Bomb hoax followed by silence

PEOPLE in the vicinity of the Avusa head office in Rosebank would be excused for still wondering what the spectacle outside the building last Tuesday, complete with police, emergency vehicles and road closures, was all about.

PEOPLE in the vicinity of the Avusa head office in Rosebank would be excused for still wondering what the spectacle outside the building last Tuesday, complete with police, emergency vehicles and road closures, was all about.

Reading three daily newspapers - Sowetan, The Times and Business Day - all housed on the premises, would have left them none the wiser. There was not even a passing reference to the bomb scare that saw a frenzied rush to evacuate the 1200 employees.

Thankfully, it proved to be just a hoax that saw two and half hours of precious production time lost.

There is a simple explanation for the seemingly perplexing phenomenon. Newspapers loath to report hoaxes, fearing it will encourage pranksters.

Sowetan executive editor Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya says reporting on the inconvenience to the newspaper's operations would have been tantamount to navel gazing in the face of more newsworthy events.

Now, just imagine what would happen if the media were to similarly blackout news about the violent and messy municipal strike that has just ended. I raise this after strident demands by some readers that The Times and Sowetan ignore the protest, the effects of which linger to this day.

One reader claimed there were much more important stories to report. Others argued such stories put the country in a bad light.

Needless to say, such demands are unreasonable. Ignoring such uncomfortable stories would have the placebo effect of dulling our senses to the cancer that is eating at our nation - the propensity for violence and contempt for public property.

It would also be wrong and impossible for the media to pretend such upheavals in people's lives did not occur.

Ray Hartley, editor of The Times, asserts: "We report on strikes because they affect the lives of many of our readers very directly and are of significance to the economy. To avoid reporting on a particular subject because some readers don't agree with the aims of the organisation involved would be a slippery slope to reporting on nothing."

The media cannot be party to efforts to blind the public eye. They would be abdicating their primary role in a democracy, which is to inform the public.

Another important reason the media cannot and should not ignore such unsavoury stories is that doing so would distort history. Journalism is, after all, said to be the first draft of history. It is thus crucial that journalists present as full and truthful an account of history as possible.

Let me stretch this theme a bit and sneak in belated praise for Johannesburg high court Judge Frans Malan, who struck a blow for media freedom and open justice last week.

His decision to open to the media the preliminary inquiry by the Judicial Service Commission into allegations that Cape Judge President John Hlophe had tried to influence Judge Bess Nkabinde and acting Judge Chris Jafta to favour now President Jacob Zuma during his recent legal battles, augurs well for our nation's efforts to build a new, open society based on justice.

The tragedy, though, is that we're still bogged down in this needless battle 15 years after we officially defeated apartheid.

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