with due respect we tell it like it is

Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya

Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya

Executive Editor

It has become the cheapest of shots to fire a broadside at a newspaper by calling it sensationalist or "tabloid" if it decides to write a story that those in authority or who it affects would rather not see published.

It is similarly easy to go on the defensive and seek to invoke the right of freedom of expression or the public's right to know when we in the media are actually choosing the easy route to extra sales.

For many readers our story on Monday, about President Kgalema Motlanthe, fitted in the first category. Many of you made your feelings known by writing letters and by telling radio stations what you thought of the story.

To recap, the story answered a question that many have asked, sometimes privately, about why it is that the president of the republic has not been seen in public with his spouse.

Our story said that the president and his wife are estranged and that he is, as a result, a lonely man.

Apparently that was offensive. We went too far, we were told.

I will be the first to concede that carrying the phrase "he sleeps alone like a monk" might have been offensive to some readers. For that I apologise, unreservedly.

Unfortunately some people, including those who said they did not read the story, concluded that we were attacking Motlanthe. If they had taken the effort to read it or to suspend their emotional outburst until they had, they would have realised that we wrote an article sympathetic to the president's living arrangements.

Nowhere do we blame him or his wife for the fact that they are estranged. Marriages are difficult and it is not a reflection on the character of any party if they are struggling or even choosing to terminate it.

We repeat our point of departure: having assumed the highest office in the land, President Motlanthe cannot be treated like an ordinary citizen. Furthermore, much as it may not be of public interest who the first lady is or what the president's domestic arrangements are, it is definitely legitimately interesting to the public.

That is why media around the world ran reports about Michelle Obama - not because anything hinges on what she does or does not do but because of her proximity to power. The same goes for a South African first lady. We are interested in who she is and if she is not seen, we are curious to know why that is the case.

We also accept that this may not interest every single reader of this newspaper but we believe that there is enough interest in that story to report what we know of the matter.

We do not buy into the notion that South Africans are interested only in their politicians in a one-dimensional way - which is whether they are doing their jobs or not.

Certainly, there are some whose sole interest is "developmental issues" but we are not a Development Bank journal. We are a general interest newspaper.

No newspaper can claim that every article it carries meets the interests of every single reader. We are no different.

Another point raised was that we used unnamed sources. Truth is, if all stories relied on named sources, very few stories would be printed. Ultimately the test is not so much whether sources' names are published. What is of relevance is the credibility of what they say. You can have named sources but wrong facts.

As I write, nobody in authority has said that we got it wrong and where we got it wrong. If they do, we will apologise and we will write off our sources' credibility.

What we will not do is take instructions from politicians, however powerful and respectable they might be. We are here to serve readers to the best of our ability.

It is not enough that one or other politician prefers that a story not be covered.

If we succumb to that, we will be betraying the legacies of the likes of Aggrey Klaaste and Sam Mabe.

There is an argument that it is not in African culture to talk about people's marital status. I would sympathise if the argument was that it is not in African culture to discuss people's marital problems in public.

We did not discuss the issues pertaining to their marriage and we blamed none of the parties.

But, if African customs are anything to go by, then those advancing that argument will have to concede that in many African communities - both traditional and contemporary - people place certain significance on whether a person is married or not.

At social clubs married and unmarried members tend to separate themselves. Many a wedding speech has warned the newlyweds of the dangers of associating themselves with unmarried people.

This is not meant to say that such divisions or advice should be treated as appropriate or sacred. It is meant to reflect that there are many instances where, in African traditions and communities, people's marital status is a factor that enables some people to judge where they choose to place a particular individual.

We cannot over-emphasise the fact that we respect the president and the office he occupies. That is why our story did not place a value judgment on the president's marital situation.

But we will never pretend that certain questions don't exist.

Our responsibility to this great and respected institution is to give our readers the answers they seek.