 days in prison and was eventually freed following a court ruling.

He now lives in exile in Germany, having survived an assassination attempt, but his wife has had her passport seized and is unable to travel to join him there. She remains in Turkey.

“Journalists need courage because there is a cloud of fear hanging over them,” Dündar said in his acceptance speech.

 “Fear is everywhere, and it is so powerful. I come from the biggest prison for journalists in the world: currently 150 of my colleagues are behind bars in Turkey, and imprisoning one member of the press intimidates hundreds of others.”

But back to the weather. The storm  moved eastwards and the President was able to fly off to Pretoria where he received letters of credence from ambassadors and high commissioners from various countries, including the UAE, the Zuma family’s new home from home.

This article first appeared in the Weekend Argus.