The latest in the series of media debates cropping up all over the country was at the University of Johannesburg on Monday night, with Baleka Mbete of the ANC, Mondli Makhanya of Avusa and Raymond Louw of SA Press Council on the panel. It turned out to be just another underwhelming night in the battle for the future of South Africa.
Baleka Mbete is no fan of the media. From her point of view, she has no reason to show journalists any affection whatsoever. And she’s not someone who likes to be criticised at all really. But she gave it horns at the University of Johannesburg debate on media freedom on Monday night. Perhaps the most telling soundbite was as she was relating a discussion she’d had with reporters “and I thought, oh, they’re actually human beings, because I thought they weren’t because of the way they behaved to other human beings”. Pretty telling, isn't it?.
But the personal experience she chose to share with the audience was even more telling: She spoke about how she had been contacted by a reporter from a nameless newspaper about her travel issues several years ago. When she told her travel agent to pass on all her travel documents to the reporter, he told her not to bother because he believed her. But, according to her version, he went ahead with the story anyway. As far as she’s concerned, that was only because “he couldn’t be bothered; he had a nice story”. Later she let slip a little, and it seems Mzilikazi wa Afrika has more than one politically powerful enemy. His former boss Mondli Makhanya was sitting two seats away, he didn’t look too impressed with her choice of example.
For her, it is also about dignity, about how people are treated in the press. This is an issue that the Western-style media (we spent ages looking for the right phrasing here, but we think you know what we mean) we have in this country hasn’t actually come to grips with at all. The nicknames, the use of first names in headlines, the damage caused to children at school because their parents are in the headlines, all of this, matters to Mbete and many, many people like her it seems.
Mbete spoke from her prepared notes about the threat posed by espionage to the Republic. You know, foreign agents, information peddlers, those kinds of things. About how the Browse Mole Report (a document claiming to be from an intelligence agency indicating how Gadaffi was bankrolling Zuma) had done real damage to the country. It was a classic “be nice and quiet, children, and listen to us, because we know what’s best for you”. It may be true. We know we live in a big bad dangerous world. But we don’t think the current Protection of Information Act is going to protect Cipro.
Mbete is nobody’s dummy. She may be somewhat autocratic, but she does know when a line may not be crossed. And in her view, the bill in its current form does have problems. Its formulations are too vague, they could “allow you to use this law for anything”. So she announced that the process of adopting it was going to be slowed down and that there will be a proper examination of what exactly its impact will be. All of this is good news for the media as it could be seen as a sign that sense is prevailing. We’ve seen this happen so many times before when a bad bill gets to the national assembly, only to be eventually withdrawn after an outcry. We don’t know if the Protection of Information Bill will be withdrawn, but just the slowing down of the process will be a slap in the face for state law advisor Enver Daniels, who’s been claiming it’s fine and dandy all along.
For a debate of this magnitude, with a politician of Mbete’s stature, the turnout was disappointing She is a former deputy president after all. Debate chairman Adam Habib said at one point he wanted a diversity of views. Slightly depressingly, it would have been fairly easy for him to work out who would say what. This is one of those debates where your identity pretty much determines what you’re going to say. Many of the students made a point rather than posing a question. It was usually the same point, that the media is bad, that it’s owned by imperialists, you know the drill. Sitting in the front was a group that works out of Luthuli House, and one member interrupted Makhanya at every turn. Habib had to intervene several times. The leader of the group is a guy who often sits at the back at Julius Malema’s press conferences, where he tries his best to be disruptive to journalists. Making comments, clicking disapproving sounds at questions he doesn’t like. Does he do it of his own accord? We don’t know. We certainly hope so.
We’ve said many times during the course of the last month that this a debate where the two sides are missing each other. Habib seemed to agree with us in his summation. The ANC is not losing anything by attacking the media. But the media needs to think cleverly about how best to respond. It’s crucial to come up with some real form of regulation, something with teeth. But at the same time it has to take heed of Alistair Spark’s warning. He remembered the old days when the Nats forced his paper to apologise for a story about the death of Steve Biko. He said the problem with worrying too much about keeping your right to self-regulation is that every now and then, you need to give the government of the day a scalp. You have to show that you’re doing what it wants you to do. And that’s a difficult needle to thread.
When the ANC says it has “the people” on its side, perhaps we shouldn't rubbish the claim immediately; we may find that it actually does, and partly because of this issue of respect for elders that is so incompatible with the notion of meritorious society on which the Western-style media is based. It’s not enough to just say that if you sought public office you have to take what’s coming to you. Many ANC politicians and the party’s supporters simply aren’t built like that. To them dignity matters in a way it simply can’t to a person who grew up thinking they were a master of the universe. The media should take this issue seriously and find ways to make its point. Zapiro has the right to use the showerhead. He should do it, it’s opinion. But it must be explained, again and again if needs be. And a discussion should be had about this. We ignore it our own peril.
By Stephen Grootes
Read more: Defend democracy – don’t gag it! by Ronnie Kasrils.