Rent a crowd protest - an attack on media freedom

| Shireen Mukadam
Protesters for and against Iqbal Surve at yesterday’s R2K protest. Photo by Gareth Dawson.

Cape Times editor Alide Dasnois was fired by Iqbal Surve, executive chairperson of the Sekunjalo Consortium, the day after Mandela’s death.

The same day the paper led with a story about irregularities in the awarding of an R800 million tender to a Sekunjalo subsidiary by Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson.

I immediately suspected that something didn’t quite seem right.

As a journalist and human rights activist I was appalled. The principle of editorial independence was the first one I learned at the Independent Newspapers Cadet school earlier this year. Known as the indivisible ‘Wall of China’ between management and editorial, this separation prevents interference in content and is ultimately a safeguard against political or financial conflicts of interests dictating what is published.

When Right2Know (R2K) announced a protest to demand editorial freedom, I decided to join to defend a principle I believe in. The protest turned out differently to what I anticipated. As I walked toward the entrance of Newspaper House yesterday, I heard a brass band playing. It must be passing through town, I thought. It sounded like a carnival.

It was 12:20pm, ten minutes before the Right2Know picket was due to begin. A huge crowd had already gathered. The brass band was there, amidst a sea of people, defined by their different coloured t-shirts and posters. In green t-shirts were Agang supporters who too had opportunistically come to support the march. Journalists I recognized as staff from Independent Newspaper titles were also there.

But I soon realised that the band was accompanying a small group on the periphery of the protest. Some wore ANC t-shirts and carried posters which read: “Fire All Racist Journalists” and “Fire Tony Weaver”. I was puzzled. The posters they carried were not hand-painted. They were glossy and printed in color- unusual for activists.

What is this group? I wondered. What I soon realised was that the group was there to deliberately detract from the R2K protest and create a counter-protest.

The R2K campaign organised the protest, and had applied for and successfully been granted permission to protest. The other group had not and their activities were clearly meant to disrupt.

I witnessed a conversation in which Mark Weinberg, the National Coordinator of R2K, and Zackie Achmat sought the police’s advice. The police acknowledged the counter-protesting group did not have permission to protest, and police would allow five minutes before they were asked to leave.

By 12:45 the music subsided and the counter-protesting group began to disperse.

Weinberg got up onto a bench and addressed the crowd. After singing the national anthem, and speeches by Mary Burton, Terry Bell and Achmat, Manenberg community leader Roegshanda Pasco read out the R2K memorandum before it was handed over to Independent Newspaper General Manager Sally Naude and CEO Tony Howard.

Photo by Shireen Mukadam.

I left the protest at 1:20pm with an uneasy feeling, which was reinforced when I stumbled upon tweets about the event later that afternoon.

@ANCwcape, the official twitter page of the ANC Western Cape tweeted:

MTMSA [Movement for Transformation of the Media] arrived outside Cape Times offices to find a group of white people protesting, but 1000 people came out to counter them.

Western Cape needs transformation. #MTMSA leading transformation through opposing #R2K and their racist stance.

Right2know campaign is standing for racial division. Why are there no protests at Cape Times when black editors/journalists are fired?

MTMSA is made up of various organizations and individuals concerned with the slow pace of transformation in the media space

MTMSA consist of umbrellas bodies such as Western Cape Social Economic Development Forum that’s has hundreds of civil society organizations


Other organizations participating in MTMSA include SANCO, Nafcoc, Youth progress forum, various faith based organizations, PPF and others

The group carrying the glossy color printed posters at the protest were part of MTMSA, who had launched their movement at a press conference a few hours before the planned R2K protest-at a suite in the Mandela Rhodes Place.

Is there a link between the ANC and MMTSA? T.O Molefe asked the question via Twitter:

Is MTMSA an ANC Western Cape campaign? If not, what’s the ANC Western Cape’s role in it?

The ANC replied:

ANC Western Cape is just putting out MTMSA statement for citizens of this country to see both sides of the coin

The tweet that grabbed my attention, was by @UnequalSA:

@IqbalSurve @MTMSA2 R2K and Zackie Achmat had 50 mostly white protesters whereas we had nearly a thousand from all walks of life #mtmsa.

What concerned me most about this tweet was its racial undertones. The supporters of R2K are not of a single racial denomination. Instead, R2K supporters consist of people, all kinds of people, with a common support for transparency and accountability. Secondly, MTMSA did not have 1,000 supporters at the protest. More like 50 at most.

The counter-protesters had expensively designed posters. Photo by Nielen de Klerk.

Yet this tweet was retweeted by three profiles, Iqbal Surve, the ANC and Leanne Neethling.

On her twitter account, Neethling tweeted:

@helenzille sends in DA police in Cape Town to remove supporters of @IqbalSurve & Sekunjalo. @Eusebius disgusting

This tweet really threw me- particularly since I witnessed Weinberg speaking to the police about the issue of permission to protest. Zille was nowhere near, nor did I see any DA supporters. The question of who had permission to protest yesterday was unrelated to party politics. It was solely to do with due legal process.

Earlier in the morning, Neethling tweeted:

@IqbalSurve @Eusebius Come and join movement for the transformation of media (MTMSA) in support @IqbalSurve & Sekunjalo against R2K picket.

Who is Neethling, and why would she posit such an inaccurate piece of information, I wondered. Her twitter profile says she is a “Researcher”. A researcher for whom?

A quick bit of research divulged that Neethling is currently Policy, Investor Relations and Research Officer at Sekunjalo’s Chairman’s Office.

Nelson Mandela said in 1994, “A critical, independent and investigative press is the lifeblood of any democracy. The press must be free from state interference. It must have the economic strength to stand up to the blandishments of government officials. It must have sufficient independence from vested interests to be bold and inquiring without fear or favour. It must enjoy the protection of the constitution, so that it can protect our rights as citizens.”

What yesterday’s event demonstrated is a blurring of boundaries and arising conflicts of interest between politics, business and media ownership.

You can follow the author on Twitter @ShireenMukadam.

TOPICS:  Civil Society Corruption Human Rights Politics

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