Some of the media reports of Professor Chris Malikane’s ‘incitement of civil war’ during his address at the Black First Land First (BLF) dialogue and the public outcry that followed, are further evidence that journalists need to take greater care with the reporting they do. This was unnecessary, irresponsible and most importantly, false.

Since his appointment in April as an advisor to finance minister Malusi Gigaba, Malikane’s proposals of radical economic transformation haves been the cause of outrage from political parties and many citizens alike. These proposals were laid out in his widely-circulated piece in the Sunday Times and were the focus of discussion at the BLF dialogue last Saturday night.

While I do not agree with most of his views, I was curious to listen to him expand, debate them, and make tangible suggestions about how these would be achieved. He proceeded to reiterate his proposals and respond to some of the criticisms he had faced without providing concrete answers on the way forward that many in the audience were anticipating. The reality was underwhelming. As the professor approached the end of his speech, there was less enthusiasm from the audience that had been quite engaged during the earlier parts of the presentation. As I looked around the room, I wondered how many of them were as unmoved as I was by the speech even for different reasons.

My suspicions were confirmed by an audience member who said Malikane’s programme was non-existent and yet another expressed his high expectations and subsequent disappointment before walking out. “I was expecting you to tell us about radical economic transformation but you said nothing,” he said. The disappointed man added, to applause, that “If we are not going to arm the people and take our land …believe you me, this is just a populist stunt”. Malikane’s responded by saying that that a decision to take up arms could not be made by one person and added, it “is not for me to decide what steps will be taken towards transformation”. He then went on to expresse his discomfort with the idea of war and his belief that every other option should be explored in order to avoid taking up arms.

Imagine my surprise then to wake up to the social media outrage on Sunday morning that has continued in this past week in response to some media outlets running with the story that Malikane endorsed the idea of taking up of arms for land. If true, the reaction would have been warranted considering his important public role as an advisor to the finance minister and the influential platform that it affords him. Momentarily, I doubted my recollection of events and replayed portions of my audio to ensure that I had not missed these comments. This was not the case.

Malikane’s views are certainly controversial and far from the mainstream and his speech did not disappoint in adding fuel to the existing fire around his ideas and proposed policies.  So it is difficult for me to understand why some publications felt it necessary to lead with the ‘incitement of civil war’ angle that was baseless and quite frankly, incorrect.

A little more responsibility needs to be taken about what is presented as fact, given the influential role of the media and the ability to influence public opinion and action. While this is obvious and has been continuously repeated, the fact that we have this situation means that it warrants repeating. Additionally, in a time of growing mistrust in mainstream media, it is self-defeating to run with sensation instead of substance.