Why are critics so against Manyi’s ‘government newspaper’?

In March this year City Press newspaper revealed that Government Spokesperson and CEO of Government Communications and Information System (GCIS), Jimmy Manyi intended launching what was believed to be a government newspaper – despite already existing a free bi-monthly government magazine, Vuk’uzenzele – and many “critics” [or his critics, rather?] said this was ‘against the rules’, sort of.

Many others continued to criticise Manyi’s plan saying the government was going to spend a lot of money when in fact the money could have been spent on other more important service delivery activities and protects. This after the report alleged that Manyi would turn Vuk’uzenzele into a “tabloid newspaper with a print of two millions from next month [April 2011]”. This, however, is yet to happen.

City Press quoted Manyi as saying “the media is censoring a lot of government information” and that is why he had decided to launching the newspaper. The plan was launched by Manyi during a briefing to Parliament the previous week which GCIS presented as part of its strategic plan for the 2011-2014 and that the newspaper would be edited by former Beeld journalist and current managing editor of Vuk’uzenzele and GCIS’s Chief director of content and writing, ­Tyrone Seale, according to City Press.

Manyi’s frustration was because even when government, through its media conferences, had communicated many important issues – only one issue would be published by the media. And this is true and has been happening for quite some time. Even with his recent allegations that he intended reviewing government’s ad spend of about R1 billion – many critics, especially editors, journalists and media experts criticised the move, saying it was a punishment to the media for “censoring a lot of government information” by commercial media as Manyi was reported by City Press in March this year.

They say Manyi is doing this as a  punishment because the media is critical of government especially its position on the Media Appeals Tribunal and the Protection of Information Bill which is presently before Parliament for consideration before signed into a law that would see journalists going to jail for publishing information that would declared “confidential” or secret. The law would also see journalists going to jail for even being found in possession of this kind of information.

The newspaper reported in March that GCIS had already issued a tender for the newspaper which will initially be a 16- to 20-page “tabloid with a print run of between 1.7 million and two million” and that this would be the “biggest circculating (sic) publication in the country”. It quoted “industry insiders” who claimed that this could cost government more than ­R1 million to print just one edition.

Manyi defended his stance – which is yet to bear any fruits – saying government “want(s) it [the newspaper to be launched] on the streets, in every township and rural area” and that “it will be bigger than all of you guys [private media publications] put together”. He said the newspaper will continue to be free and would not be competing with any of the established private and mainstream media and that it will be distributed by government’s Thusong Services Centres. “It might create confusion. Don’t be surprised if we don’t allow commercial advertising,” Manyi was quoted as saying to City Press.

Although Media Professor Jane Duncan of Rhodes University admitted to City Press at the time that local newspapers did not represent the totality of South African opinion, she was, however, quick to crash Manyi’s plan, saying the newspaper was not the answer to addressing problems that Manyi had identified with the mainstream media [of not reporting on government activities and projects]. She said government should instead support independent newspapers and implement measures to ­diversify a rapidly consolidating industry and that if government was motivated by an attempt to ­ensure ­accessible newspapers, then it should rather commit more money to print media ­diversification through the ­Media Development and ­Diversity Agency (MDDA). “One can surmise that the ­government is hoping to establish a paper that will crowd out the critical voice of newspapers and give its activities a positive gloss”.

One is also not sure why government would want to launch a newspaper or revamped Vuk’uzenzele as Manyi is reportedly planning as it is still not clear, as Duncan said, whether that would be the answer to all these problems identified. And saying that, too, is not to say government should not launch its own newspaper. But before that is done, a few things need to be sorted out, one of which has been identified byDuncan that independent newspapers should be supported. But more than this, local and community newspapers through MDDA, is one factor that Manyi may have overlooked which he may have to reconsider or strengthen if he might be of the opinion that the agency, by established to run and maintain these local and free newspapers, has not achieved what it had set itself to achieving.

That critics just criticise Manyi without having assisted on how better the mainstream media can report on government activities and not just the way alleged by Manyi is not helping the situation either. Instead, it creates the impression that they are okay with some of the negative media reports government has had to endure from the mainstream and commercial media and over the years and that it is still okay that government has not seen its “return-on-investment” on its R1bn of ad spend most of which is spend on the print media. Therefore, how true is this understanding of the criticis’ criticism of government decision, or lack thereof, on how it wants to be reported on by the commercial media and what its “return-on-investment” on its ad spend expectations does not make sense?

Fikile Ntsikelelo-Moya even partly agreed with Manyi in May this year following his revelation of the launch of a government newspaper the previous month that Manyi “makes perfect sense when he says government should not leave its responsibility to communicate with citizens to editors of commercial media” and that the “right to freedom of expression should not be a freedom that is exclusive to the media”. Ntsikelelo-Moya said the right to start a newspaper “must not be withheld because we [the media] don’t like how some will possibly use their right [that government would abuse its right]”.

He said he was “not even sold on the argument that this project is wrong because the state will be using taxpayers’ money”, the same money it had used in communicating its message, activities and projects on the same commercial and mainstream media (my emphasis). And he was, however, quick to say government does tend to spend a lot of money on projects that do not immediately sell themselves as being in the public interest, naming the Arms Deal saga as such example, but admitted that indeed that the government does with “citizens’ trust and money is obviously in the public’s interest, and this is why newspapers communicate these things to citizens”.

Ntsikelelo-Moya said it would all be thanks to his “professional tribe” [media commentators] for branding the newspaper “Manyi’s newspaper” if people would not read the newspaper that was meant for them to “engage with their government”. He said blaming the state for people not reading the paper provided for free was like “blaming the lottery company for the poverty of a man who has kept his winning ticket in his pocket” and even went further than many of his “professional tribe” to acknowledge that although the role of the citizens and the media is to be critical, the newspaper, too, had to provide “value for money” and that it should not be seen as the “[ruling] party propaganda machine”.

He said if this would be the case, then we would have to “punish” government by removing it from power and that if we don’t we would “deserve the shameful government” we have. And that’s true.

South African National Editors’ Forum (SANEF) also criticised Manyi, saying newspapers “do not see their role as publishers of all information produced by the government” and that theirs [publishers’] was to “take great care to ensure that they publish important information supplied by the government or information about the government and its activities in the public interest”. SANEF’s Raymond Louw said Manyi’s decision to publish a government newspaper was regarded as censoring editors and therefore seen as a “serious omission in light of the important charges he has levelled against newspapers”.

He requested Manyi to “supply examples forthwith” where the media had been “censoring a lot of government information” as he allegedly told City Press newspaper in March.

The Freedom Front Plus also criticised the move as the ruling African National Congress’ ‘propaganda’. Its leader, Peter Mulder, said it “not acceptable in any modern democracy for the government to use taxpayers’ money to convey party political propaganda to voters”.

He said government was “abusing its position of power when it threatens newspapers with a government newspaper in competition with existing media” and that this “infringes on the essence of media freedom in a democracy”. Mulder said there was a “huge difference between ANC propaganda and state information”. He said: “this principle is such a serious founding principle of democracy that the issue could end in theConstitutional Court”.

According to Mulder: “In all modern democracies there [are], however, clear guidelines to define this state information. These guidelines prohibit taxpayers’ money from being used to advantage the governing party at the expense of opposition parties”.

The problem here is that everyone seems to be against the government newspaper – for a number of reasons, many of them known to many opposition political parties and the critics themselves – yet they fail to provide a better way on how government could be reported better than it presently is. And by reported “better” one is not referring to uncritical of government failures, but that where government is doing well, that must be acknowledged without fear or favour or what other commercial media would say or how competitors would “view us”. Would they view us as “pro-government” or “anti-government” because report government as fair as possible “without fear or favour”? some would ask.

Director at the Centre for Small Business Development at the Universityof Johannesburg, Thami Mazwai, wrote in Business Day newspaper in May on how “astounded” he was at the way in which many “commentators, opposition parties and some parts of the mainstream media came out against a proposed government publication to inform citizenry of government services and programmes”. Like me, objected to the Media Appeals Tribunal or any law that is contrary to Press and Media Freedom – Mazwai, however, said this does not mean that the ANC “does not have a case” against mainstream media’s way of not only covering government successes, but more especially its failures – but that its coverage of the government was, too, was a headache.

Mazwai said journalists saw themselves as “custodians of societal morality – as above the rest of us”, that there is even a “sickening attitude that says that while we cannot give information on government services, nobody else must”. He also acknowledged that achieving and maintaining what Manyi had set himself for by launching the newspaper would be “difficult” as GCIS does “not have the deep pockets the mainstream media have” and “nor will it be able to attract the same level or depth of talent”.

And this makes the “case for the commercial media to forge closer ties with the publication because, like it or not, its offering is important to its readers” and that “it’s also good for long-term social stability”.

Other media critics, including Elvis Masoga, a senior researcher at the Institute for Dialogue and Policy Analysis, also told Sowetan newspaper in March that there was not need for a government newspaper. Masoga said: “The government must perform and the independent media must objectively report about its performance”.

This reminds me of what Philip Meyer said a while back on his “Can Journalism be fair?” analysis that: “If truth is whatever works for you, there is no need for journalism”.

Do we therefore need a government newspaper?

This, I must add, is not a “yes” or “no” question.

First published at I Like What I Write.

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