MAHLATSE MAHLASE: Why the Thuma Mina Whatsapp group conspiracy is dangerous


It has been hard standing by and watching the integrity of hard-working journalists maligned by people desperate for their own wild imagined world to be real.

It appears that the fatal crime committed by these journalists was to be added to a WhatsApp group named "Thuma Mina media group", an innocuous group with a rather politically loaded name.

By the way, Thuma Mina is the late Hugh Masekela hit, dedicated to selflessness and reaching out for a better world.

It was adopted by President Cyril Ramaphosa in his maiden State of the Nation Address in 2019. It has since been associated with his campaign, faction and political mantra.

Until three weeks ago, the Thuma Mina WhatsApp group was one of those groups that I hardly paid attention to because nothing really ever happened in the group except for random statements on COVID-19 figures and statistics, government press releases and activities by civil society.

It’s basically a platform for spin doctors to send their PR alerts, nothing more, nothing less.

The Thuma Mina media group is actually one of the most boring groups I have been added to because there are no debates, commentary, memes or even GIFs.

In case you missed it, the manufactured controversy about this group started when Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan’s spokesperson Sam Mkokeli accused the minister of investigating whistle blowers who leaked information into the controversial employment of the minister’s chief of staff.

In the midst of the heated exchanges between Mkokeli and his employers, he posted a tweet showing that he was removed from the Thuma Mina group.

Enter Sunday Independent journalist Piet Rampedi who made the issue his own - claiming that Mkokeli had told him the group was set up for journalists to “fix narratives, coach each other, coordinating stories”. This has been Rampedi’s tired, self-aggrandising obsession – that he is a victim of a conspiracy.

In public Mkokeli stated that the WhatsApp group was “harmless”. But, according to Rampedi’s revelation of private conversations between the two, Mkokeli was prompting Rampedi to go to war over this. The two have since fallen out.

But soon the lie was picked up by the Economic Freedom Fighters, who claimed the WhatsApp group was made up of carefully selected journalists (those critical of Julius Malema and the EFF) to collude with President Ramaphosa and Gordhan.

They claimed that this was “evidence that there is a cabal of journalists, whose sole purpose is to vilify those opposed to Ramaphosa’s government”.

Despite evidence posted on social media that the group had no political activity, the EFF and Rampedi continued with the disinformation campaign to push their imagined, infantile but lethal lie.

After all, the truth will only ruin a perfect plan to mislead the public.

In its statement dated 23 November 2020, the EFF even lies to say the group was started by News24 editor-in-chief Adriaan Basson. They also desperately try to link the group to the South African National Editors’ Forum.

The last I checked it was standard practice for journalists to be in various groups for easy access to information. It was never a sign of affiliation. Rampedi knows this, the EFF knows this.

Over the years I have repeatedly been ridiculed, attacked, insulted and called names by Rampedi, Malema and their followers, especially on Twitter.

The advice given to journalists under attack is to “just block or ignore them” and the noise will eventually die down.

Any response is seen as fuelling the flames and is bound to attract an avalanche of more insults and attacks”.

But the danger with that is when a lie is repeated often enough, shouted loudly enough and never countered, it eventually sticks. That not only affect one’s credibility and integrity – the critical values to practice journalism - but silence is often viewed as acquiescence.

The problem with silence is that those still trying to make their mind up have no other side of the story.

We should never underestimate the power of these disinformation campaigns.

Just a few years back Bell Pottinger ran a successful campaign to discredit the media. Though it was exposed, politically charged terms like white monopoly capital media remain part of our lexicon and frames how some view the media.

The implications of disinformation campaigns and public attacks on journalists are far reaching.

Some junior journalists have said they are afraid of writing critically about the EFF - fearing being a victim of cyber bullying by the party’s Twitter bots.

Some are even more afraid of falling victim to Malema’s on-stage rants.

The disinformation campaign is also designed to drive a wedge between the media and the public which consumes the news we produce - to create doubt in the minds of our audiences.

By planting the seeds of doubt, the drivers of the disinformation campaign want to ensure that whatever wrongdoing they may be accused of by the media, there is confusion about the motive and veracity of such reportage.

Yes, the public trust in the media has been declining because of major own goals scored by some media houses, but we can never discount the heavily funded campaigns to discredit the media.

Society should never leave it to journalists to defend themselves against the sustained attacks, because ultimately, it’s our democracy that loses.

Mahlatse Mahlase is group editor-in-chief at Eyewitness News. Follow her on Twitter: @hlatseentle

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