The Grahamstown municipality is subjecting historic Grocott’s Mail to a
damaging news and advertising boycott over unhappiness with coverage,
writes Phakamisa Ndzamela.

Editor Jonathan Ancer told the closing day of the Power Reporting Workshop held in Johannesburg recently that the relationship between the two was like a “rocky marriage”.

Ancer told delegates in the workshop that the municipality would not talk to the newspaper. As a result, “stories about toxic water crises, power outages, dumping, sanitation and the plight of people living in informal settlements” were often accompanied by the standard line “that the municipality cannot be reached for comment”.

“When we reported that the provincial African National Congress [ANC] had urged the mayor Phumelelo Maxwell Kate to step down his supporters set copies of our newspaper on fire,” said Ancer.

Ancer added that the Grocotts Mail did have positive reports on the municipality, such as on a job creation initiative they launched. The paper is closely linked to Rhodes University’s journalism programme, which uses the title in its teaching.

However, “despite offering the municipality a platform in our newspaper to engage with our readers, it decided that it would go it alone and it launched its own newspaper”. The municipal newspaper did not report on power outages and why R13 million could not be accounted for.

He said the loss of advertising as a result of exposing corruption in municipalities was a serious blow to press freedom and democracy.

“When local government disapproves of a community newspaper that it perceived to be critical, the newspaper is in danger of being denied access to information, despite the fact that we have a legal right to get answers to legitimate questions put to public representatives about public affairs.”

Ancer added that despite the presence of good intended access to information laws the municipality was still difficult to access.

He told a panel discussion on community newspapers that other challenges included tiny budgets, small newsrooms, lack of legal resources and tight deadlines without any wire copy to fall back on.

Numerous attempts were made to get comment from the Grahamstown municipality on this story, but without success.