South Africa

Analysis: South African media on World Press Freedom Day 2014

By Julie Reid 24 April 2014

As we approach World Press Freedom Day on 3 May, it’s worth reflecting on how we are doing as a country in the press freedom stakes, relative to other countries but also with regard to whether we’ve improved or digressed within the past few years. All things considered, it does not look good. By JULIE REID.

It’s valuable to remember that in August 2010, during the FIFA World Cup hangover, Sunday Times journalist Mzilikazi wa Afrika had just been arrested, his home raided by police and he had been whisked away to an undisclosed location to be held in police custody. The latter half of 2010 saw the ANC reiterating its calls for a media appeals tribunal, which would supposedly indicate a statutory regulatory mechanism for the press, and posed the danger of political censorship. The Protection of State Information Bill, or Secrecy Bill, reared its head for the first time: although the Secrecy Bill would not exclusively impact journalist’s efforts to access information, it did and does still have negative ramifications for the media.

It’s also worth remembering the response to all of those 2010 events. Media people, civil society and academics alike cried foul at the treatment of wa Afrika, and a protest march for press freedom took place on the streets of Johannesburg. The ANC felt an angry and vehement backlash at the idea of statutory regulation of the press, and within a few months the Right2Know Campaign was born to combat the Secrecy Bill. I mention all this because the general hysteria then and enthusiasm amongst those interested in the fight to protect press freedom was far more heightened than it is now. But much has changed since 2010, and the problem is far worse now than it was then.

It seems that we have become largely desensitised to the dangers of censorship, and therein lies a threat. To realise the magnitude of that threat one can begin by looking north, to some of our African neighbours. In doing so, the first thing to admit is that we are not doing nearly as badly as many of our fellow African nations when it comes to press freedom. For example, according to Reporters With Borders, 65 journalists were either killed or imprisoned on the continent during 2013. That’s not counting the number killed or imprisoned in previous years. It is not possible to accurately verify figures of how many African journalists are currently in prison, but it estimated to be in the hundreds. When thinking only of the 65 journalists from 2013, you have to realise that it’s not just about 65 individuals. It is also about 65 families. It is about 65 media outlets, whether they be newspapers, television or radio stations, but which bear the loss of a working journalist. It is about 65 journalistic communities, where colleagues feel the chilling effect of the death/imprisonment of their co-worker and say to themselves, ‘I do not want that to happen to me’. With regard to concerns for media diversity, it is about the loss of 65 voices, possibly more, depending on the resultant level of self-imposed censorship by other journalists within the immediate socio-political vicinity of the hapless murdered/imprisoned journalist.

Throughout the sub-Saharan African region, research currently being conducted by the Media Policy and Democracy Project indicates that state-owned or public service broadcasters (like our SABC) function mostly as propaganda machines for the state, where the production of politically unbiased and objective news and current affairs programming is unlikely (with the notable exception of Ghana). Investigative and critical African journalists suffer the continual threats of harassment and intimidation by drug cartels, war lords and government security forces.

It is tempting to offer ourselves a pat-on-the-back here: at very least, things are not so bad in South Africa. Or are they? Acknowledging that the state of our press freedom is in better knick than elsewhere in Africa leads to a mythical sense of security because we are lulled into believing that it always will be. It will not. Especially not if we continue to ignore the numerous events since 2010 that indicate that our press freedom status is in a downward spiral, meaning that it could soon catch up with that of some of our African neighbours if it has not already done so.

At a recent public lecture on media diversity issues in Johannesburg the moderator asked a local expert/activist for press freedom whether the South African press was still free. The expert responded that it was. But said expert was considering the matter from a purely legislative point of view, in which case she would be mostly correct, at least until the Secrecy Bill becomes law and while we continue to operate without a media appeals tribunal. But we would be making a mistake to think that because the media is not restricted in its freedom by legal or regulatory means, that it is therefore free. For instance, in all 46 sub-Saharan African countries, freedom of expression/speech is protected by provisions within the constitution of each particular country – but we know that this is not how things work in practice. African governments or state forces tend to resort to more direct means such as harassment or intimidation, law suits, or purchasing of media outlets, rather than regulatory/legislative means, when they start getting serious about silencing a critical press. So, while everything looks good on paper, things are very different on the ground. South Africa poses no exception.

With regard to mainstream newspapers: the Mail & Guardian has, since 2010, been dragged to court or threatened with legal action more than once, most notably when trying to investigate the doings of presidential spokesperson Mac Maharaj. Journalists at the Sunday Times newspaper were horrified to discover that their cellphones were being illegally tapped by security forces, and that the police had tricked the judge responsible for issuing the directive to allow this tapping, into doing so. Readers of the Star and the Cape Times have noted how these newspapers have become markedly less frequent in their reporting on matters which cast the government or the ANC in a bad light: the Independent Newspapers Group was recently acquired by Sekunjalo, a company which has reportedly repeated the benefits of winning a shady government tender, and its executive chairperson Iqbal Survé has strong political connections. The former editor of the Cape Times, Alide Dasnois, was unceremoniously fired by Survé in December last year, triggering subsequent slew of events within the company that raised serious questions over whether the new owners were willing to allow their news producing employees to practice their profession without interference ‘from above’.

In a related event, the hastily launched Movement for the Transformation of the Media in South Africa (MTMSA) arrived on the scene – a group with dubious credibility, obvious political persuasions, and financial backing from who-knows-who. The MTMSA’s very first public activity was its nasty yet unsuccessful attempt to disrupt a press freedom event organised by the Right2Know Campaign in Cape Town last year.

Things look arguably even more scary for the community media. Last year, Andile Nomabhunga, the editor of the Informer newspaper in the Eastern Cape was arrested and charged with trespassing after he conducted an interview with the Alfred Nzo municipal manager in her home. Although she had invited him to her house, she did not approve of the content of his report which implicated her in corruption, and her lawyer husband then trumped up the charges of trespassing.

The broadcasting studios of community radio station KaraboFM in Sasolburg were set alight and torched to the ground. A pair of thugs charged into the studios, threatened the radio station’s staff, chased the presenter out of the building, poured petrol over the joint and set it alight. KaraboFM had recently broadcast a news report that criticised the mayor of Metsimaholo Local Municipality. This appeared to be payback. The staff and presenter were no doubt seriously traumatised by the experience. Here we should ask ourselves: who amongst us, if working in the community media sector in the Sasolburg region, would criticise the major or his office after that?

The reality is that local community media outlets are often cowed into becoming the mouth-pieces of the local power structures and municipalities, from whence they derive a great deal of their income in the form of subsidies or advertising. These outlets struggle financially for survival, and a perpetual lack of resources means that most of them are reluctant to ‘bite the hand that feeds’, resulting in bias and subjective news reporting. Apart from that, community media outlets often display a particular ideological bias.

Last year, community organisations from Ekurhuleni and Soweto told of the difficulties they had experienced when trying to engage with local community radio stations. The community organisation, Voices of the Poor, arranged a march to the local Home Affairs offices: they were demanding that the new identity document smart cards should be available to the public free of charge, rather than at the charge of R140.00 which is unaffordable to many. Journalists from the local radio station, JoziFM, attended the march, but would not report on it. The radio station claimed that they would cover the protest on the condition that the community organisation could provide them with a copy of an affidavit from the police stating that they had official permission to host the event. Apart from being a gross misinterpretation of the Regulations of Gatherings Act (you do not need permission from anyone to hold a public gathering in South Africa) this also violates the fundamental principles of good journalism.

With regard to press freedom in South Africa, the biggest headache is arguably caused by the SABC. First, it has a larger audience within the genre of current affairs and news than any other media outlet in the country. This means that the majority of South Africans know what they know about the world around them because they heard about it from the SABC (television and radio). There would not be anything necessarily wrong with that were it not for the constant instances of obvious politically motivated interference in journalistic and editorial independence at the public service broadcaster. Reporting on minority or opposition parties, or the inclusion of dissident voices, is reportedly not allowed and rarely happens in practice. Last year the SABC banned the Big Debate talk show, an excellent current affairs programme that earned a reputation for holding government officials to account on thorny issues like corruption or non-delivery of services. The recently released Public Protector’s report that found a number of SABC top brass guilty of abuses of power and maladministration, including the COO Hlaudi Motsoeneng, has not been acted upon. Motsoeneng, infamous for his insistence on the production of 70% good news remains at his post, continuing the facilitation of the Hlaudification of news.

Last week this I was invited to appear on the Media Monitor show, which airs on Sunday mornings on SABC news channel 404. The purpose of the show is to discuss the biggest stories represented in the media over the preceding week. I was a little irritated when the producers sent me the list of topics which we would be discussing on the show, which included how the media had handled the AMCU strike, the reporting of Easter weekend road deaths, and the Johannesburg water crisis. Although important stories, these were by far not the biggest stories of the week. The two biggest stories were of course, Ronnie Kasrils’ ‘Vote No!’ campaign launch, and the fact that the SABC itself had banned a Democratic Alliance advertisement. The reasons provided by the SABC for the DA Ayisafani ad-ban were predictably ludicrous, revealed blatant politically motivated censorship and bias, and amounted to an affront on the DA’s freedom of expression. THAT was the week’s biggest news story.

But this was not going to be discussed on an SABC current affairs talk show. I was glad when I was able to, live on air, slip in a mention of the story just before the programme’s close, and express my regret for our non-discussion of it in a personal verbal middle-finger to the self-censoring producers of the show. Two days later news reports surfaced that the SABC had banned an Economic Freedom Fighters election advertisement.

Two weeks ago, reports surfaced that editors and journalists at the SABC were warned by chairperson Zandile Ellen Tshabalala that their communications were being surveilled by state security services, since the SABC is a national key point. The National Key Points Act is a draconian Apartheid-era law that has no place in a democracy, and its provisions are certainly not compatible with the production of unbiased investigative journalism. Since the SABC is a national key point then one of two things should happen. Either it should be delisted as a national key point immediately, in the interest of fostering an environment in which independent journalism can thrive, or the SABC should stop its production of news and current affairs entirely, since while it continues to operate as a national key point, journalism that is independent of political bias or interference cannot be produced.

It is important to place the issue in its broader context and realise that press freedom, or the voice of the press, is but one voice that is snuffed out when authorities become enthusiastic about silencing dissent. There is an impending crisis of freedom of expression looming in South Africa. One example of this is the alarming rate at which police killings of protesterse are rising. Public protest, as an act of free expression, is a right. It is not mischievous, deviant or deserving of a death sentence without trial, which is too often how it is treated by our police. Since the beginning of the year, police have shot and killed protesters in the communities of Mothutlung, Roodepoort, Relela, and Bolobedu. By 6 February this year, the average killing-of-protestors-rate by the police stood at on protestor every four days. If we continue with that killing rate until the end of 2014, 91 protesters will be murdered by SAPS this year.

Related to this and something that has received scant attention, are the ever-increasing cases of harassment, physical assault and illegal arrests of journalists by the police. A quick scan through the Sanef archive of press statements reveals 16 cases of the wrongful arrest or physical threat/assault by SAPS on a journalist since 2011. And those are only the cases which are picked up by Sanef. There may be more.

Often global research organisations regard the killing of journalists by the state as the absolute worst indicator for the freedom of the press. Generally, as long as journalists are not dying, things are considered to not be too bad. In South Africa, we have scored a zero on this indicator since the advent of our democracy. But in January this year freelance photojournalist Michael Tshele was taking pictures of the protestors in Mothutlung, who took to the streets to voice outrage at the non-provision of water to their community (access to water, by the way, is another fundamental basic human right). The police on the scene reportedly shot Tshele because he had a camera in his hands. He died. He then became the first journalist to be murdered by state forces in a post-Apartheid South Africa.

In 2010 many were incandescent with rage when Mzilikazi wa Afrika was arrested. By comparison there has been scant questioning of Tshele’s death. There has been little outrage at the arson attack on KaraboFM, which with all respect to Mr wa Afrika, seems a decidedly more extreme response to critical journalism. Yet in 2010 there was outrage, and now there is not.

Journalists in South Africa do not always do their jobs particularly well, but bad quality journalism and sub-standard reporting is not what this piece is about. That has been covered elsewhere. In journalism, like in any profession, some are good at what they do, some are brilliant and some are not. High-quality reporting across the board is never going to happen, so governments cannot use this as a precondition for granting the press its freedom. If that were the case, then citizens might argue that all civil servants and government officials, president included, would be entitled to receive their public-funded salaries only once each and every single one of them is doing an excellent job.

South Africa boasts a core handful of really courageous investigative journalists, some of whom have, through their reporting, shifted the entire political landscape of our country. If not for the investigative efforts of wa Afrika and his colleagues, General Bheki Cele would most likely still be South Africa’s Police Commissioner: just a small example of the societal value of a brave and determined journalist. If it had not been for the efforts of the AmaBhungane team, the Nkandla files would most likely never have made it into the public eye. The City Press and the Mail & Guardian not only broke the Nkandlagate story, but did not let up on their pursuit of the matter until it had been investigated by the Public Protector’s office. If not for the dogged pursuit of the facts by Greg Marinovich in the weeks after 16 August 2012, we may never have known the full extent of the police killings at Marikana (don’t believe that the Farlam Commission would have necessarily brought this to light). Impeding the work of such journalists would be a severe loss to our country.

In 2010 South Africa ranked in 38th place on the world press freedom ratings. By 2013 South Africa had fallen to number 52.

The widespread censorship of the press can and will be accomplished by state and government forces after enough time and with enough determination, as has happened elsewhere in Africa. But if the media, civil society and the public cannot sustain outrage at the programmatic state project of stifling freedom of expression, then they become participants in the programme, and complicit in the crime. DM

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