The media have it in for former deputy president Jacob Zuma, says Ranjeni Munusamy in this article written for There's no other explanation for the routine flouting of standard ethical practices. Where did the relationship go wrong?

Ranjeni Munusamy writes:

It is a worthwhile exercise to try and pinpoint when the media’s relationship with Jacob Zuma went awry. It’s not as if editors and journalists always detested him. To the contrary, not too long ago, many senior journalists and editors were in awe of the ANC Deputy President.

During 2001 and 2002, when Zuma, then South Africa’s Deputy President, mediated the Burundi peace negotiations, he would host Sunday morning briefing sessions with the media at the Presidential Guest House in Pretoria. The mood was laid-back and good-natured as every Gauteng-based journalist of note gathered around him to listen and understand the intricacies of Burundi politics.

No one seemed to mind sacrificing their Sundays to listen to – let’s face it – complicated details about a process not really at the top of the agenda for the average South African and not exactly headline grabbing stuff. But we all went, in very large numbers, and soaked up every minute of the discussions that often stretched to over three hours.

Clearly it was not Burundi that was the crowd-puller. Even hard-boiled journalists were not immune to Zuma’s charisma and relished the opportunity to engage with the man, drawing as much knowledge as they could from him. I recall editors remarking at the time: “He is really presidential”.

Skip ahead to 2006. Journalists, particularly editors, used every possible centimetre of editorial space to rubbish, ridicule and condemn Zuma. Not even the architect of apartheid or perpetrators of heinous crimes of humanity have ever evoked such a response from the media in South Africa. Every rule of fair play, objectivity and balance is breached in the coverage of Zuma – and excused away by the minders of the profession under the banner of the “public’s right to know”.

It is common practice now for Zuma not to be asked for comment by journalists writing articles about him. How the public’s right to know justifies this continuous flouting of such a basic journalistic tenet, we have yet to find out.

So although information contained in articles about Zuma can range from the bizarre to the ridiculous, he does not have the opportunity to say so. If he is afforded that basic right to comment, it is possible that only 10% of news traffic about him would be plausible. It cannot be discounted that journalists and editors are aware of this and therefore deliberately trade on innuendo, untruths and hyperbole.

In recent months for example, the Mail & Guardian has run a plethora of stories about Zuma ranging from his alleged policy positions to “talks” with businessman Tokyo Sexwale about ANC succession. The stories quote Zuma “strategists” or “advisors” or whatever other expressions the journalist can come up with to conceal someone who elevates himself to speak on Zuma’s behalf without asking his permission to do so. No matter how many times it is explained to the Mail & Guardian that the information contained in these stories is drivel and that the source is misrepresenting Zuma and his views, the newspaper persists in peddling lies. Not once did the journalist attempt to verify the allegations with Zuma himself before proclaiming it to the world.

Any person or any organisation vaguely associated with Zuma or seen to be supporting him – the “Zuma camp” as popular parlance would have it – suffers the same fate. Cosatu, the South African Communist Party and the ANC Youth League have been bludgeoned in the media, their leaders derided and their internal processes destabilised through false reporting due to their support for Zuma during his battles with the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA).

It appears that the mandate given to political journalists is that if there is nothing destructive or negative to report about these organisations or people, make something up. Stories and headlines do not have to be true in order to sell newspapers, it would seem. It also appears that headlines containing the word “Zuma” top the charts. How else would one explain why City Press endeavours every week to have “Zuma” in its front page headline even if the story has nothing to do with him?

“NIA in Zuma ‘plot’” screamed the City Press headline on February 11 this year. The story was in fact about the offices of the mayor of the eThekwini council being “swept” by the National Intelligence Agency in search of surveillance devices. The story actually had nothing whatsoever to do with Zuma. But the newspaper stated that “some” (not even an unnamed individual or a quote from faceless voice) who believe the sweep may have been linked to Durban’s ANC leaders supporting Zuma to succeed President Thabo Mbeki. Thus, through convoluted logic and hazy innuendo, we arrive at this imprecise headline.

It cannot be disputed that Jacob Zuma is a newsmaker of note and that the people of this country never seem to get enough of him. The problem is not the copious amount of editorial space dedicated to Zuma but rather how journalists and editors allow their personal abhorrence to influence how they project him. Editors have gone to the extent of using editorial space to appeal to citizens to thwart Zuma’s political career, and to convict and sentence him in the criminal trials against him long before these cases were concluded. Such unprecedented behaviour cannot be the media simply executing its watchdog role – not when so many in the industry act in chorus to flout journalistic codes and any semblance of balance and fairness.

The question that must be asked is how it came to be that there was such a dramatic swing in the media from admiration and respect for Zuma to utter revulsion. The answer lies in the events around mid-2003, at the height of the former head of the NPA’s crusade against Zuma. The combination of the illegal character assassination of Zuma and the simultaneous leakage of untested and personal information led to editors and journalists being convinced that Zuma is prime evil.

What unfolded consequently is the media becoming an active participant in the political battles of this country rather than acting as the mirror reflecting them. Why none of those editors who attended Bulelani Ngcuka’s off-the-record briefing took advantage of the cordial relationship they had with Zuma preceding this event, and asked him about the accusations made against him, we will never know. It seems only logical and frankly critical that all of them would have endeavoured to do so.

Tragically, not one of them did. Among the numerous casualties that resulted is the healthy engagement between the media and the political leader it once saw as “presidential”.

Of late, many leaders of the Tripartite Alliance refuse to engage with some editors and journalists as they question their bona fides. Nothing can be more inconsistent with a dynamic democracy than a media and a political leadership that does not trust and engage each other.

The time has passed for pleasant Sunday morning discussions. But it is not too late for the media to abide by its own codes and ethics, start reporting fairly and to afford everyone the right to reply.

* Former Sunday Times journalist Ranjeni Munusamy now runs the Friends of Jacob Zuma website. This column was written for

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