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Zuma flirts with media, but...

President Jacob Zuma appears to be flirting with the media once again, seeking to rebuild burnt bridges by referring the sector as an important communication tool for government and reiterating his administration's commitment to media freedom.
However, with issues such as Media Appeals Tribunal, Protection of Information Bill and ANC "mediaphobes"' jibes directed at some journalists still top of mind in media circles, can the president truly mend broken hearts?

According to South African Government Information, Zuma told media owners at a summit on Friday in Pretoria: "Your products - from newspapers, magazines, to radio stations and television channels - provide a platform or mirror to project South African life and society. (See full address.)

Meeting an attempt to engage with media?

Head of Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) William Bird told yesterday: "I think these comments speak to a significant discord between some in the media and some in the ANC.

"It is part of the same debate we have been having for over a year now where the government feels the print media portray them in a biased manner. Their response in its most extreme form is the idea of a Media Appeals Tribunal.

"The recent meeting suggests an attempt to engage with the media. Where the ANC has legitimate points, the media need to respond and challenge them where they don't."

While Bird acknowledged that SA media has quality issues, he said the same can be said about government.

Fix what needs fixing

"Our response is not to say we should get rid of government but rather to say we need to fix and build capacity. It is similar in regards to the media," he said.

"We need to fix it, but limiting media freedom as would occur with a statutory Media Appeals Tribunal would be like preventing government from doing its job in order to encourage it to do its job. We need more open dialogue and to focus on hearing the issues."

The Presidency said the two parties also discussed the government's proposal to withdraw alcohol advertising, as it was concerned about the negative impact of alcohol abuse on society, especially on the poor.

However, industry leaders seemed to disagree, arguing that advertising withdrawal might seriously impact on jobs and business.

Not an arm of the government

Shepherd Mpofu, of Wits University's department of media studies, told yesterday: "Zuma is mistaken when he expects the media to act and behave as if they are an arm of government. Media is private business, and to a certain extent is in business to make money.

"That's why the media would argue that stopping alcohol advertising would impact on jobs and revenue. And nothing is said about the society that the makers of beer want to keep hopelessly drunk. In a way the ANC must act and protect society from destruction. That's the duty of the government and this doesn't need the media to agree or disagree on."

Nothing new

Furthermore, Mpofu said it would be an unfair assessment and unfair advice to ask the people of SA to take the president and the media seriously. "Not that the two are bad, but whatever they say must be treated [with caution] and taken with some salt.

"Zuma gives a very good and honest report to the captains of the media industry. However, there is nothing new or Superman-like in what he says... He should be believed and respected after delivery and not romantic speeches."

Mpofu said while the media is the heartbeat of democracy, it is not however a separate power on its own, adding that lines must be clearly drawn if newsrooms wish to claim a place in the nation building project.

About Issa Sikiti da Silva: @sikitimedia

Issa Sikiti da Silva is a winner of the 2010 SADC Media Awards (print category). He freelances for various media outlets, local and foreign, and has travelled extensively across Africa. His work has been published both in French and English. He used to contribute to as a senior news writer.



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