The media should be ashamed of the reporting of the president's private life, writes Blade Nzimande, general secretary of the SA Communist Party in Umsebenzi Online.  The affair has highlighted the need for a discussion on balancing individual rights as contained in the Bill of Rights and freedom of the press, and has shown up the inadequacy of the press ombud.

Blade Nzimande writes in Umsebenzi:

The ongoing treatment of the private life of the President of the Republic, Cde Kgalema Montlanthe, will perhaps go down in South African media history as the beginnings of its 'tabloidisation' and, much more seriously, the erosion of whatever credibility it still had. This dirty delving into the private life of the President, and the use of a clearly discredited, if not emotionally unstable, source constitutes reckless and highly irresponsible journalism. It is a race to the shameful bottom! In fact this is a very serious abuse of press freedom, something that should ordinarily be of concern and offend the common sensibilities of all decent South Africans.

However, since there seems to be no outrage at this, as there seems to be a new media practice gaining ground in South Africa. This new media practice, perfected through the public persecution and maligning of the President of the ANC, Cde Jacob Zuma, is that it is an acceptable habit to dig into whatever 'dirt' and to fabricate smears against leaders of the ANC and the Alliance. In essence freedom of the press now means freedom to attack ANC leaders, almost without any limits. No similar digging is directed at all those leaders in the Opposition – not that digging into people's private lives is something that should be done on anyone.

Media 'sources' have now become anyone willing to make any allegation against ANC leaders. Without bothering to double check the credibility of these sources and their political or personal agendas, journalists are happy to use them as long as that would cast doubt on the integrity of ANC leadership. How else does one explain using a young woman as a source, but denies all she has said before? To add insult to injury, the media gets her surname wrong! I suppose, just like under apartheid, 'black surnames are not real surnames, as they are not in the dominant languages of South African print media'!

In the midst of all this, media oversight bodies are suspiciously silent about this very serious abuse of media freedom. This is not surprising; as some of us have consistently been saying that these oversight bodies are toothless as they are themselves part of the very same media they are supposed to judge impartially, including the inadequacy of penalties meted out to media outlets found to have lied or violated the rights of those unfairly covered.

Why is it that the Press Ombuds or SANEF, for instance, have not proactively taken up this issue, and condemn the editor and journalist involved for this flagrantly irresponsible journalism? Part of the problem, it would seem, is that unless a complaint is lodged, these institutions take no proactive action on their part. Where are the Anton Harbers, Franz Krugers and Guy Bergers? At the very least we would have expected an initiation of a public debate about the role of media in this whole fiasco.

Whilst most of media has been complicit in this, the Independent Group of newspapers should be particularly ashamed about this whole episode. When the political editorial team of the Independent Group publicly pronounced that it will cover the elections fairly, we rightly poured cold water on this commitment, and we are being proved right!

The SACP has for instance lodged a formal complaint with the Press Ombuds about some of news coverage by the Independent Group. In fact the editors in this group should undertake a very thorough soul-searching exercise about the nature, standard and quality of their journalism and editorial policies. The editors are also possibly aware about how and why my alleged attempts to besmirch the name of the President were fabricated.

Such a soul-searching exercise must include an honest assessment of the extent to which some of the journalists in this group are, wittingly or unwittingly, being used to pursue agendas aimed at sowing division and confusion within the ranks of our movement. In addition a question needs to be asked as to whether South African media has actually not become hostage to 'information peddlers', disguised as sources, exploiting its gullibility for tarnishing our leadership at any cost?

A discussion is urgently needed on balancing individual rights as contained in the Bill of Rights and freedom of the press. Clearly, the press ombuds is an inadequate mechanism to deal with this. Reflection is also required on the constitutionality of the procedures used by the Press Ombuds that require a complainant to surrender his/her rights to take the matter further through the courts.

In any other democracy, an editor who had published such a false and offensive article aimed at damaging the reputation of their Head of State, would have resigned in shame, and the journalist who produced such claptrap fired. The media industry would have been outraged and condemned such behaviour. But not in South Africa! The editors and media watchdogs who parade as paragons of morality, glibly denouncing the conduct of political leaders, suddenly lose their voices when one of their own stands accused of shameful behaviour. Incidentally, who should guard the guardians?

Instead this week SANEF issued a bizarre warning that journalists could become targets of violence and intimidation during the election period. This appears to be a convenient decoy to divert from loss of credibility, compromised ethics, political agendas and decline of standards of journalism in the South African media.

The ANC's Polokwane conference resolved to explore the setting up of a media tribunal. To the media, this proposal has become a red rag before a bull, including distortions that this means censoring the media. One feels that this proposal must be revisited, specifically to address, through a simple and affordable process, more punitive measures where media has been found to have violated individual rights.

The media industry should stop "crying wolf" about imagined threats from the ANC government. There is no such. Instead it is time to face up to the fact that something has gone horribly wrong with South African media.

* Blade Nzimande is General Secretary of the SACP. This article first appeared in Umsebenzi Online on 18 February 2009