President Jacob Zuma makes all the right noises about media freedom. But he should put his money where his mouth is and drop the court cases against cartoonists and news organisations, writes Glenda Daniels in The Weekender.

THE contradictions in President Jacob Zuma’s relationship with the media are startling. On the one hand, his statements on the independence of the media and the importance of freedom of speech in a democracy, since becoming president, are flawless. On the other, he is persistently suing various media groups, and individual journalists, for millions.

Last month, Zuma received an undisclosed settlement from the Guardian newspaper in London for an article headlined, “Get used to a corrupt and chaotic SA. But don’t write it off”. The newspaper said those “dealing with SA must probably get used to Zuma's style of government — morally contaminated, administratively chaotic and corrupt". It quoted an unnamed friend of the author describing Zuma as “a criminal and a rapist".

Before he became president, Zuma’s relationship with the local media in particular was fraught with tension, all related to coverage of charges of alleged rape, fraud and corruption. Today the relationship appears to be mellowing. And, in fact, Zuma appears to enjoy a better and more charming relationship than former president Thabo Mbeki ever did.

In spite of this visible change, he has not withdrawn one single claim against the media.
Mbeki, for all his scorn and disdain of the media, did not issue a single claim for defamation, injury to dignity or offensive reporting, and short-term president Kgalema Motlanthe’s dignity must have been mortally wounded over an untrue story about his “three girlfriends”, one of whom supposedly was pregnant with his child. Motlanthe opted not to comment. But he used the available channels for complaints against the media, the Press Council, through which he obtained an apology.

Yet Zuma persists with his legal recourse. Surely, withdrawing the claims would show real commitment to the ideals he is espousing.

Last month at the South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) Nat Nakasa awards dinner, Zuma commented on the famous Hector Peterson picture by Sam Nzima, which depicted the first death of a youth in the Soweto 1976 uprising. Zuma described the photograph as “one example of the role that a few brave journalists played in exposing injustice and bringing about democratic change in our country”.
“Today, we look at these journalists, and to the media in general, as a vital partner in strengthening our democracy and promoting the rights for which our people fought,” he said.

“These rights include freedom of expression, which is not merely about protecting citizens from state censorship. It is about ensuring that citizens have the means to exercise this right.

“The media is an important vehicle through which citizens should be able to freely express themselves…. It was not only a struggle against censorship. It was also a struggle to give voice to ordinary South Africans to depict their lives as they truly were; to allow their concerns and views to receive free expression.

“We seek reporting that is credible and honest and informative. We seek comment and analysis that challenges us and provides fresh insight into our world and the challenges we face.”

Spoken like a true progressive.

A major Sunday newspaper editorial applauded his “unequivocal commitment to media freedom”, which should be “welcomed as much by media consumers as by journalists”. But the comment made no mention of Zuma’s claims against the media, nor of the fact that he is a known supporter of a media tribunal, which would see the media being ultimately accountable to Parliament. Should we just forget about these contradictions?

Media lawyer and commentator Dario Milo, partner at Webber Wentzel, finds it “puzzling and ironic” that Zuma “is making all the right noises as far as the media is concerned”, while persisting with the law suits. “Zuma just last year brought more claims against the media: in some cases, just days before the claims would have prescribed,” says Milo.

Since becoming president, Milo says, Zuma has not attacked the media nor has he displayed any bitterness about how he was portrayed. Nonetheless, he continues with his claims to get major money from the media houses, funds they can scarce afford. When asked about the great turnaround that Zuma has made in his relationship with the media, presidential spokesman Vincent Magwenya saidZuma had always been willing to engage the media in dialogue.

“From his side, he has never had a hostile attitude to the role of the media in society and the place it must be accorded in a democracy. He has been consistent in this regard. The turnaround you perceive might be attributable to the media’s change of attitude but on his part there has always been a consistency.” Magwenya said Zuma would criticise the media where necessary but his commitment to media freedom remained the same.

If Zuma dropped the claims against the media, his commitment to media freedom would seem more sincere and the contradictions would be less startling.

• Daniels is a 2009 Open Society Foundation media fellow. This article first appeared in The Weekender on 29 August 2009.