The op-ed the New Age refused to publish

Note: The New Age last week refused to publish this opinion piece, despite originally offering to publish an 800-word rebuttal of an article the DA complained to the Ombudsman about in February. This is the second time that The New Age reneged on a commitment to deal with the complaint

By Gavin Davis

If you are reading this in a copy of The New Age, you are probably an official in a government department. Because we all know that government subscriptions make up the bulk of copies of The New Age distributed. Few people actually buy The New Age.

This is why The New Age refuses to become a member of the Audit Bureau of Circulations of South Africa (ABC), an independent organisation established to provide accurate and comparable circulation figures. The owners of The New Age don’t want people to know just how dismally it performs in the marketplace.

On 2 March, The New Age opted out of another body that mainstream newspapers subscribe to – the Press Ombudsman system. The Office of the Press Ombudsman is an independent entity mandated by The Press Council to ensure fair and accurate reporting in accordance with The Press Code.

The New Age’s withdrawal from the Press Ombudsman followed a DA complaint to the Ombudsman regarding a front-page article published on 2 February. The article, entitled ‘DA sees conspiracies where there are none’, was designed to discredit the DA’s claims that government advertising expenditure is skewed in favour of The New Age.

The article breached at least four sections of The Press Code because it:

  • Failed to reflect a multiplicity of voices;
  • The reporter did not attempt to solicit the views of the subject of critical reportage;
  • The headline presented the opinion of Minister Faith Muthambi as fact; and
  • The reporting was slanted as a result of political and commercial considerations.

There is no doubt that the timing of The New Age’s withdrawal from the Ombudsman system was related to the DA’s complaint. As the Press Ombudsman, Joe Thloloe, said: “Now, when we got the complaint about The New Age from the DA, The New Age was quite reluctant to respond to the complaint and when we contacted them, they sent a note stating they are pulling out of the system.”

In other words, rather than face the prospect of publishing a retraction and an apology, The New Age opted to pull out of the Press Ombudsman system altogether. In a statement on the matter, the CEO of The New Age, Mr Nazeem Howa promised to deal with the DA’s complaint “through an independent third party.”

When I forwarded the complaint to The New Age, the newspaper offered me an 800-word opinion piece to respond to the article in question. This is hardly a satisfactory resolution because it means that The New Age can avoid the embarrassment of apologising and retracting the story.

The alternative, however, was to wait three or four months for The New Age to appoint its own ombudsman to deal with the complaint. Even then, there is no way that an ombudsman appointed by The New Age, and on the payroll of the New Age, can be either independent or a third party. Under these conditions, the chances of a fair adjudication are nil.

So, let me take this opportunity to set the record straight.

The New Age is owned by a family with close links to President Zuma, and its editorial policy is to publish stories that present the Zuma administration in a positive light. SABC Chief Operating Officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng described The New Age’s editorial policy at a New Age Breakfast Briefing on 13 February:

“We as the public broadcaster, we are different to New Age but, at least, while we have this relationship with New Age, they share the same views with us: 70% good story to tell. And we must do that.”

Motsoeneng went on to berate Cabinet Ministers who still advertise in independent media outlets: “I don’t understand why you are spending money on people who are not even appreciating what government is doing,” he said.

These sentiments are not new. It was back in 2011 when then government spokesperson, Jimmy Manyi, declared that government-friendly media outlets would be rewarded with a greater share of government advertising expenditure.

This explains why the Department of Communications spent R 10.2 million or 11.2% of its advertising budget in The New Age in the last financial year, despite its small readership of 153,000 people. By comparison, significantly less (R 7.8 million) was spent on the Daily Sun, for example, which has a readership of 5.3 million people.

The New Age supports the government, so the government supports The New Age. But this is not government’s money to do what it likes with. Your hard-earned tax money – money that should be spent on healthcare, housing and schools – is being used to keep this propaganda pamphlet afloat. In the end, the only consolation is that relatively few people read it.

Gavin Davis MP is the DA’s Shadow Minister of Communications


The rise of social media in African politics

By Gavin DavisFacebook Africa

Opposition parties in Africa have struggled for decades in a media environment that favours incumbents. Of 54 African countries measured in the Freedom House 2012 press freedom index, only five were considered to be “free”. Press censorship and pliant public broadcasters mean that elections can be fixed before the first vote is counted.

State control of the media is not the only hurdle preventing parties from getting their message to the electorate. Many face the invidious choice of either giving journalists “petrol money” or having their press conference ignored. “It’s a pity that, as the party advocating for a corruption-free society, we find ourselves embroiled in this vice,” says Kasekende Bashir of the Liberal Democratic Transparency (LDT) party in Uganda.

Social media have the power to change all this by permitting parties to bypass the gatekeepers—reporters, editors and government officials—who shape or control the press agenda. The Arab spring in 2010–11 revealed how social networks such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube revolutionised political communication in North Africa.

In Africa only about 16% of the population have internet access—less than half of the world average of 34%, according to Internet World Stats, an online demography site. A shortage of electricity and broadband infrastructure, coupled with the high cost of hardware to access the internet, mean that most African countries find themselves on the wrong side of the global digital divide.

The good news is that a mobile revolution is sweeping the continent and bridging this gap. More Africans have access to a mobile phone than clean drinking water, according to Jan Hutton, telecoms director at Nielsen, a market-research firm. After Asia, Africa is the world’s largest mobile phone market, with 700m mobile connections. By 2016, there will be 1 billion—a mobile phone for nearly every person, according to a 2012 report by financial services firms Frontier Advisory and Deloitte.

While not every mobile phone has social networking capabilities, this is changing too. At the end of 2012, smartphone users accounted for 6% of Africa’s total mobile subscriptions; this share is forecast to rise to 18% by 2017, according to Thecla Mbongue, a senior analyst at Informa Telecoms and Media, a market-research firm.

Once mobile take-up reaches critical mass, social media may well become the only game in town. Many political parties realise that they need to be ahead of the game now if they are to win votes in the future.

At a conference on political communication held in Cape Town in November 2012, opposition parties from the Seychelles to South Sudan highlighted the rising significance of social media in their communications strategies. All agreed that starting the right conversations on social media and steering engaged followers in the right direction are the keys to future success. These online conversations among many individuals are gradually supplanting the one-way “broadcast model” of communications.

In Botswana voters no longer trust the media and are turning to social networks for their news, reported Winfred Rasina, spokesman for the Botswana Movement for Democracy (BMD). He spends an average of two-and-a-half hours daily updating the BMD’s Facebook page and interacting with potential voters.

Only 7% of its citizens access the internet, according to the International Telecommunication Union. But “Botswana has a population of only 2m people, which means that word of mouth travels quickly,” he says.

Trust in traditional media is in decline, particularly among the youth, says Fungisai Sithole, chief of staff of the Movement for Democratic Change in Zimbabwe.

“The current generation does not want to be treated as the ‘other’. They want to be engaged, they want to talk, they want to contribute,” she says. To get around the drawback of low internet access and the high cost of smartphones, the party has developed a bespoke platform that uses text messages to interact with voters and members.

Another party finding innovative ways to reach the electorate is the Civic United Front (CUF) in Tanzania. It has linked its social media platforms with popular youth websites and trained a team of young activists to respond to issues.

Abdul Kambaya, CUF’s national director for publicity, says that the success of this strategy is evident from the response it has elicited from its opponents: the party’s website was hacked and completely destroyed six months ago.

This is a cautionary tale. As more people begin to use social media for political engagement, so too will governments increase their efforts to curtail it. Finding ways to circumvent state censorship with sophisticated social media strategies will be a key objective for African opposition parties in the years ahead.

The mobile revolution is a potential game-changer in Africa, where media gatekeepers have exerted too much power for too long. Once the social media groundswell breaks, a political tipping point may well follow.

Gavin Davis is Communications Director at the Democratic Alliance.This article was originally published in the May 2013 issue of ‘Africa in Fact’, the journal of Good Governance Africa and republished in Rhodes Journalism Review, no. 33, 2013)