Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Online Letter
Dear friends and fellow South Africans,
If the Government Communication and Information Service had announced the launch of a state newspaper this morning, most of us would have written it off as an April Fool's joke. But this is, unfortunately, a serious intention of the GCIS which it has taken to Cabinet.
This raises all sorts of questions about competitiveness, about a commercial media versus a state media, the cost to the taxpayer, the need for another newspaper and, of course, whether this will be a vehicle for ANC propaganda or a balanced channel of government information.
Mr Jimmy Manyi, Government Spokesperson and soon-to-be Editor in Chief of South Africa's largest publication has boasted to the media that, "It will be bigger than all you guys put together." Yet he insists that it won't cost any more than is already spent on producing Government's magazine Vuk'uzenzele, because they intend simply to turn Vuk'uzenzele into a tabloid.
Vuk'uzenzele has a print run of 1.6 million copies every two months, at a cost of R40 million a year. Mr Manyi tells us that Vuk'uzenzele the tabloid will have a print run of 2 million copies, every month. It will be published in all eleven official languages. And the GCIS has not ruled out the possibility of making it a daily. That perhaps, is the most absurd part of all, considering the limitations Government faces with distribution through its service centres. A daily paper would be an utter waste of resources.
But anyone with a basic understanding of mathematics can see that the magazine and the tabloid are not going to cost the same to produce.
The GCIS is well aware of this. In a briefing to the parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Communication two weeks ago, the GCIS admitted that it intended to ask Cabinet to allow it to access 15% of the communications budget of every government department.
Mr Manyi, who often exposes his agenda through his loquaciousness, has said, "This newspaper is just the first early steps that we are packing on. We want to make sure government is not a secret service.
We want to make sure all avenues of getting the news out will be entrusted to us." The news is not something one would want to entrust to Government, which already holds the purse-strings of the SABC.
Government argues that commercial editors pick and choose only parts of the three page press statements Government puts out and, for the sake of the public interest, all the information should be made available. This, they say, necessitates a government newspaper.
But all information is selective. Disseminating every single piece of information about Government's decisions and activities would be impossible, unless one is willing to produce an encyclopaedia every day. But let's not inspire Mr Manyi any further.
The task of holding Government accountable is not performed by publicizing what it gets right, but rather what it gets wrong. The telltale sign of a communist or autocratic state is a front page filled with good news stories. Throughout the world, it is only in communist and autocratic countries that government spends taxpayers' money to celebrate its own successes, glorifies the ruling elite and tells citizens how they should see reality.
Let us not forget that the ANC wanted a Media Appeals Tribunal to protect it from newspapers publishing false information that made it look bad. I wonder if having a bigger, stronger and richer newspaper of its own will nullify the need for a Tribunal in the ANC's view, because it can counter anything the media says through its own publication. Clearly the ANC is looking for a way to control the news without having to rely on the same channels everyone else does. The Spokesperson for the ANC Youth League recently weighed in with his opinion that "the Press Ombudsman is useless."
Mr Manyi has expressed concerned that the public only sees Ministers driving around in big cars and staying at fancy hotels, but doesn't get to hear of all the hard work they put in. In some ways, I agree that it would be beneficial to make the public aware of what government is doing for our country, not only because we have a right to know, but because it would raise national pride. But I cannot bring myself to believe that the ruling Party would not abuse this vehicle to paint a rosy picture that is not representative of the truth.
For instance, Vuk'uzenzele is supposed to be a channel through which answers to parliamentary questions are publicized, so that citizens can see their Government being held accountable. But what about the mile long list of questions that are asked by MPs and never answered?
It is a fact that Government Departments seldom respond on time to parliamentary questions put by the opposition, and frequently fail to respond at all.
If Vuk'uzenzele the magazine is a foretaste of Vuk'uzenzele the tabloid, let us consider an article from the magazine to test its objectivity. I recall reading about the launch of the presidential hotline in the November 2009 edition. It opened with a touching feel-good story about a widow in Mount Frere in the Eastern Cape who had called the hotline after battling unsuccessfully for three years to access her husband's pension. The hotline sorted out her problem within two days.
It was interesting, a year later, to see the announcement that 72 299 calls were received by the hotline within its first year of operation.
Interesting, because in response to a parliamentary question eight months into the project, the President said they had already received 674 864 calls. Perhaps the figures were downgraded to cushion the fact that only 30 540 callers had had their problems resolved.
The most recent edition of Vuk'uzenzele the magazine reached MPs this week. I had a look at its letters page, for there have been suggestions that while commercial newspapers edit letters from the public, Vuk'uzenzele the tabloid would give it to us straight - the unadulterated views of the average citizen.
The first letter in the March 2011 edition announces a literacy programme Government has produced. The next letter thanks Vuk'uzenzele for being "the best magazine I've ever seen." Another details statements made by the President in his State of the Nation Address.
Another reads, "many people do not appreciate what government is doing for them." In fact the only letter that actually asks a Minister to take action on schools that have no textbooks or proper buildings, is answered by the Editor as follows, "Education and rural development are among government's key priorities for the next five years." That is not encouraging.
I find it very difficult to believe that Government will not abuse the platform of a state newspaper to blow its own horn, at taxpayers' expense. I would be interested to see whether other political parties are given any opportunity to contribute, or even whether the Editor in Chief of Vuk'uzenzele the tabloid will publicize the service delivery victories of IFP-led municipalities.
The other aspect of this debate is the withdrawal of hundred of millions of Rands worth of government expenditure on advertising in commercial newspapers. Mr Manyi initially said that the new tabloid would not replace government advertising in the media, but is now talking about possibly having private companies buy advertising space in the government publication. So if you want to advertise your business in the country's largest publication, you will need to pay twice; first to print the paper with your taxes and then to place your advert in the paper. Beyond being insulting, there are a variety of complications in terms of conflict of interest.
The Association of Independent Publishers has pointed out that many independent community newspapers have gone bankrupt and been withdrawn, while Government did nothing to assist their continued existence. Yet now it is able to come up with millions of Rand to produce its own publication on the premise that communities have a right to access to information.
The idea of a government newspaper is not an April Fool's joke. But I fear it is inimical to the very matrix of democracy. As far as the IFP is concerned, we are still the champions of truth. We know that it is dangerous and deeply insulting to make promises to the people that cannot be kept. That is why we work in partnership with our people, listening and seeking their opinion. Seeing things the way they are, brings us all closer to solutions. Painting rosy pictures doesn't help South Africa.
Yours in the service of the nation,
Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi MP