South Africa’s press landscape is untransformed. The Press Code needs work. The Ombudsman should be tougher, more independent, and pro-active. There’s a lot wrong with the local print news sector, but the public protector in her submission to the Press Freedom Commission reminded us all of that is right, and why a free, independent and self-regulating press is the only way forward. By MANDY DE WAAL.
The ANC’s Jesse Duarte and Jackson Mthembu entered the Braamfontein Recreation Centre for the Press Freedom Commission’s public hearings this week ready for the limelight. Duarte and Mthembu made their presence known as they accompanied their secretary general, Gwede Mantashe, to deliver the ANC’s submission on the regulation of the press.
From the opposite side: South Africa’s corruption-busting crusader, Thuli Madonsela. Her entrance was understated and unassuming. But the minute the media saw her sitting in the front row of the hall, silently reading her submission, the cameras locked on her as they had for Mantashe, Duarte and Mthembu.
Madonsela’s quiet and dignified, yet authoritative mien grabs as much media attention. And it’s not who she is, but what she does that pulls the cameras’ glare toward her and wins the public’s hearts, minds and souls.
Today, I February, Madonsela is telling former chief justice, Pius Langa, why the press should be free from political interference. In other words, she’s doing what she always does – speaking truth to power.
“From the perspective of the Public Protector’s mandate of strengthening and supporting constitutional democracy in South Africa, the need for a free and independent, but accountable and responsible media, is not negotiable,” Madonsela says as she reads her submission to Langa and his formidable panel of commissioners.
“Free flow of information is one of the guarantors of an inclusive society where public power and resources are always handled in a democratic (way) with public interest informing every government decision or action and overriding everything. Free flow of information is also a guarantor of a public sector that is accountable and operates with integrity at all times while being responsive to all, regardless of difference.”
The Press Freedom Commission, set up by Print Media SA and the SA National Editor’s Forum, is doing this public road show because the ANC’s got the big stick out for the newspapers. But to appreciate why relations between the ANC and press are fraught with conflict, one needs to go back to the beginning. In 2008 I interviewed then ANC spokeswoman Jessie Duarte who claimed that a newspaper cartel was targeting the ruling party.
Duarte claimed these journalists and editors would get together weekly to set the news agenda. “We are aware that every Thursday night a group of journalists sit together in Newtown and decide what stories they will go into. This is very clear when we do our analysis. What we see is a pack approach with a story that breaks in the Saturday Star, then is repeated in Business Day with a slightly different angle, and then in The Citizen with a different angle and slightly new perspective,” said Duarte, who added that SA has “the most free press in the world”, but that the media did not respect that freedom.
Another issue that obviously stuck in the ANC’s craw was the use of anonymous sources. Duarte believed the media’s insistence on trying to get comment from the ANC on stories based on anonymous sources was causing a big divide. “What the media doesn’t like is when they publish something that is not a fact, and we object. We cannot allow our organisation to be led or influenced by rumours. We believe that there are journalists who are exceptionally hostile.”
To get a thorough appreciation of the ANC’s media strategy and how it views the media, Glenda Daniel’s PhD thesis called “The fight for democracy: the media and the ANC in South Africa” is required reading. The journalist-cum-Amabhugane advocacy co-ordinator’s document is more than 400-pages long, but essential. Here’s the briefest of summaries to view the ANC and why it loathes and fears the media.
Daniel writes: “The value of a conspiracy theory is that it can account for all sorts of things, weapons of mass destruction, or terrorists, all fostering the delusion that there is something ‘out there’. In this case, the Duarte delusion is that journalists meet to plot against the ANC, with their stories.”
Duarte uses the term “pack approach” as if the media was, as Daniel calls it, a monolithic bloc. At the Press Freedom Commission this concept echoed in our public discourse as many submissions to the panel from political parties, activists and individuals referred to the media as “the opposition”. This shows the ANC has been successful in popularising their view of the media as a threatening and oppositional collective.
The seeds of malcontent between the ANC and the media were first sown by none other than Nelson Mandela. Daniel writes that Mandela sought a more loyal contingent of journalists and “accused the media of having a hidden agenda and being part of a conspiracy.” In a meeting between Mandela and Sanef in 1996, the former President didn’t exactly embrace media freedom.
“The press …. (and) the government … have a joint responsibility to address the problems in the country …There is a perception among the population that the mass media is controlled by a minority section of the population… Even those who have committed themselves to democratic values … cannot accurately portray the aspirations of the majority because they do not live among them […] There is an attempt from traditionally white organisations […] to resist transformation.” It is uncanny how closely the extracts of Mandela’s discussion with Sanef published in a 1996 issue of Rhodes Journalism Review mirrors the ANC media sentiment of today.
Daniel later quotes Mandela’s opening speech to the ANC’s 50th national conference in Mafikeng: “In a manner akin to what the National Party is doing in its sphere, this media exploits the dominant positions it achieved as a result of the apartheid system, to campaign against both real change and the real agents of change, as represented by our movement, led by the ANC […] When it speaks against us, this represents freedom of thought, speech and the press – which the world must applaud […] When we exercise our own right to freedom of thought and speech to criticise it for its failings, this represents an attempt to suppress the freedom of the press – for which the world would punish us.”
When Mbeki came along the relationship between him and the media was particularly acrimonious. In her thesis, Daniel quotes Mbeki biographer Mark Gevisser who observes that by 1995 Mbeki branded any criticism of the ruling party as racist. The nadir of the relationship between the press and the Mbeki regime came two years later when the Sunday Times ran the now famous “Manto: A Drunk and a Thief” article, and an earlier story about the beetroot-loving health minister’s “Hospital booze binge”.
Daniel writes that “then Minister in the Office of the President, Essop Pahad, condemned the story on the Health Minister as an outrageous invasion of privacy and threatened to withdraw government advertising from the Sunday Times.” Daniel says debate at the time questioned whether the “Sunday Times had gone beyond the realms of acceptable press freedom” and people started to question the media’s values, culture and agenda.
The somewhat hysterical political sentiment of the time is perfectly mirrored in a Mail & Guardian column by former SABC CEO Dali Mpofu: “As editor-in-chief of the SABC it is my duty to inform you that we will no longer stand idle while we are being made a whipping-boy and a scapegoat by the profit-driven media. Even less are we prepared to associate with the enemies of our freedom and our people. We cannot remain quiet while our mothers and our democratically chosen leaders are stripped naked for the sole reason of selling newspapers… How inhumane and how far removed from the basic value of ubuntu. Shame on all of you.”
It is a very short step from 2007 to the Zuma regime, and the his 2008 letter, “The Voice of the ANC Must be Heard” in which he writes: “Every day brings fresh instances of a media that, in general terms, is politically and ideologically out of sync with the society in which it exists[…]. At times, the media functions as if they are an opposition party […] The freedom of the South African media is today undermined not by the state, but by various tendencies that arise from the commercial imperatives that drive the media.”
But why is the state hell-bent on, as Daniel puts it, labelling the media as “capital bastards”, “enemies of the people” and “unsupportive of transformation”?
“The ANC needs to close the media spaces in order to create a mirage of unity, so that it seems as though the social(sic) is a united and harmonious one,” writes Daniel. “From the fantasy gaze of the ANC, the media is the cause of social antagonism, which prevents society from achieving its full identity as a closed, homogenous totality.” In other words the media is the fly in the ANC Kool-Aid, because it distorts and undermines the ANC’s ideological raison d’être.
And so it is that, today, the press comes to find itself sitting in a stuffy hall at the Braamfontein Recreation Centre, listening to submissions to the Press Freedom Commission which it has helped found, in an effort to stave off ANC political interference. This includes, but isn’t limited to, introducing a media appeals tribunal, wanting to debate press regulation in Parliament, trying to pass a “secrecy bill” and generally doing whatever is in the ruling party’s power to crush those who would cry out: “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid”.
If the freedom of expression activism has an ally, it must be in Madonsela, who has much to teach the industry about how to face the full wrath and power of the ANC square on, and survive. The Public Protector is fighting once more, only this time she’s fighting for an independent, self-regulated press which she believes is crucial to the right functioning of her ombudsman’s office.
“The Ombudsman is a fundamentally important part of the network of accountability agencies that play a vital role in maintaining and promoting the integrity of government and the public service,” Madonsela tells the press freedom commissioners. “Together the oversight bodies are often referred to as an integrity system. The concept of integrity systems supports the notion that there is no single institution or oversight body that would be able to take responsibility to instil the principles of integrity in public administration.
“Free flow of information is essential for the functionality of the integrity system. To this extent, institutions such as the Public Protector rely extensively on the media and whistle-blowers to report issues of fraud, corruption, service delivery failures and other forms of maladministration within organs of state,” she says.
“Issues brought into the public sphere do not only serve as accountability mechanisms, but also as an early warning system to alert the state and its stakeholders about matters that have the potential to impact on its promises to the people, or about matters that might derail its drive to fulfil its Constitutional obligations,” Madonsela says, adding: “Any unreasonable or disproportionate restriction or limitation of access or dissemination of information on the wrongdoings of organs of state would have a serious impact on the ability of the Public Protector to achieve her mandate of strengthening constitutional democracy.”
It is that simple and that complex. Without a free media, without access to information, the “integrity system” Madonsela speaks of begins to lose efficacy and crumbles. The citizenry is not rightly informed of democratic breaches and there’s no real challenge to or fragmentation of ANC power. Instead there’s a warm, fuzzy picture of a society created by the ruling party and its crony elites, that “works”. Everyone drinks the Kool-Aid and for the most part all who aren’t dying of starvation, unemployment or under crumbling RDP houses are sort of happy.
Which is why we need the press, as imperfect as it is. Or as Thuli Madonsela puts it: “In a world where the media plays such a powerful role as a watchdog, guardian and disseminator of information, that not only influences public opinion, but in essence shapes our morality, it is essential that the individuals and groups who are affected be assured that this role is performed with utmost integrity and full accountability. From the perspective of the Public Protector’s mandate to strengthen and support constitutional democracy in South Africa, the need for a free and independent, but accountable and responsible media, is not negotiable.” DM
Photo: Thuli Madonsela (Phillip de Wet/iMaverick)
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