South Africas Leading Newspaper Disputes Allegations of Reporting Irresponsibly on Xenophobia

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By mid-May 2008 xenophobic violence had reached new levels in South Africa that forced tens of thousands of immigrants, mostly from Zimbabwe, Malawi and Mozambique, out of their homes and burning businesses to the streets, shelters, or back to their native countries. The riots spread to seven of the country’s nine regions and left approximately 62 people dead and more than 1,000 injured.The complaint says the paper has failed to provide readers with alternative or preventative measures to the violence and has lacked neutral and balanced government and government agency representation.
Since the end of apartheid, millions of African migrants have been lured to South Africa’s booming economy by liberal immigration policies. As deep-seated problems involving failures in public and socioeconomic policies to blatant racism and xenophobia have been revealed, the country’s image as a progressive African country has been significantly tarnished.

Over the past fifteen years, the gap between the rich and the poor has widened and the official unemployment rate is at 23%. More palpable problems such as power shortages, President Mbeki’s unpopular pro-business policies, and skyrocketing food and fuel prices have also compounded tensions contributing to the May violence.

Known to the locals as Amakwerekwere, there is a litany of accusations being waged against immigrants, many of who get hired more easily in the job market. They are often labeled as ‘thugs’ or ‘aliens,’ inside and outside of the media, who steal wives and much-needed jobs from the poorer black populations in the country.

The Daily Sun has been pinpointed as one prominent source for anti-immigrant sentiments. We have commented for years now on the Daily Sun’s stereotypical and xenophobic coverage, their coverage during the violence was only different in its regularity and column inches, said William Bird, Director of MMP, to RAP 21 on this latest move against the paper.

“The newspaper’s headlines such as ‘Alien Terror’ and ‘War on Aliens’ is inappropriate and its reporting has had the effect of supporting the recent violence by perpetuating stereotypes of foreign people,” said MMP project coordinator Sandra Roberts after filing the complaint.

Foreign nationals are blamed for all sorts of things ranging from violent robberies, rape, sale of drugs, robbing [South Africans] of their jobs and their women. You find all of this in theDaily Sun. Yet, ironically,in their own newspaper, rarely will one findthe name of asingle foreign nationalin the MOST WANTEDlist of theSouth African Police published in newspapers, said Kenyan journalist Clifford Derrick who lives in South Africa, to RAP 21.

“The coverage of non-nationals by the Daily Sun during this period is not in line with its responsibility to fair, balanced, accurate, and non-discriminatory reporting, contravening several fundamental clauses of the South African press code,” said Roberts.

In support of this claim, the organisation Media Tenor found that in the run-up to the violence there was persistent negative coverage of immigrants, as published in the 4 June 2008 report Lessons in the rear-view mirror: Reporting on foreigners in South African media.

Media Tenor analyzed the biases in reporting in 1,085 reports from 26 media outlets (6 dailies, 10 news broadcasts, 5 weeklies and 5 financial media sources) from January 2007 to April 2008. From the study it was found that the Daily Sun had the largest number of stories that focused on immigrants and also the highest rate of presenting the story in a negative light.

However, Fergus Sampson, CEO of emerging market products for Media 24, which represents the Daily Sun, defends the papers role. “It has become a voice for a large segment of the population that was previously voiceless and that has been its key role,” he said to RAP 21.

The editor of the paper, Themba Khumalo also spoke to RAP 21 on how he has chosen to report on the violence in South Africa. “We have reported on the issue as it has moved forwardwe reported on events as they occurred,” he said.

Sampson continued to say, “And what Khumalo has tried to do, because that is the approach of their paper, is to search closely at the heart of the matter to try and explore why people are behaving in this way and to try and reflect that part of itwhat traditional media would expect is poor victims and evil perpetrators and that is just all. But our approach has been to seek reasonable solutionsto stimulate debate and discussion in our nation.”

Though part of the papers alleged approach continues to include a set of words and phrases that are contentious to parts of the countrys population. Sampson said to RAP 21 that he has some editorial issues with using alien for foreign nationals. Though overriding his understanding of why such words should be avoided he said, What is the next word and does it stop with the next word? How far do you want to clean up our language and when does it spill over into word control? And where does editorial independence and integrity lie?
What is disturbing is that they expect people to buy [the freedom of speech argument] as some justification for disseminating stereotypical and discriminatory news stories, said Bird.

Though Bird said to RAP 21, “We have not suggested that the use of the word alien be banned. We have however suggested that the manner in which it has been used by the Daily Sun on an ongoing basis has come to be loaded with a series of extremely negative connotations and stereotypes.”

Alongside defending their editorial approach, Sampson and Khumalo are suspicious of larger trends that could possibly arise from the complaint: Are we going to start a whole bureaucratic process and where does it end, where is the final line? Are we starting to directly step onto freedom of speech, a pillar of democracy? Why arent we dealing with the causes of it instead of looking at the peripheral issues? We should go straight to the cause of this explosion in South Africa, said Sampson.

Bird sees an incongruence in their argument: I think it is extremely ironic on the one hand to argue that to stop using the word “alien” might limit media freedom and on the other, be blatantly discriminatory, xenophobic, biased and fail to take cognisance of our context and South Africa’s history, he said to RAP 21.

Bird also alluded that the MMP has not circumvented the real issues at hand with how the paper reported on the violence and with what diction. “One of our major concerns was that they failed to condemn the violence, until it was all but over,” he said. Also, in regards to taking the stance of re-telling what happens as it occurs, a conventional media form, Bird said, “it suggests media can do very little but simply tell it as they see it.”

On the contrary, Sampson said, ” It istraditional media [that seeks] the drama and then immediately seek[s] to be on the side of the good or the virtuous There is nothing wrong with that approach. He continued to say, however, that the Daily Sun has done the oppositethey say they have told the story as it unfolded to, as Khumalo said, very intelligent people who are able to make up their own minds, who are able to digest things and try to find a place where they fit. They are not just robots or machines that you just feed and programme and get them to move into a particular directionthey are in control of their thought processes.

As the country tries to handle the complex problems arising between the sundry groups that make up the Southern cone of Africa, press ombudsman Joe Thloloe could have a critical role to play in this process.

– Published on Rap 21

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