Where there's a separation of government and partisan matters is also where there's a contention over media allegiances - or so it seems.
A decision communicated by the Western Cape government not to renew their subscription of the Cape Times has been met with overwhelming criticism from the media first and the leadership in government as well.
The trouble it seems, started when the Director-General of the Western Cape government, Advocate Brent Gerber wrote to all departments in that province, instructing them not to renew with the Cape Times. This saw the following response from the South African Editors' Forum, Sanef:
Part of the Sanef statement reads:
Gerber wrote to all heads of department on March 9, informing them not to renew their subscriptions or initiate further subscriptions to the newspaper: “Cabinet has discussed with concern the ongoing decline in the quality of reporting in the Cape Times. As we get newspaper cuttings every day, Cabinet considers it to be fruitless expenditure to renew Cape Times subscriptions,” Gerber wrote in his letter. Sanef finds it appalling that the executive committee of the Western Cape government, led by a former journalist, Ms Helen Zille, interferes at this level in the affairs of provincial department heads, who should have the freedom to choose which news mediums they find useful or not.
702's John Robbie Show saw Western Cape Premier Helen Zille respond to the criticism, stating there's no boycott of the Cape Times and that this was purely a consumer-driven decision:
Where do you get all of that nonsense that you were spouting about a boycott of the Cape Times and selective advertising? That is complete invention, John. We have said that when the subscription has lapsed, we are not renewing them because the Cape Times reporting is of such poor quality that it does not add value and therefore we should see any expenditure on renewing subscription as fruitless and wasteful. We are not boycotting the Cape Times. The bottom line is, if you go to 'Supermarket A' and you get shoddy product, you go to another supermarket; what makes newspapers special?
Meanwhile, Higher Education Minister Dr Blade Nzimande labelled Premier Zille a hypocrite:
I must say, I am completely dumbfounded because what she said - I can only call it hypocrisy. Ministers here in Parliament answer almost every week questions by the DA as to where government subscribes in terms of newspapers and where do we advertise? And they have been unashamed about this, they have actually been targeting the New Ag, that government must not advertise in the New Age. This thing of trying to make a distinction between the DA and the Western Cape government - it's also another hypocritical stance. Always when they talk about themselves - John, you can go back to answers in Parliament - when they refer to the Western Cape government, they say it's the DA government. When they refer to other provinces, it's ANC provinces and the national government is 'ANC government'. Premier Zille can't have (her) cake and eat it, I'm not surprised that Sanef is reacting in this way. If you remember at some stage, there was a call within our ranks to actually boycott the Mail & Guardian - the DA were up in arms! This is not about consumer choice, it's a political choice. What's a possible situation here is that the Cape Times has now drifted out of the DA's influence (since the Independent News and Media (INM) group's being taken over by Iqbal Survé's Sekunjalo consortium - an entity with perceived ties with the ANC)
Insisting via Twitter to respond on the back lash back on radio, Premier Helen Zille met Redi Tlhabi's raising that 'as a democratic leader of a province that supposedly has a plurality of voices, you're going to have to be open to a diverse range of coverage' with:
They can publish what they like, we can subscribe to what we like: the question is, why is the media so tender? Why is this an issue at all? Nobody is being lobbyed not to read the Cape Times. We are chosing which papers to subscribe to and which ones not to in the normal course of budgeting. It's not semantics. We didn't withdraw advertising, we will advertise where the readers are. Nobody has to buy inferior product, but I will not lobby against it, but we will not use government money on it.
Nzimande's response on the Redi Tlhabi Show reminded many that the DA is now using the same tactics they'd used to hold the governing party to account:
It would appear that the 'empress' is naked. Premier Zille has thrown out all the standards the DA has used against us. Why doesn't she make use of the Press Ombudsman? When it comes to the DA, why don't they also go to the Ombudsman, like they say to us? The hypocrisy of Premier Zille is breath-taking here. Since I've become Minister, one of the many questions I've always had to answer from the DA is how much our department has been spending on advertising with particular newspapers and which newspapers do we subscribe to in our department?