Supporters of the ANC’s media tribunal have been given ammunition following reports that a Mpumalanga journalist admitted to writing stories that favoured Premier David Mabuza ahead of the ruling party’s elective provincial conference, says a political analyst.
This week independent political analyst Zweli Mncube told African Eye News Service (AENS) that the scandal involving Mpumalanga News journalist Mbekezeli Mbuli would serve the interests of those calling for a media appeals tribunal and the so-called Secrecy Bill.
“Though his individual actions cannot destroy the chances of the industry’s fight against the media tribunal and the Bill, they have given their advocators much needed ammunition to state their case,” said Mncube.
The appeals media tribunal is in a discussion paper within the ruling party after complaints that the media’s self-monitoring measures were not effective.
The Protection of State Information Bill, otherwise known as the Secrecy Bill, is a controversial law that the ANC majority passed in parliament in November last year. It aims to protect state secrets. Those found guilty of being in possession of classified state information can face up to 25 years in prison.
The Bill was passed despite objections from Emeritus Archbishop Desmond and civil and human rights organisations.
Mncube said although he does not support the tribunal or the Bill, he understands why there have been calls for them to come into effect as most media houses had failed to monitor themselves.
“Yes, we understand that journalism will not make you rich, but we cannot allow journalists to write unverified stories and destroy people’s lives just because they are given a brown envelope,” he said.
The analyst added that Mbuli should be commended for finally admitting that he was wrong.
“I just hope he realises the damage he has done to the industry and his publication. He should not be persecuted because he admitted his actions were wrong,” Mncube said.
In February, Mbuli wrote a story in which he quoted a non-existent Professor Robert MacMillan who questioned the leadership of Mpumalanga health and social development MEC Clifford Mkasi. The story was published in Mpumalanga Mirror, a biweekly-insert that goes in all regional papers under the Caxton publishing group in Mpumalanga.
Mkasi has been punted to challenge Premier Mabuza as provincial chairman in the upcoming ANC provincial conference within the next two months.
In a recording which is in the possession of African Eye News Service, Mbuli can be heard admitting to Mkasi that he had been influenced to write the story. The article said Mabuza was the best politician to run the province while suggesting that Mkasi, who is a medical doctor, should go back to medical practice.
After a long question and answer session with Mkasi, Mbuli can be heard saying he wrote a series of stories against the politician because he had been promised a job at the Mbombela local municipality, which administers the capital city.
He said people close to the premier had also promised him that there was a BMW waiting for him at the premier’s premises in Barberton.
“My aim, my aspiration, even now doctor… where I am working, the money is very little, I wish to go to government, that’s the main thing that I told myself I would get in the end… I was promised that I would get in government,” Mbuli can be heard saying. “That’s the only, only dream I wished for that made me join sides. To achieve that is to join a side that has promised you a job… Even before I started writing, I used to apply for a job within government but I knew that without any affiliation you cannot get any position.”
On Wednesday, Mkasi told AENS that he was intending to take libel action against Mbuli and Mpumalanga News/Mpumalanga Mirror for defamation of character.
“I am suing Mbuli and his publication. Though he admitted putting his by-line in the pre-written article, he failed to tell me who is behind the agenda to tarnish my name. I have already consulted my lawyers and they are drafting relevant legal papers.
“Unfortunately he admitted that the Professor Robert MacMillan does not exist, otherwise we would probably be suing the Professor as well,” Mkasi added.
Caxton community newspapers national editor Kennedy Mudzuli referred all questions to Mbuli’s bosses in Mbombela.
Mbuli also referred questions to his bosses at Mpumalanga News.
Mpumalanga News editor Bongani Hlatshwayo, who was also present at Mbuli’s confession to Mkasi, said he would not comment on the matter until they received papers from Mkasi and his lawyers.
“I will not comment on the MEC’s intention to sue because we have not received any papers from him,” said Hlatshwayo.
Asked if the publication would take disciplinary action against Mbuli, Hlatshwayo could only say: “We will issue a statement when the time is right”.
In another article, Mbuli also quoted South African Communist Party (SACP) provincial representatives saying the SACP supported Mabuza for a second term as ANC chairman.
SACP provincial secretary Bonakele Majuba later denied that the SACP had spoken to Mbuli, forcing Hlatshwayo to write a letter of apology to the SACP.
In the letter dated February 22, Hlatshwayo wrote: “In reaction to your email dated 17-02-2012 concerning our report: Mbekezeli Mbuli must have certainly caused conflict between us and the SACP. After thorough investigation with the said reporter, (Mbekezeli Mbuli) on the issue of mentioning your organization, he submitted that he did not speak to the Provincial Secretary Comrade Bonakele Majuba but had spoken to other comrades within your circles whom he says are the ones who informed him of the alleged divided stance of the SACP on the said issue at hand.”
Provincial ANC spokesman Paul Mbenyane refused to comment saying the “matter has nothing to do with the ANC”.
“The ANC Youth League nominated Mkasi to be ANC chairperson of the province before branches made their nominations.
We have noted with regret these developments because the ANC’s name is mentioned, but we are encouraged by the fact that Mpumalanga News has committed to investigate this matter,” said Mbenyane.
Attempts to get comment form the South African National Editors Forum (SANEF) were unfruitful as both its chairman Mondli Makhanya and the executive director Femida Mehtar were said to be held up in a meeting on Wednesday.