Mail & Guardian
M&G’S public protector cartoon leaves a stain
The South African media is, in terms of the Press Code, entitled to comment upon or criticise any actions or events of public interest. Paragraph 7 of the Code provides for “protected comment” but the document does not define such comment.
Another document, however, seemingly prepared by the South African National Editors Forum, in which the 2019 version of the Press Code is unpacked, defines the “protected comment” envisaged in the Code as referring to “opinion pieces, editorials and cartoons”.
According to paragraph 7.2 of the Code, “[c]omment or criticism is protected even if it is extreme, unjust, unbalanced, exaggerated and prejudiced, as long as it is without malice, is on a matter of public interest, has taken fair account of all material facts that are either true or reasonably true, and is presented in a manner that it appears clearly to be comment.”
In its 18 March, 2021 edition, this newspaper published a Carlos Amato cartoon in which Busisiwe Mkhwebane is depicted as a public protector who is in the pockets of the so-called Radical Economic Transformation (RET) faction of the ANC.
The cartoon perpetuates unproven claims that have been peddled over and over, Joseph Goebbels-style by those in whose side Mkhwebane’s investigations have been a thorn, and their legions of loyal supporters in the media, civil society and political circles. This continues even when the courts have dismissed such allegations as unsubstantiated.
For instance, the Gauteng high court ruled in December 2020 that the allegation that Mkhwebane’s investigation of the Ivan Pillay pension matter involving Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan and the South African Revenue Services was politically motivated and informed by ulterior motives was baseless.
Accordingly, Amato’s caricature falls short of the standard imposed by the Code in that it fails to take “fair account of all material facts that are either true or reasonably true”.
This discredited claim of political motives in respect of the public protector’s investigations must further be exposed for the ruse that it is.
It is not within Mkhwebane’s personal knowledge as to which ANC politician belongs to which faction or whether those factions do exist. She, like many other consumers of news media products, learns from newspapers that so and so belongs to this or that faction.
But in a few of more than 60000 investigations that she has undertaken since October 2016, she has made adverse findings across the purported factional divide where evidence of wrongdoing existed.
To mention but a few, she made adverse findings against former Cabinet minsters Lynne Brown, Des van Rooyen and Malusi Gigaba and current members of the executive President Cyril Ramaphosa,
Gordhan and Fikile Mbalula. The same goes for the erstwhile premier and agriculture MEC in the Free State Ace Magashule and Mosebenzi Zwane respectively.
In fact, Brown and Van Rooyen were eventually relieved of their positions as ministers by Ramaphosa purely on the strength of Mkhwebane’s findings. This much was confirmed to her in two separate letters from the presidency.
All these and more render this tired fabrication that Mkhwebane is beholden to factions as nothing but vitriol, which does not accord with paragraph 7.2 of the Code.
As a holder of public office, Mkhwebane’s work and conduct are not above scrutiny. But any criticism must be constructive and backed up by facts. We must take our cue from the Constitutional Court, which cautioned in May 2020 against the emerging culture of taking cheap shots at the public protector.
The court warned: “The public protector is a constitutional servant, like the courts, and her office should be afforded respect. It is an office of fundamental constitutional significance and her powers are not only desirable but also necessary for the purpose, inter alia, of holding public office bearers accountable. Her role in our constitutional democracy cannot be gainsaid. While she may be criticised, these comments should not be perceived as undermining her office and its constitutional powers. To mount a bad faith attack on her office would surely work to undermine the constitutional project of the Republic.”
Amato, along with this newspaper, enjoys and is entitled to protected comment under the Code. But he will do well to ensure he goes about his work within the parameters of the Code. Any excesses in this regard can only serve to expose his prejudices and undermine the noble profession of journalism.