Media ownership, control and influence is a contested space in a democracy, and so it should be. In the case of South Africa, recent developments are of particular interest: the ANC has put away the big stick, and is now using state resources, patronage and state power to reshape the media to its liking. The result has become dramatically visible in recent months, with a tangible diminishing of the space for critical, independent, accountability journalism. This new approach was crafty, insidious and more effective. By ANTON HARBER.
On a recent morning, I woke up and over a cup of coffee turned to social media. It was a few days after the Charlie Hebdo massacre and within a few minutes I was alerted and linked to multiple layers of argument over the issue: those expressing sympathy, those expressing difficulty with sympathising, those who expressed sympathy with others … it was rich, complex, informative, cosmopolitan and challenging.
I also found and watched our local comedian Trevor Noah’s wonderful performance on the Daily Show in the US, a few interesting local articles and some quirky links to entertaining material I would not otherwise have known about. Since these had been posted or ‘liked’ by my ‘friends’, it was quite likely that they would entertain me.
Then my morning newspapers arrived. I could flip through the city’s morning offerings in minutes. The important stuff I had already read online, where I found a much richer, more varied selection of interpretations than could possibly fit into the papers. The lesser stuff was barely worth my time. And the interesting opinions and columns I had already read online.
I have known it for some time, but our newspapers are sclerotic. They are failing to rise to the challenge presented by online and social media, still living in an age where they could define and control the news flow. They are dull. They are not telling us much beyond the surface of what is happening in our country today. They are failing us as citizens, and failing our democracy. No wonder my students look at me with amazement when I suggest it is a good idea to read newspapers.
To understand what lies behind this, one has to track the change in the ANC’s media strategy, a shift in the way they fight what they have called in policy papers “the war of ideas”.
ANC media policy has gone through three phases since their return from exile. When they came to power, they had a very open and progressive media policy: open up broadcasting, transform the SABC into an independent public broadcaster, give support and subsidy to build community media. They engaged with the private media – particularly newspapers – but essentially left them alone. They pushed for transformation, but did not interfere.
The second phase came a few years ago. Fed up with the criticism and scrutiny they were getting from quite a hostile newspaper sector – and let’s face it, it was quite hostile – they threatened intervention. They called for an inquiry into a Media Tribunal, which would have dismantled the press self-regulatory system and replaced it with a statutory one; and they drew up the Protection of State Information Bill – “known as the Secrecy Bill” – which was a direct threat to the investigative journalism which was making the lives of ANC leaders so uncomfortable.
Those measures ran into strong opposition, including within the ANC itself, and it was doubtful whether they would pass constitutional muster. The threat of a Media Tribunal – always a crude and unworkable idea – was moved to the backburner, a silent, background threat; a watered-down but still problematic Secrecy Bill has been on the president’s desk for over a year without signature, and without explanation. So the tough strategy had not got very far, mainly because of what it was. It only earned the governing party worse media coverage.
That led, I believe, to a third phase, unannounced, subtle and only discernable now that it has been in place for a while, operating below the radar. The ANC saw how it could use its power, influence and access to state resources to support the emergence of more friendly media and put the squeeze on those who were more critical. This happened in a number of different ways:
- Instead of complaining about the influence of advertisers, the government began to realise it was a power they also held, since collectively they and the parastatals they controlled were one of the biggest media spenders. But this power was dispersed among scores of different departments and institutions, so they moved to centralise control over media buying. This allowed them to shift their spending to media they wanted to support and withhold it from those they were angry with. This had to be done discreetly, as it could fall into conflict with the Public Finance Management Act if they were seen to be making party-political decisions about spending public money. The most egregious example of this was the R43-million sponsorship by Eskom of New Age business breakfasts – a massive overpayment from a parastatal that was not flush with cash. It emerged last week that the government was giving New Age with its 150,000 readers 10% of its spending, about the same as the Daily Sun, which has about five million readers. It was reported this weekend that the Minister of Communications had overridden her officials to run a large and “totally unnecessary” campaign in New Age in December. This has not been verified but it points to an emerging pattern.
- The ANC also used its influence in the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC) and the Public Investment Corporation (PIC) and its allies in China to put public money behind the purchase by an ally of Independent Newspapers, one of the biggest newspaper groups. Again there was serious overpayment and dubious use of public monies. It was key ANC leaders who put this coalition together. It is no coincidence that the structures of ownership in the Sekunjalo Independent Newspapers are murky; this is part of the pattern of back-door influence. The new chief executive, Dr Iqbal Survé, moved quickly against independent and critical voices on some of his newspapers.
- At the same time, there began a much more direct and aggressive move to seize control of the SABC and bring it into line. This involved intervention in the SABC board and executive appointments, and the promotion and protection of individuals who could be relied on to deliver suitable political content, even if they were manifestly unfit for the job.
- Critical decisions over set-top boxes were held up, putting an embarrassing and costly delay on the migration of broadcasting to digital. Why was this? Was this just dithering? It gave the government a stick to wield over television companies. It emerged that e.tv, lobbying hard for regulation in its favour, was pushed into running unannounced editorial puffs on its news to curry favour with ministers who would be important to the decision. Its independence and credibility was quietly compromised.
The ANC has put away the big stick, and is now using state resources, patronage and state power to reshape the media to its liking. Control of Parliament gives the party considerable influence over key appointments and public funds and they appear to have shifted from trying to find the best person to do these tasks to favouring those who can be relied on to deliver at key moments, like elections. The result has become dramatically visible in recent months, with a tangible diminishing of the space for critical, independent, accountability journalism. This new approach was crafty, insidious and more effective.
Of course, some of this is legitimate politicking. Media ownership, control and influence is a contested space in a democracy and so it should be. The government and the ruling party are entitled – even obligated – to lobby and push for more and better media coverage as much as anyone else. Independent media are always under pressure from every quarter wanting to compromise their independence. Where it is of concern is where government activity crosses the line into the abuse of public money and position – such as when the Minister writes to SABC board members to call them to account, or parastatals waste money on overpriced advertising and sponsorship.
This comes at a time when other institutions of accountability – such as Icasa, the broadcast and telecoms regulator – are either neutered, and ineffectual, or under attack for showing critical independence – like the National Prosecutions Authority and the Public Protector. At a time like this, the private media is particularly important: it is one of the very few powerful institutions of accountability which stands outside of direct state control. It has a special role at a time when other institutions are under pressure.
You also have to place this against the background of what is happening in media and journalism globally. The media is under severe financial pressure, and therefore more vulnerable to political and financial manipulation.
In dealing with this situation, we have three important assets:
- We have our freedom, the protection of our constitution and our constitutional court. So there may be fewer outlets which will publish challenging material, but if they do, we at least now have the protection of the law.
- We have a long and rich traditional of investigative and accountability reporting, and in recent times we have had three to four powerful investigative teams doing invaluable work. A golden era of exposé might now be under pressure, and might be coming to an end, but we have a tradition of feisty independence in at least some quarters to draw on, and this is very important.
- We have always had and still have a number of dedicated, committed journalists, many of them frustrated, many of them hiding in the corners of our mainstream media, a good number even in the SABC, sometimes battling to make a living, but determined and skilled and eager to join the battles of the Fourth Estate.
In other words, the spirit of Sol Plaatje, Henry Nxumalo and Nat Nakasa lives on. And that is our best hope in tough times. DM
PS: This week, media owners allowed the independent, co-operative news agency Sapa to close, only for Survé – whose withdrawal from Sapa last year was a factor in its demise – to announce that he was setting up his own Africa News Agency to replace it. While a new indigenous continental agency would be a boon, it will need to be independent to avoid following in the footsteps of the Pan African News Agency, which died a painful death because it was seen as the mouthpiece of some of the most repressive African governments. It is hard to see how Surve’s shrunken newsrooms, which barely have the resources to cover South Africa, will cover the continent. Perhaps he will link up with his Chinese partners. The Chinese authorities have been throwing resources into building the presence of their national agency Xinhua, but with limited impact, and will be looking for link-ups, which lend it credibility.