Friday, May 23, 2008

Treating Foreign Journalists as the Enemy

As if the xenophobic violence wasn't enough amid the lack of government's real concern and response, further evidence of deterioration of the ANC-led axis of evil is beginning to show.

When information is withheld, when ministers are reluctant to talk and answer tough questions, what we get is a bunker mentality where everyone else is seen as the enemy.

The signs are reminiscent of the Zimbabwe situation. Mad Bob began his reign of terror by silencing dissent and withholding the truth, eventually shutting down the free media.

A government that is not prepared to hear opposing views of its actions is a government of deceit.

We cannot allow the free media to be silenced or access to the truth limited.

My fellow South Africans, I beseech you, awaken from your slumber, your apathy, your passivity and start to fight back. Insist on accountability and answers from your government.

Stand up and say “enough!”

You have already lost many freedoms. Do not allow this most basic of freedoms – the right to information and free speech - to be added to the list.

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I drank the Kool-Aid on Thabo Mbeki's Zimbabwe diplomacy past midnight almost exactly seven years ago in a hotel room in San Francisco. It was administered by the late presidential spokesman Parks Mankahlana, who was to die tragically of AIDS not long after. I have been a believer ever since.

Mbeki was on his last extended visit to the US. As Business Day's US correspondent, I had secured a seat on the Boeing 737 carrying ministers, officials and other ancillaries in the wake of the presidential Falconjet. The trip took us from Washington to Atlanta via San Francisco and Austin, where Mbeki struck up a friendship with the governor, presidential candidate George Bush.

On the flight to the west coast, Carol Paton, then with the Sunday Times, and I were joined by then trade and industry minister Alec Erwin. I learnt most of what I know about trade policy that evening as Erwin gave us a private seminar on tariff peaks, bands and escalation, and SA's position on such arcana.

As we got off the plane, Mankahlana approached conspiratorially and asked me to come to his room when we reached the hotel. He wanted to show me something. It was already late, but this seemed too good to miss.

For the rest of the night and into the dawn, Mankahlana briefed me off the record, in detail and with documents to back it up. He described how his boss was working to head off Mugabe's coming seizures of white-owned farms by trying to broker properly compensated land reform with funding quietly raised from Saudi Arabia and, if I remember correctly, Norway.

I knew I was being spun, but the spin checked out. As a result, my trust was won. The tenor of my reporting and columns on Mbeki and Zimbabwe became more sympathetic. And thanks to Erwin's readiness to spend time with Carol and me , our writing on South African trade policy became more knowledgeable.

The rest of the trip provided further evidence of what effective media management could achieve. Mbeki's views on AIDS were already controversial and nowhere more so than in San Francisco, ground zero for the epidemic in the US. The president did not, however, flinch from doing a roundtable with local reporters, who naturally grilled him on the subject. In the following day's coverage he received the benefit of the doubt. The same thing happened in Texas.

All this came back to me as I sat at the International Media Forum in Johannesburg this week listening to foreign correspondents whose work does more to influence elite global opinion about SA than any other channel. They were not a happy lot.

Caroline Lambert of The Economist said official communicators often seemed to consider journalists "a nuisance who have to be kept at bay". The New York Times' Celia Dugger recounted her amazement at being told by a very senior government spokesman that she was being presumptuous when she asked a question about the generals Mbeki sent to Zimbabwe to investigate voter intimidation.

Alec Russell of the Financial Times wistfully recalled his experience during a previous tour in SA in the mid-90s, similar to my own in 2000. At that point, he said, journalists in SA had better access to the government than they did in the US where he later served. No longer, and this was a problem. "Politicians are not doing their jobs if they retreat into a bunker."

To be fair, officials and the mouthpieces have some legitimate gripes of their own. It is difficult to give reporters background briefings if they fail to abide by agreements to respect the confidence of briefers. But, as Russell said, walling off all reporters because of one or two won't play by the rules, is "bonkers".

Journalists such as Russell, Dugger and Lambert are not the enemy. They like this place. They recognise its importance, they want to get it right, and they are trusted by readers whose decisions have an effect on the lives of every South African. Feed the beast.

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