SA news media: under pressure AND under magnifying lens
“Scathing” is how the government described Media Monitoring Africa’s assessment that reporting on the Protection of State Information Bill has been poor and one-sided. Unsurprisingly, that was taken as an affirmation that media in this country operate with an anti-government bias. OSIAME MOLEFE takes a more in-depth look at the issue.
None of the media organisations present at the hearings into the Protection of State Information Bill [POSIB] reported that Media Monitoring Africa said coverage of the bill had been one-sided and poor.
In addition, a statement released days later by the government highlighting this aspect of MMA’s presentation received virtually no pick-up in the main stream press. This means that if the private company the ANC hired to monitor media reports and individual journalists were meticulous at its job, it could have two new entries to file in the dossier to back the party’s allegations of bias on the part of the media. These would be in addition to the ANC’s original allegation, seemingly now affirmed, that the reporting on the bill has not been without bias.
According to a statement by Ministry of State Security spokesman Brian Dube, media law practitioner Justine Limpitlaw said in her presentation on behalf of the MMA: "The media did this country a disservice with its biased and poor reporting. A number of good aspects of this bill, and there are many, have not been reported on."
Dube continued: “We have been on record calling for balanced, sober and fair reporting on this matter simply because we were worried about the nature of the debate, which was driven by the media. The public were not given the accurate facts on this bill and it was made as if all things under the sun were to be classified and no access whatsoever will be made available.”
Speaking to Daily Maverick, Limpitlaw drew a distinction between poor reporting on one hand and one-sided reporting on the other because, while they are closely inter-related, they are different. She said the one-sidedness to reporting on POSIB was symptomatic of poor reporting, which in turn was "from the over-commercialisation of news, cost cutting and the juniorisation of newsrooms, meaning there isn’t the competence or capacity that there ought to be, particularly for reporters dealing with complex issues like legislation."
Limpitlaw did not think the one-sided reporting was the result of anti-government bias. She also clarified that she said "one-sided" not "biased", as Dube's statement claimed. The transcript of the hearings confirms this. The word biased gives a sense that the media were deliberately ignoring the other aspects of the bill. Limpitlaw says that was not what she was suggesting.
Like all pieces of legislation, the bill is complex and reporting on it takes a complex set of skills and much time.
“Reporting on it in a way that frames it in terms of how it fulfils South Africa's international obligations and the apartheid-era legislation it replaces is not something a journalist can do without dedicating [a] significant amount of time [to it], which, currently, journalists do not have,” she said.
Limpitlaw also questioned why Dube, in what was effectively the ministry's look back at the week's presentations, focused on an aspect of what she said that was neither the crux of her presentation nor was the quality of the media's reporting the subject of the hearings. Key to the MMA's presentation was that, while the bill is long overdue and much work had been put into it, the document in its current form was still unconstitutional.
"In the case of POSIB, the coverage has been poor in not reporting fully on this particular piece of potential legislation. This was the case with the Sexual Offences Act, where the media focused on sections on teens not being allowed to kiss each other. They didn't talk about the positive purposes of the bill. This kind of coverage is common with a lot of legislation. It's an area, with some exceptions, that we're not very good at in South Africa," MMA director William Bird said.
But Democratic Alliance MPL Alf Lees took exception with this point of view when Limpitlaw raised it during her presentation. He said it was not the media's job to praise government.
However, context is king, according to Bird.
"If a story fails to give sufficient context, over time it starts to form a particular pattern of reporting," he said.
Disasters in Africa affect nameless, faceless people and one disaster is virtually indistinguishable from another, thus perpetuating stereotypes about the continent, Bird said. But reporting on disasters in developed nations, as was the case with the recent Swiss tunnel bus crash disaster, gives fuller explanations as to what happened and why it happened. The reporting also humanises it by giving names and faces. This context is never given to reportage of disasters in the developing world, Bird said.
This is distinguishable from formal bias, where there is a deliberate effort to report on something to put forward a particular viewpoint. He concedes that the default media position would be a bias in favour of free speech and access to information. However, the editorial pages have reflected this, while the reporting has, with mixed results, attempted to be fair and accurate.
Bird also blames poor reporting on government communicators.
"Government has difficulty communicating its own programmes and intentions. Journalists, working under various constraints, are expected to make sense of it all. For the most part, they make the best of what they have," Bird said.
When initially introduced, POSIB was shocking and draconian by any reading, according to constitutional law professor Pierre de Vos. The bill had been through over 30 drafts before the ANC used its majority to muscle the still-imperfect document though the National Assembly. "The reason it [POSIB] has been improved was because of civil society and the rapport the opposition built with the ANC representatives on the parliamentary committee," he said.
Bird shared this view and added that, when first introduced, POSIB did not exist as a bill isolated from what appeared to be a broader attack not only on freedom of expression and access to information, but on media freedom too.
“It just wasn’t the mooted media appeals tribunal, it was the general environment and the run-up to the elections where [ANC secretary-general] Gwede Mantashe said the ANC’s biggest opposition was print media,” Bird said.
Other pieces of legislation introduced before POSIB, like the Public Service Broadcasting Bill and the Icasa Amendment Bill, were deeply flawed and threatened our democracy in similar ways, according to Bird. This shaped much of the initial and subsequent reporting around POSIB, nudging the good aspects of the bill from the reporting.
When contacted, Dube said if his statement substituted "biased" for "one-sided" in the Limpitlaw quote, it was an inadvertent error.
"Perhaps it's my interpretation of what 'one-sided' means but if she didn't use that specific word, I take the point. However, the net effect of what she meant remains the same. I could never spin direct quotes, so it must have been an honest mistake," he said.
He would also not be drawn into saying whether his statement or Limpitlaw's original remark received no coverage because it did not fit into the mainstream media’s narrative of being the voice that speaks truth to power without fear or favour. “I cannot say for certain why our comments – mine and Ms Limptlaw's – were poorly covered. Only the media can answer that question,” Dube said.
"Different newsrooms reach different decisions about the newsworthiness for different reasons. You cannot infer a wider pattern from the lack of coverage of one submission among many to the committee, and one press release from the Ministry of State Security," said Mail & Guardian editor Nic Dawes.
"Some of [the reasons] are about the merits of the issue at hand, some are about what else is happening during a particular news cycle, some of them are more crudely practical, and include considerations such as the availability of staff in a particular place a particular time."
Chaos erupted at the hearings on the day the MMA made its presentation as committee chairman Raseriti Tau stopped the Alternative Information Development Centre during its presentation because it contained “political statements”. Public protector Thuli Madonsela also made her presentation to the committee later in the day. These two events dominated much of the coverage of the hearings.
Cape Argus editor Gasant Abarder said he was not aware of Dube's statement, but has on previous occasions opened up his publication's op-ed pages to ANC MPs like Luwellyn Landers to discuss elements of the bill which they felt weren't being reported on, or to tackle its more contentious elements, like the lack of a public-interest defence. Abarder also acknowledged the problems that Bird and Limpitlaw said led to the poor reporting on POSIB, but believed media houses have been working on it.
Dawes and Abarder were unapologetic about their editorial position of opposing the bill in its current form, but both maintained that their publications have made a clear distinction between an editorial position and the reporting. Even in opposing the bill, editorials have acknowledged the complexity of competing rights, ultimately concluding that POSIB impinged excessively on freedom of expression and access to information, said Abarder.
“Inaccurate or otherwise unethical reporting on the complex issues surrounding the bill certainly does nothing to assist the cause of freedom of information and freedom of speech, and I think we all need to be vigilant in that regard,” Dawes said.
Bird believes that government and the media do their best, and that the past three years have been the most introspective for media in this country, culminating in the revisions to the press code. Some within the ruling alliance do see this. Cosatu said in its presentation to the committee on the bill that the media, while imperfect, remain the most effective means by which ordinary people can access information. DM
- Government launches a clumsy secrecy bill advertising spree, in Daily Maverick.
Photo: The media has taken an introspective view of itself in the past three years.