Internet/Telecom/Social Media

WAN 2007, Day 2: The Cartoonist, the Darkest Continent, and The Zuma – a man who would be king

“Why are you suing a cartoonist and what do you hope to achieve?” asked George Brock, president of the World Editor’s Forum, of Jacob Zuma, ex-Deputy President of South Africa and currently the Worst Presidential Candidate in the World.

The Zuma mulled his answer at lunch with 140 international newspaper editors on Day 2 of the World Association of Newspapers Congress in Cape Town. I watched from the table alongside him as his shrike-like personal assistant whisked the plate of food from under him and swapped it with that of his body-guard’s sitting opposite me. I wondered if the sweating on the guard’s face was a sign of poisoning or of just being preternaturally obese.

The Zuma cleared his throat, “I’m not just suing a cartoonist, you know? I’m suing a whole bunch of journalists and newspapers.” For US$ 9.3 million. “It’s the principle, not the money.”

Said Jonathan Shapiro, alias Zapiro, the cartoonist in question: “He’s not suing anyone over errors of fact. It’s the satirists and opinion columnists he’s trying to silence.” So, he doesn’t like people making fun of him.

“It’s unfair. I feel abused by the media,” said The Zuma.

“Take that chip off your shoulder,” declared Moeletsi Mbeki, contrarian brother of South Africa’s president and a noted economist, at a session on Africa in the media. He was referring to the way in which African leaders permanently act as if they’re being oppressed and abused by outsiders. He was echoing Van Zyl Slabbert, another ex-South African politician, who said, “Too many politicians confuse their political positions with having genuine intelligence.”

The themes of the day – African and new media – played out in striking prose and pose. Africa, in the opinion of African journalists and editors, is poorly understood, badly represented in the media and needlessly lampooned by the four Ds: “death, disease, destruction and despair”.

“You can’t make good news out of bad practice,” said Edward R Murrow.

Africa makes up less than 2% of world trade. Why should they take up more space than that in international papers? After all, the media exists – ultimately – as a partnership with advertisers and must have news that is relevant to readers so that products can be marketed and sold. In this new and old media are totally in accord. They are commercial enterprises.

And Africa is a hard sell. South Africa, it’s brightest light and dominant economy, has far too many areas of concern. Thabo Mbeki has reigned over a country which is stable but not remarkable. There is limited growth and little improvement in people’s lives, but it is – as mentioned – stable.

Property prices have grown remarkably here. If you had bought a property 8 years ago, you would now be benefiting from an increase of 300%. If you’re a retailer for any of the majors then you would find that growth was a sprightly 15%. Financial services and the stock market are also doing fine. Otherwise, you suck. Speculation on imports is rife. Local factories are falling apart and the textiles industry is in shock. Eskom, the monopolistic electricity supplier, has run out of electricity. Telkom, the telecoms monopoly, thinks that broadband can run over a long piece of string.

AIDS infection is running at well over 10% of the population. It is estimated that 900 people die a day from this creeping holocaust. Zimbabwe is a basket case and Africa is still incapable of dealing with their own problems. Take a look at the African Union’s troops’ response to the genocide in Darfur – they joined in, raping the refugees.

In 2005 the Deputy President, Jacob Zuma, resigned when his advisor was found guilty of corruption involving millions in our already corrupt arms deal (that saw us buying enough equipment to wage a medium-sized war). The judge in that case (who was not trying Zuma) proclaimed that the relationship between Zuma and Schabier Schaik (his advisor, who he was judging) was “generally corrupt”. Zuma denied anything but was, eventually, forced to resign when Tony Blair had a few words with Mbeki about how leaders are supposed to behave.

Then Zuma was arrested after being accused of raping a house guest. The woman concerned has been abused and raped on (if you believe the defence attorneys) a regular basis. The young woman is HIV positive, and a lesbian. He claims that she forced herself on him and, in any case, was wearing a dress, what did she expect. She claims he forced himself on her and that she was too shocked and terrified to protest. Zuma claims he didn’t feel the need to use a condom since he had a shower afterwards to wash off the virus.

He was found innocent.

This is the man who is still determined to become South Africa’s next president.

One could argue that his presence at an international gathering of editors is brave and statesmanlike. Honestly? I think he’s too dumb to notice that he’s got anything to apologise for. Ferial Haffajee, editor of the South African Mail & Guardian, who introduced Zuma at the lunch, was visibly appalled at having to shake his hand. She cringed and looked away as he tried to kiss her.

And while African journalists were trying to get the international media to take the continent seriously, the international media were studying the real business of the day: Web 2.0.

Adam Pasick has an alter-life in Second Life where, as Adam Reuters, he is Reuters Bureaux Chief on Reuters Island. He brings out a virtual newspaper, interviewing locals and bringing newsworthy outsiders to meet the residents. When he started there were 1 million subscribers. Now there are more than 6 million.

This is an extreme case, but the general trend of mixed-media newsrooms was echoed by many. David Schlesinger of the BBC: “After the London bombing we received a flood of images and videos from citizen journalists. Since then our engagement with bloggers and informal journalists has exploded.”

Dave Panos, of Pluck in the US, has created a Reuters-like service in which 3 500 bloggers, producing 1.5 million monthly submissions are aggregated into 100 different wire-service channels which are then sold on to media companies around the world.

The pace and volume of news is accelerating. Media companies are learning how to juggle the competing demands of high-quality journalism along with participative story-telling.

Africa isn’t even on the agenda.

2 replies »

  1. “AIDS infection is running at well over 10% of the population. It is estimated that 900 people die a day from this creeping holocaust.”

    …and as the BBC reported is undermining democracy because of the death of political leaders in the whole of Southern Africa.

    “Take that chip off your shoulder,