Propaganda will harm us all

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The signature of South Africa’s current day journalism is a practiced calligraphy of prejudice and propaganda. While media is philosophically and ethically vested in and beholden to facts and truth, in practice many of today’s journalists are the very antithesis of honorable truth-sayers. With pens dipped deep into a politically partisan inkwell, the daily script of South Africa’s mainstream media is a column of conjecture and conspiracy.

Working to a daily prescription  of partisan propaganda-before-proof  styled reporting, our media offers up a high dose of allegation and very little truth, damaging rather serving public good. “I get subjected to the most unfair reporting in the media” says our Public Protector, Advocate Busiswe Mkhwebane. “Things have reached a point where even my comment – solicited ahead of publication of predetermined negative news stories – is not incorporated due to, I am told, word count considerations”.

The Public Protector goes on to say “When I want to rebut inaccurate and misleading articles, I am denied a right of reply”. It is dangerous. Especially in our un-diversified media landscape. The great revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin warned that “A lie told often enough becomes the truth”.

The media’s blatant dishonesty, its innuendos and insinuations  largely goes unquestioned. This is because as author of Animal Farm and 1984, George Orwell, wrote “people will believe what the media tells them to believe”.  But it is also because the media strikes down those whose voices dare to challenge and pierce through the master power relations and narrative.

Our Public Protector, promises to be the personification of a political leader wedded to public good. Her unflagging dedication to  fulfilling her Constitutionally-prescribed duty to serve ‘without fear, favour or prejudice’ has seen a rabid attack on her person and Office. Why? Because in her own words  “I have dared to touch powerful institutions and individuals”.

Speaking about her treatment by media, the Public Protector has said “On taking radio or television interviews, I’m subjected to the most demeaning interrogation while everybody else is treated with professionalism and dignity”. A frenzied, vigorous, slow burn campaign is underway against Mkhwebane. There is a painstaking crafting of a deliberate misrepresentation to cast doubt through half truths and allegations.

She is being maligned as a malefactor; portrayed as public foe rather protector. And in this vicious campaign no alternative perspective is tolerated or allowed. In a thought piece entitled ‘Newspaper Morals’ published in The Atlantic way back in 1914, US scholar and writer Henry Louis Mencken describes the journalist as a  ‘mob-master’, who can manufacture indignation and outrage, break down public confidence and instill doubt about political leaders and individuals.

A concoction around Mkhwebane’s incapacity, misconduct and incompetence; the grounds for removal of a Public Protector, as provided in section 194 of the Constitution, is being slowly but surely brewed, conjointly, across media stables. Mencken writes “The public is not ready to switch from confidence to doubt on the instant; if its general attitude toward a man is sympathetic, that sympathy is likely to survive even a very vigorous attack. The accomplished mob-master lays his course accordingly. His first aim is to arouse suspicion, to break down the presumption of innocence”.

There is considerable artistry to mob-mastery.  Mencken says the journalist “knows that he must plant a seed, and tend it long and lovingly, before he may pluck his dragon-flower”. Mencken says It is in the “slow accumulation of pin-pricks, each apparently harmless in itself, that finally draws blood; it is by just such a leisurely and insidious process that the presumption of innocence is destroyed, and a hospitality to suspicion created”

The investigation by the Public Protector into allocations of money laundering by President Cyril Ramaphosa related to the Bosasa donation to his Presidential campaign has seen an intensification of attack against the Public Protector. Many are calling for her head. Journalists seem to be battling with fluency of facts. Amidst all the noise there is no evidence of any wrongdoing or incompetence by Mkhwebane. Neither is there any evidence of political factionalism, another recent claim against her.

If journalists honored facts they would show that there in no evidence of Incompetence. Quite the contrary. They would share the fact that since she took office, only seven investigation reports have been set aside by the courts on various grounds. They would explain that this is not an uncommon retort in law, and write about how High Court judgments get set aside all the time by the Supreme Court of Appeal and the Constitutional Court. Journalist with integrity would point out that only two of the seven reports set aside were signed by Mkhwebane  They would point out that this is just two of the 102 reports that have been issued under Mkhwebane

If journalists honored the truth they would not construct inflammatory headlines on how the Public Protector is targeting Minister Pravin Gordhan and President Cyril Ramaphosa. They would tell their audiences how the Public Protector has investigated allegations against a broad range of political figures including the  former Executive Mayor, Solly Msimanga, former Ministers Lynne Brown, Des van Rooyen and Malusi Gigaba.

We would all do well to remember the  judgement of a 2016 Constitutional Court judgement that stated that the powers of the Public Protector are very wide “that leave no lever of government power above scrutiny, coincidental ‘embarrassment’ and censure … Her investigative powers are not supposed to bow down to anybody, not even at the door of the highest chambers of raw State power”.

For as long as the blueprint for journalism strays from fair factual analysis we run the risk that truth and itself will be laundered and lost. For as long as we entertain the dumbing down the minds of South African and the manic, ugly labeling and muting of alternative voices, we are placing democracy in jeopardy. If we do not interrogate the inking of insinuations and innuendoes with due intelligence and integrity, we are party not only to the unfair degradation of individuals but to the wholesale desecration of truth, justice and democracy in South Africa.

When truth falls, we all lose.

Kim Heller is a writer and commentator.