The Media Must Not be Held Hostage by the Pro-Israel Lobby

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and South African President Jacob Zuma at the Union Building in South Africa. (Photo: via MEMO, file)

By Iqbal Jassat

Has President Jacob Zuma ever considered replacing his official spokesperson with David Saks of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies? Perhaps he should, for the two share an apparent desire to muzzle the media.

Zuma has many reasons to do so, and thus avoid media coverage of his corrupt administration. Fortunately, his government’s efforts to impose constraints on the media have not succeeded due to stiff resistance by the senior journalists’ organisation SANEF, among others. Is it required of the media to temper its so-called hostile stance on corruption and state capture, if Zuma considers it to be “unfair, lacking balance and harsh”? Does Zuma have a case?

As far as David Saks is concerned, this seems to be the demand that he is making in respect of media coverage of Israel. As reported in a local Jewish weekly, members of the Board of Deputies (SAJBD) and South African Zionist Federation (SAZF) met in Cape Town last February with Iqbal Surve, the owner of Independent News and Media, to complain about “mounting anti-Israel bias of the Independent papers and specifically The Star and Cape Times.”

Besides singling out two titles within the IOL stable, which many would view as a kind of witch-hunt, Saks explains that their gripe is the “hostile manner in which Israel was being portrayed, and how, correspondingly, the views of radical anti-Israel lobby groups were being overtly promoted, in both news reports and opinion pieces.”

Does this sound familiar? Such routine complaints are dismissed by the media fraternity when emanating from the presidency. After all, media professionals have to contend with reporting the harsh realities of South Africa’s political landscape, whether Zuma likes it or not. Why, then, should there be a different response when the topic in question is the apartheid state of Israel?

Different strokes for different blokes may have been the norm during the era of apartheid in South Africa, but thank goodness we’ve dumped that along with the evils of racial supremacy. Unlike, I might add, Israel.

What’s amazing about the complaint by the SAJBD and SAZF is that they’ve bypassed regulatory authorities such as the Press Ombudsman and gone directly to the newspaper owner. What does this mean? Is there an expectation that Surve’s authority over editorial policies is supreme and it is thus normal to have him unleash a three-line whip on his journalists? Or is it a reflection of a weakness which is unable to contest media narratives on Israel?

Whatever the pro-Israel lobby’s motivation might be, it is out of step with public opinion and displays total disregard for hard-won media freedoms in South Africa by going to cry on the shoulders of media owners and expecting them to manipulate editorial content, opinions and reports. No self-respecting owner — Iqbal Surve or anyone else — can or should be bullied into submission by powerful lobbies, no matter who they work for. It should not be countenanced under any circumstances, whether the complainant is Zuma or Saks.

The media’s ability to promote human rights and dignity cannot be held hostage by supporters of Israel’s colonization and settlement of the land of Palestine. Witch-hunts against individual titles and journalists should be dismissed as out-of-hand. We fought long and hard to rid our country of apartheid; we don’t need the influence of Israel’s version of the hated ideological creed to destroy our freedoms. The media must not be held hostage by the pro-Israel lobby.

– Iqbal Jassat is an executive at the Media Review Network in Johannesburg, South Africa. He contributed this article to 

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