INDABA Newsletter | June 2016

Don’t shoot the messenger

This age old idiom has in recent political events regained its relevance and should be kept in mind when police, protestors or anyone attempting to hinder journalists from executing their tasks surface.

The origin of the phrase stems from Plutarch, a Greek historian, biographer, and essayist, known primarily for his Parallel Lives and Moralia. In his Lives, Plutarch pens “The first messenger that gave notice of Lucullus’ coming was so far from pleasing Tigranes that he had his head cut off for his pains; and no man daring to bring further information, without any intelligence at all, Tigranes sat while war was already blazing around him, giving ear only to those who flattered him.”

Mandisa Mbele

In times of war, as penned by Plutarch, authority would rather discard of the messenger, be surrounded by silent advisors and risk watching the world around them burn.

Similar events have been taking place here in South Africa. Although not a war, nor is it a king shooting a messenger, the messenger in this case journalists, are being violently threatened.

On the 23rd of May, two journalism students from the Tshwane University of Technology were attacked by the protesting mob whilst covering the protests. One reporter was beaten and both were robbed of their valuables. The violence shook the university to the extent that a decision was made that the students will not cover protest actions in Soshanguve, Ga-Rankuwa, Mabopane and Hammanskraal until the local government elections have passed. In the same protest a Power FM journalist was also threatened by the angry mob.

The Sunday of the 19th of June, journalists were threatened by the police at the Tshwane Events Centre while trying to report and take pictures of an alleged shooting at the African National Congress’s Tshwane Mayoral elective conference.

Introspection needs to be done by certain members of our society as to why we’re so quick to use violence as a means of expression at times when we disagree. The deeper question should be why this violence always falls on the messenger. Not to over-state the importance of journalists and reporters above anyone else in society, journalism has a critical role to play.

The purpose of journalism is to provide citizens with the information they need to make the best possible decisions about their lives, their communities, their societies, and their governments. Journalists are the link between the news and us receiving that news. The argument of media bias, negative agendas and how news is packed for our consumption is valid and should be explored further in another conversation but the protection of our journalists should be paramount on our discussion to-do list. Although there are laws that protect journalists and their material such as The SAPS Standing Order No 159 Section 10 (3) (c) which states that “A media representative may under no circumstances be verbally or physically abused and cameras or other equipment may not be seized unless such camera or equipment may be seized as an exhibit in terms of any law. Under no circumstances whatsoever, may a member will fully damage the camera, film, recording or other equipment of a media representative,” being a journalist is still one of the most dangerous occupations.

Times of disagreement are the best opportunity to engage with each other and iron out differences; we should not however, shoot the messenger.

Mandisa Mbele is the public relations officer of the National Press Club. She holds a MA in Global Political Economy from City University. She writes in her personal capacity.

SAFREA joins voices of protest against SABC

The Southern African Freelancers’ Association (SAFREA) has added its voice to protests against the suspension of three senior South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) journalists apparently for contravening an order prohibiting them from covering a Right2Know protest outside the public broadcaster’s headquarters in Auckland Park, Johannesburg.

The right of media to report in a timely and truthful manner is a foundation of democracy, says SAFREA Chair Laura Rawden.

“By putting restrictions on these practices, and penalising journalists who do their jobs, the SABC is threatening all members of society and removing our right to information,” she says.

In May, the SABC took the decision not to publicise any content displaying violent service delivery protests in various parts of the country. According to News24, economics editor Thandeka Gqubule, Radio Sonder Grense (RSG) executive producer Foeta Krige and Afrikaans news producer Suna Venter were suspended last week after opposing Motsoeneng’s instruction.

The action follows worrying City Press reports that the SABC has banned reading newspaper headlines on RSG and removed The Editors from SAfm’s AM Live. Also of concern are claims that SABC Chief Operating Officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng has ordered that no negative coverage of President Jacob Zuma be broadcast.

“There is no situation we can imagine where the COO of a public broadcaster should be banning news coverage, or forbidding negative commentary on the president,” says Rawden. “Such actions equate to media censorship and should not be tolerated.”

Rawden also notes the damaging consequences such restrictions have for journalists and other news staff. “They are faced with a problem of conscience in whether they should inform the public, and risk suspension, or obey orders that violate the most basic concepts of democracy, and keep their jobs.”

South Africa ranks 39th out of 179 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF’s) Press Freedom Index 2016.

South Africa’s constitution protects freedom of speech and our very diverse media, particularly in Chapter 2 of the Constitution of South Africa containing the Bill of Rights, Section 16, which states: 1. Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, which includes –
A. freedom of the press and other media;
B. freedom to receive or impart information or ideas;
C. freedom of artistic creativity; and
D. academic freedom and freedom of scientific research

SAFREA supports strong protest expressed by PEN South Africa and the South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) at the SABC. SAFREA also supports media staffers and unions who wish to serve the South African public by doing their jobs.

SAFREA calls for the SABC to lift the suspensions and to commit itself to transparent and even-handed news coverage, “without fear or favour.”

The National Press Club fully supports this statement by SAFREA.

From the horse’s mouth

On 7 June 2016 the National Press Club held a discussion evening at emBARgo about the SABC’s decision to no longer show footage of the destruction of public property during protests.

The panelists were Hlaudi Motsoeneng, COO of the SABC, Anton Heunis, SABC advisor, Joe Thloloe, veteran journalist and Press Council director and Alet Pretorius, former photo editor at Beeld. The discussion was facilitated by National Press Club chairperson, Tanya De Vente-Bijker and received widespread publicity.

This video was produced for the National Press Club by the Boston Media House Television students. Thank you very much!
View the video:

From the Regulators
The ‘ordinary reader’ and Jessie Duarte

Good journalists connect the dots to shed a new light on existing facts. The ‘bigger picture’ is, however, exactly what landed the Mail&Guardian in hot water with the Press Ombud.

The newspaper published a graphic accompanying a story with the headline” ‘Gupta-owned’ state enterprises”. In the graphic, showing several influential people connected to the Guptas, ANC heavyweight Jessie Duarte was included due to her family connections with the Guptas via her former husband and son-in-law.

Duarte complained that she should not have been included in the graphic as the ordinary reader “would or could” conclude that she could be susceptible to influence to benefit the Gupta family. Press Ombud Johan Retief agreed with Duarte, ordering the publication to apologise to her.

He said in his finding: “I have little doubt that the ordinary reader would have interpreted both the graphic and the text to have meant that Duarte had some kind of relationship with the Guptas, and that she was in a position to influence business decisions for the benefit of that family.”

The newspaper’s disclaimer that the links “are indisputable in some cases, and circumstantial or minor in others, and there is no evidence of the named directors and advisers doing anything untoward” didn’t change the fact that the ordinary reader could have drawn an inference of possible impropriety.

But when the matter served before the Appeals Panel of the Press Council, a far more nuanced construction of the ‘ordinary reader’ emerged. The panel noted that they have previously wrestled with the concepts “inference” and “insinuation” and the fine line between connecting the dots and hinting at something that couldn’t be stated outright.

Insinuation, the panel says, is a “popular and powerful journalistic tool, opposite the requirements of the Press Code and established precedents in South African law”. This time, the panel considered guidelines in legal precedent about who the ‘ordinary reader’ is. The following emerged:

  • It is a reasonable, right-thinking person who is not of a “morbid and suspicious mind”. It is someone who is not “super-critical” or “abnormally sensitive”. (Channing v South African Financial Gazette)
  • The ordinary reader does not jump to conclusions, reads the article with reasonable care and gives the meaning some thought (Golding v Torch Printing and Publishing).
  • The ordinary reader considers the context of the article, including the headline and images, rather than seizing on specific aspects (Cele v Avusa Media Ltd.)

Duarte’s representative cited different case law, noting that “the court must take into account not only what the words expressly say, but also what they imply” (Args Printing & Publishing v Esselen’s Estate). The ordinary reader also doesn’t have legal training and would “skim through it casually and not give it concentrated attention, or a second reading” (Sindani v Van der Merwe).

The Mail&Gaurdian’s prominent disclaimer, contained in the third paragraph of the article, weighed heavily in the panel’s decision. The panel therefore held that Duarte was portrayed fairly as the depicted connections are accurate and the ordinary reader was cautioned against jumping to conclusions. The Press Ombud’s finding was set aside and the newspaper doesn’t have to apologise to Duarte.

The ruling gives guidance for when journalists use that “popular tool” of insinuation and inference by connecting the dots. Central to the decision of whether something is portrayed accurately and fairly, is: “What would the ordinary reader read here?” If it is only the sensitive, suspicious or super-critical who would jump to the wrong conclusions, feel free to connect the dots.

Original Press Ombud finding | Appeals Panel finding

Herman Scholtz [BA(Media), BPhil (Journ), BCom LLB, LLM (Info and Communications Law)] is the legal advisor of the National Press Club and news editor of Rapport.

Facebook to put friends, family ahead of media

Facebook said this week it would give friends and family more prominence on user feeds, a move that may hurt media outlets that rely on the network to draw readers.

The social media giant said in a statement that the goal of the “news feed,” which appears when users log in, “is to show people the stories that are most relevant to them” and that its update “helps you see more posts from your friends and family.”

The move comes after the world’s biggest social network came under scrutiny over allegations by a former contractor that it was suppressing some political viewpoints in its “trending topics.”

Facebook said its review found no bias, but that it would take steps to reassure users about the neutrality of the platform.

Its vice president Adam Mosseri said in a blog post that an updated algorithm that determines what users see would help people find information that matters to them.

“We are not in the business of picking which issues the world should read about,” he wrote. “We are in the business of connecting people and ideas – and matching people with the stories they find most meaningful.

“Our integrity depends on being inclusive of all perspectives and viewpoints, and using ranking to connect people with the stories and sources they find the most meaningful and engaging.”

Even though Facebook has emphasized it does not want to be a media provider, surveys show it has become a key source of news, even if users are drawn to the network for other reasons.

A Pew Research Center survey last month found 66 percent of US Facebook users get at least some news on the platform.

Global trends are similar. A survey across 26 countries by Oxford University’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism found 51 percent of respondents indicating they use social media for news, with 12 percent using it as their main news source.

Facebook was by far the most important source, used by 44 percent in the total survey.

Facebook engineering director Lars Backstrom said the update “may cause reach and referral traffic to decline for some pages,” but noted that one of the factors in prioritising posts will be “sharing” by users.

The latest tweak in the algorithm could thus impact news organisations that use Facebook and its 1.6 billion users to drive traffic and generate advertising revenues.

“This is another step in the continued devaluation of large publisher followings on Facebook,” said Joshua Benton, director of the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University.

The shift is “likely to be a momentous one for news organisations that rely heavily on Facebook as a major source of referral traffic,” said Benjamin Mullin of the Poynter Institute in a blog post.

But Jay Rosen, a New York University journalism professor, said the change was positive because it offers some transparency and focuses on Facebook users themselves.

“Your social graph comes first, not the public world,” Rosen said on his blog.

The tweak means that Facebook is “committed to the personalisation of News Feed as a kind of right that users have,” Rosen wrote.


Please send any news, suggestions or information for this newsletter to Martin van Niekerk at the secretariat on, 082 257 0305. Website | Facebook | Twitter