Crying wolf where none is in sight is bad

A FRIEND tells how several years ago, while driving through a tiny town in Eastern Cape, he saw a newspaper poster so catchy he stopped to buy the local rag. "Dandala replaces Sports Minister," it screamed.

A FRIEND tells how several years ago, while driving through a tiny town in Eastern Cape, he saw a newspaper poster so catchy he stopped to buy the local rag. "Dandala replaces Sports Minister," it screamed.

Much to his chagrin, he could not find the loftily-advertised story on the first few pages as one would expect.

After thumbing through several pages of useless information many times over, he finally discovered the tiny article buried deep inside. It glowingly told how a local man had ably filled the shoes of the politician - by speaking in his place at a graduation party!

Last week a similarly screaming poster about the Jacob Zuma love child furore filled my head with thoughts of Armageddon.

That's because I was hitherto mortified at the prospect of Zuma becoming president. That, to me, was a harbinger of doom for free speech. You might recall that before he became president of anything he was suing some of us for stratospheric sums. There was simply no love lost between us.

But Msholozi confounded all expectations when he addressed a South African National Editors' Forum dinner in Durban last June. Then, he committed his administration to upholding press freedom and respecting the independence of the SABC.

I thought the honeymoon was suddenly over when Sowetan declared "Zuma's threat to media" in its poster. As it turned out, the imminent danger to the media was nothing more than the president's recriminatory response to the public outrage sparked by revelations that he had sired a child out of wedlock.

Zuma's spokespersons, Vincent Magwenya and Zizi Kodwa, told me this week there was never any intention to "take the media to task" beyond the strong statement Zuma issued on Thursday.

In it the president blasted journalists for having allegedly violated his right to privacy and ill-treating his baby. He never raised even the possibility of complaining to the Press Ombudsman, the Broadcasting Complaints Commission of SA or the courts.

Nobody got jailed, no newspaper was closed and there was no bashing of heads and gnashing of teeth à la Zimbabwe. The alarmist news banner was misleading. The SA Press Code states that posters should "give a reasonable reflection of the contents of the reports in question".

It is one thing to be vigilant against the ever-present attempts to curb media freedom but crying wolf where none is in sight does our cause no good. It gnaws at the integrity of our message the same way misleading posters and headlines undermine the credibility of the media.

A lot has since been said explaining that citizens have a justifiable interest in how the president, whose salary they pay and who can be prejudiced when he acts unbecomingly, conducts himself.

What has not been sufficiently explored, however, is whether Zuma was right to invoke the Child Act and the Children's Act against the media.

Let's examine his statement that: "Our Constitution and our laws require us to protect children from harmful public exposure."

Our respective editorial policies and the press code also make this abundantly clear. The public did not need to know the baby's name. Her name does not affect our lives. In their admirable pursuit of the maximum truth the media forgot their corollary obligation to minimise harm.

I appreciate that all four-month-old babies look the same and that the storm would have died by the time she goes to school. One can understand why the Sunday Times, which broke the story, wanted to show its readers - and the president - that it could substantiate its story.

My inclination, however, is to opt for maximum protection for children. The story could have been just as credible without naming the child.

Readers' doubts would have been sufficiently allayed by a simple statement that her name had been withheld to protect her.