Not satisfied with just owning this country’s biggest broadcaster, the state is set to launch what will be South Africa’s biggest circulation newspaper at a print price tag of well above R1 million an issue. Critics warn of printing for pulp, of a government that has not done its homework, but also of a state that’s knee-jerking politically and seriously damaging media diversity in the process. By MANDY DE WAAL.
Jimmy Manyi’s announcement in City Press that government will launch a fortnightly newspaper called Vuk’uzenzele is just the beginning. Manyi says the publication will be the unapologetic mouthpiece of government, and that with this foray into the newspaper world is just the beginning of the state’s expansion into media production and ownership.
“We are not ruling mobile out in terms of our future plans, and we are looking at that space very closely as well. We already have a radio studio at GCIS (the government communication and information system) where we broadcast to about 25 community stations, so we already have that kind of capacity.” Manyi admits though that while there is capacity, these radio studios aren’t used regularly.
Manyi says the very reason for his controversial appointment as head of the GCIS was to take state media “to the next level. This newspaper is just the first early steps that we are packing on. We want to make sure government is not a secret service. We want to make sure all avenues of getting the news out will be entrusted to us.”
Government’s ongoing conflict with the independent press is well known, and Manyi says a key reason for the newspaper, which will be available in all 11 official languages with a print order of 2 million, is because the state’s spin department’s efforts aren’t appreciated by commercial newspapers.
“Our experience with print media in particular is of the three pages of the press releases we give out to them you are likely to get two paragraphs reported on. Online media always give you an opportunity to have the whole media release out there, but print media would cherry pick what they want and communicate those things they want to communicate using whatever criteria. The challenge for us is everything we set out to communicate is important for the community to know, but we can’t depend on the editorial independence of the newsroom to communicate with Joe Public out there.”
Says Manyi: “Communities just see ministers driving in big cars, and see all the stories in the media about the ministers staying in fancy hotels and the community is not given the information about the work of government that constitutes 98.9% of what ministers actually do.”
News of Manyi’s press has drawn fierce criticism from freedom of expression champion Jane Duncan, Highway Africa Chair of Media and Information Society at Rhodes School of Journalism. Duncan believes by launching the newspaper the state is showing a lack of inventiveness in exploring avenues for communication that already exist, would be more effective and cost less. Print is an expensive medium, and Manyi’s press comes with quite some budget.
Duncan says what’s more worrying is that the state press is a political knee-jerk reaction. “It does seem to be driven far more by a political agenda, than by an agenda of getting the information out to the public and diversifying newspapers. It seems like government is more concerned by the fact the newspaper industry is often quite critical of it and seems to want to ride a vehicle that will sing its praises and not ask difficult questions.”
The launch of the paper must be viewed in context of the conflict between the state and the press, says Duncan. “This is just a continuation and extension of the war between government and the press.” A war whose first casualty, ironically, is media diversity.
Duncan points to the Association of Independent Publishers which recently conducted a membership audit and revealed that, between 2008 and 2010, 51% of its membership had lapsed due to the recession. “It leaves a sour taste in my mouth that government hasn’t done anything to stem the haemorrhage of independent community newspapers yet it has the money to launch a (national) government newspaper. The fact that they have stood by and allowed these newspapers to die is a failure of government policy. If government was serious about promoting media diversity, it would have intervened to support those newspapers in much the same way.”
In participatory democracies committed to freedom of expression and media diversity secondary presses that deliver independent news and analysis to communities are championed and supported. Duncan says a drop-off of subsidies through the Media Development and Diversity Agency has contributed to the decimation of these community newspapers. “The government should have read the terrain and done something about it because those are exactly the newspapers that have reached into marginalised communities and the very areas government says are not serviced by metropolitan newspapers. So it is deeply ironic and slightly distasteful government suddenly finds the money to fund its own newspapers when it couldn’t find the money to support independent community newspapers.”
But Manyi insists that media freedoms are a constitutional right that cannot be tampered with. “We are saying that when we say 10 things, the media chooses to report on only two. With media saying what they want to say it infringes on the right of the people on the other side to hear everything. To balance the two and not fiddle with media freedom, but make sure people hear everything, we are launching this publication.”
Is it the state’s prerogative to increasingly play in the media space to ensure its voice is heard? Absolutely not, says Duncan. “The government is using the force of money to communicate with people. What a democratic government should be doing is ensuring the necessary infrastructure is in place so independent media are accessible, and it should fight for space in that independent media in the way that any other social actor would. It is government’s job to communicate, but it is not a democratic government’s job to make media. For government to become a producer of media risks creating a conflict of interest where government produces media that makes it look good.”
When The Daily Maverick asked whether the state will be dipping its pen in propaganda ink, Manyi says, au contraire, the press will be about the facts, only the facts and nothing but the facts. This is how that part of the conversation went down.
The Daily Maverick: “What is the government’s view regarding the truth.”
Jimmy Manyi: “Regarding the….(pause)?”
DM: “The government’s philosophical framework regarding the truth. Is this really going to be a vehicle for communicating the truth to people?”
Manyi: “The truth?” (long pause)
Manyi: “I just want to make sure I hear you well. Are you saying government should be communicating the truth to people?”
There was another brief pause before Manyi put on his spin-doctoring tap shoes. “No, no, no. This is government going transparent. We can’t put anything in that publication which is papering over issues. This will be hard information, hard facts. You have either built 10 schools or you haven’t. There will be no journalistic license in this thing where people talk nicely or badly about this. This is hard data of what the government has done, and what progress the government has made. This is not your PR machine. This is hard facts. There is no spinning in this thing, it is data. This is going to be the truth and nothing but the truth.”
But the truth about this state newspaper’s distribution mechanisms worry critics. Manyi says the paper will initially be distributed through the government’s Thusong Service Centres, and distribution will later be broadened to other state outlets. Meant to be a one-stop shop for state information and services, The Thusong Service Centres are an unfortunate white elephant. A study of the centres by the Public Service Commission revealed bad management and confusion. There wasn’t clarity about who was responsible for the Thusong project and a visit to centres revealed lax security, insufficient space to accommodate service providers and inadequate infrastructure.
“There are supposed to be 2,100 Thusong Service Centres, but currently only about 180 of them are in operation,” says Natasha Michael, the DA’s shadow minister of communications. “I guarantee that you will find boxes and boxes of these publications that will never be delivered, and never be read. These publications are sent out to members of parliament so our pigeon holes are continually filled with these types of things. If they want to send them to the Thusong Centres most of them are not operational anyway.” Distribution is a critical factor in any newspaper’s success and Michaels says the government’s lack of research in this project indicates its lax attitude when it comes to spending taxpayer’s money.
Asked how GCIS will ensure the money spent on the newspapers will not be wasted and how government will ensure its publication is being read, Manyi says he’s taking the dipstick approach. “At GCIS we are collaborating with a lot of members of government, whether these are councillors or other organs of government. They will provide feedback. We will also go to Parliament and it will give us feedback. The parliamentarians go into the communities and they will give us feedback on how well read the newspaper is. When they call on the community they will ask: ‘Have you read this Vuk’uzenzele newspaper?’ So we will get feedback from parliament who(sic) has welcomed this initiative.”
Market research rigour and independent assessment aside, there’s the matter of the government seeking commercial advertising. In City Press Manyi declared the state wouldn’t be averse to allowing commercial advertising in its paper. Media Monitoring Africa’s William Bird wonders if this idea has been well thought through. “What worries me is the advertising idea. This is not an ANC paper, but a government newspaper. On what basis will they allow advertising? If the Guptas take out an advert for Sahara Computers what will that company expect in return other than the ads they get in the newspaper? This will immediately raise massive concerns about conflicts of interest. What if a government contractor takes adverts and spends about R5 million ahead of a government tender? How will government ensure that no further benefit is offered in terms of tenders in return for advertising in the state newspaper?”
Bird says what taxpayers must question is where the R100 million or more will come from for this exercise in self-promotion, and whether this is the best way for government to be spending taxpayer’s money. “What I would like to see is the research that was done, investigation about the distribution mechanisms and the evidence showing this is the best way for government to communicate with communities on service delivery,” says Bird.
All work on the paper will be done by GCIS internally, but a tender is imminent for the print and distribution of the paper, which Manyi says will launch March 2012. The title Vuk’uzenzele, means “wake up and do it yourself”. “That is the message we want to take to the people,” says Manyi. “Democracy means that as much as people have rights they have responsibilities as well. Don’t leave everything to government and want things to be done for you. Whatever you can do for yourself, do for yourself.”
More than R100 million a year to promote a message of DIY service delivery? The Daily Maverick thinks that sounds a little rich, but take succour that when the newspaper is published you’ll at least be able to pick up your issue for free. Sort of. DM
Disclosure: Mandy de Waal has done occasional freelance work for City Press.
Photo of Jimmy Manyi by Mail and Guardian.
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