Jessie Duarte loses the plot

My jaw literally dropped open when I heard Jessie Duarte’s recent outburst to a member of the press. Briefly, and from the perspective of an external listener, the context is as follows: a journalist for The Times was interviewing Ms. Duarte about the ANC’s online activities. At first, things were going OK. Then, JD started fishing for a fight and asked The Times reporter to hurry up and get to the point – which she already knew had to be negative, because The Times is that kind of paper. She was acting like a long-tailed cat in a roomful of rocking chairs.

Faced with this implacable and naked distrust, the hapless journo soldiered on by asking if Jacob Zuma was personally involved in the online dialogue woth voters. With this, Duarte sprang and accused the journo of implying that the future president couldn’t read. She proceeded to attack the newspaper behind the journo, saying that it needed to ‘get a life’, and finished off by calling the poor hack an illiterate racist. Finally, after pointing out the interviewer wasn’t a genius, just a journalist, the redoubtable JD did say that he could call her back with any questions.

It was a shocking display on many levels, and I’m sure you’re going to read more about it in the days to come. But I’m quite angry about this, so I’ll try to outline my concerns.

Firstly, and most obviously, it is clear to any rational person that the journalist was asking a simple question: does JZ himself read and respond to online comments? In an age of spin doctors and publicists, I feel that it was a reasonable question. It was in no way whatsoever related to Zuma’s education, intellectual capacity or taste in literature.

Secondly, Duarte is supposed to be a spokesperson. She isn’t just an ordinary citizen mouthing off, or a regional government representative saying something silly, or even the leader of Youth League doing a bit of rabble-rousing. She is the official media liaison between the ANC and the press, and she should be able to do her job correctly.

This means that she should have spotted the correct answer to the question, being that: yes indeed, Zuma is personally involved in a number of on-line activities and does take the time to answer questions from voters, thank you for asking. Instead, she launched off on an unprovoked tirade that was unexpected, hateful and totally irrational. As such, she is incompetent as a spokesperson and should be re-evaluated by her employer.

Next, we have the issue of a government official attacking a newspaper in such blatant terms. Whatever her issues are with the paper in question (and it doesn’t matter which one it is), she should be professional enough to answer her interviewer with respect. Instead, we got hysteria – uncontrolled rage – and that’s a frightening thing to witness.

In a broader sense, however, I am most concerned with what this means for the future of an independent news media in South Africa. There are a lot of people in the New ANC who have good reason to dislike the press and they are going to become very powerful in whatever government we are about to get. If this means that they are going to start treating the media with contempt, then it is a very worrying sign. Censorship by degrees is insidious

All in all, I’m poep-scared. Our nascent democracy depends on maintaining an independent media, judiciary, commercial sector and (dare I say it) civil service. Yes, there needs to be checks and balances, and no-one should act like a God – not even the ANC. But freedom of speech, messy and inefficient as the concept may be, is essential if we are going to we are going to survive as a nation; independent from party politics.

I’m not saying the ANC (or any political party) doesn’t have a right to complain about perceived prosecution from the press. There are at least two sides to every story. But they should have sense enough to do so in an appropriate manner and forum. Losing one’s temper, for whatever reason, is never a good thing. Unless you are a Viking berserker and it’s your job to go mental with a battle axe. If that’s the case, go wild. But if you’re just a battle axe who’s gone mental, you should learn to control yourself, dammit. IMHO.

[Originally posted 20/04/2009]

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