June 10 2011
The government's R1-billion-a-year advertising budget is a plan to bribe newspapers to publish only its view of news and affairs, the South African National Editors' Forum (Sanef) said on Thursday night.
Sanef said it condemned the plan to allocate the budget in a way which favoured newspapers which assisted the government “in getting its message across” and which “told the truth about service delivery”.
This meant newspapers would be bribed to become government propagandists or mouthpieces, it said in a statement.
“This would be a serious offence against the freedom of the media clause in the Constitution, which the government has sworn to uphold.
“Freedom means liberty and particularly conduct where financial inducement or threat plays no part.”
Announcing the plan on Thursday, government spokesperson Jimmy Manyi reportedly appealed to the media to not only criticise, but report on important information which South Africans deserved to know.
He voiced concern that some media organisations criticised information from the government instead of reporting it to the public.
While the government welcomed media criticism, it was also important for the media to “pass on” government information, especially on service delivery, he said.
“We have content, please pass it on... Government is serious about information getting to the people, we don't apologise about that.”
Manyi said approval of the strategy would result in “a return to government's centralised approach to media buying”.
“Government Communication and Information Services (GCIS) will procure media space/airtime for national departments in order to realise economies of scale. Government, through the GCIS, will monitor and enforce adherence to the government brand,” he said.
Sanef said journalists and newspaper managements would view with “abhorrence” this attempt to coerce the press, which would contravene the Press Code of Conduct and the Advertising Standards Authority's rules.
The plan ignored the consequences for the government's reputation overseas, especially among investors, and that of the news media, which was highly regarded internationally.
Another result being overlooked was the effect on the European Union, which was steadfast in upholding media freedom and would reject as unacceptable any government bribery of the press.
“That would mean the end of any prospect that Planning Minister Trevor Manuel would become a senior officer of the International Monetary Fund,” Sanef said.
It reminded the government that several attempts to use the threat to withdraw advertising as a means of punishing newspapers for being outspoken and critical of official malpractice and corruption in South Africa had failed.
In Botswana, the Supreme Court had forced the government to abandon such practices, it said.
“Sanef calls on the government to drop this scheme immediately and to revert to accepted professional principles in the placing of advertising before further harm is done.
“It is also urged to refrain from persisting with its hostility towards the press.”
In 2007, the then-minister in the presidency Essop Pahad said he was considering stopping the government's advertising in the Sunday Times, after critical reports about the then-health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang.
Later that year, the possibility was raised of a media appeals tribunal to replace the existing self-regulation of the media.
In 2010 a working paper on the issue was published, but earlier this year ANC spokesperson Jackson Mthembu said the ANC would stick to the current model if the press council imposed measures that “discourage irresponsible reporting”.