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Enter the unapproved blacks

Image: 123RF/mearicon

Tectonic shifts in media ownership that took place in the past few weeks would have been, in another time, more than a cause for celebration. But we are here now.

We have new, unapproved blacks, it would seem, now owning important newspaper titles. And consternation abounds.

Let's start at home and move outward.

When Fundudzi Media announced it has bought Sunday World from Tiso Blackstar, the EFF released a fairly innocuous statement congratulating Fundudzi director David Mabilu for the transaction. A reporter for amaBhungane, Micah Reddy, sent questions to Mabilu and characterised the EFF statement as "excited".

Well, whatever! He then claimed that Mabilu's name "cropped up" in the VBS report of advocate Terry Motaung.

Mabilu then said to me he's inclined not to respond to the questions because it was apparent what the reporter intended to do - to throw mud regardless of the answers. As a media freedom campaigner, I felt a duty to encourage him to respond.

He sent me a copy of his response, which clarified that he was never accused, never had to answer even one allegation relating to VBS and, instead, lost money trying to expose the rot at VBS. He is mentioned only as a shareholder of some company.

So Reddy ignored the response and still wrote that Mabilu's name "crops up" in Motaung's report. He did not bother explaining what the newspaper owner did wrong according to Motaung and succeeded in throwing shade without sharing a shred of evidence.

In a twisted kind of way, the Reddy story, ipso facto, proved that ownership of the media mattered - not for reasons Reddy failed to adduce but simply because there's a lot of nonsense written so casually and people's reputations smeared at will without evidence.

Reddy had an opportunity to ask Mabilu serious questions about VBS but did not. He could have included his facts or evidence in his biased report, but he didn't.

I have great respect for Sam Sole and the amaBhungane of the Mail & Guardian days. But this Micah Reddy business is a baleful reminder of the depths to which investigative journalism, that force for good, has plummeted.

If Reddy could do this to Mabilu when he's black and owns a newspaper, what more for ordinary clever blacks without the means of production?

Let's move on.

A few days after announcing the sale of Sunday World, Tiso Blackstar was sold to Lebashe Investments. News24 editor-in-chief Adriaan Basson then wrote a piece titled "Why did this man just buy the Sunday Times?" The piece, deceptively, comes with a picture of Brian Molefe of Guptagate!

Stripped to its barest, the piece says one of the owners of Lebashe, Tshepo Mahloele, once worked with Molefe and later sold him a house at an estimated discount of R7m. Other than that, there's not much mud to throw around in the piece, not much to discredit the new owners of Sunday Times, Business Day, Sowetan, TimesLive and other titles.

The piece ends with this comment: "Mahloele now owns some of the most influential media titles in South Africa. We need to know much more about what he wants to do with them."

On the surface, there shouldn't be anything wrong with wanting to know more. Now, there's a difference between one who harbours a desire to know, investigate and report, on the one hand, and another who uses subterfuge to create an impression of impropriety and then, on the basis of such contrived impressions, asks for more information.

Like Mabilu, Mahloele and his partner Jabu Moleketi (former deputy finance minister), are black men changing the face of media ownership in South Africa - and it's a bitter pill for many to swallow.

They join embattled Iqbal Surve at Independent Media who, I must say, has made a handful of mistakes with Karima Brown as his chief advisor.

Other than his obvious errors, we cannot argue that Surve's race was never a consideration among those who subjected him to consistent ridicule - as is now the case with Mabilu and Mahloele. That they are all black is not a coincidence.

The new black media owners will have to toughen up quickly. But they don't have to explain themselves to their competition (bad journalism aside) - especially when that competition, initially called Nasionale Pers, was founded by racists through apartheid money, in concert with the National Party regime at the height of apartheid. Owning a media house is tough on its own, but tougher when you are an unapproved black.

Let me be clear: the media have a right to question anybody, including the president, on anything of public interest. The media must investigate malfeasance and illegality and perpetrators must face the full wrath of the law. But the media do not have a right to behave like Reddy and have people's names "crop up" without explanations, or to throw mud at Lebashe like Basson, as if you have a birth right to approve new entrants to media ownership.

Media ownership is crucial. That ownership can determine whether you report as if Julius Malema can never do anything right, that public protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane is deranged, or that state enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan is a demigod to be defended at all costs or, still, pursue Gordhan and the SA Revenue Service rogue unit as if your life depends on it.

We must all be fair to Malema as we are to Gordhan and Mkhwebane. Mabilu, Mahloele and Surve deserve no less. Our democracy requires that of all media practitioners.

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