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Political party manifestos say very little about the current media crisis — why?

Political party manifestos say very little about the current media crisis — why?
Officials and members of the media flank President Cyril Ramaphosa before departing after his visit to Charlesville. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

In an election year, with the media facing such a crisis, it would be expected that political parties would have taken notice and had a say about the media in their policies. But, surprisingly, there is very little mention of media in the various political party manifestos.

Few countries have a freer press than South Africa. Here journalists can do their jobs without censor or intimidation and through their work they help keep the institutions of democracy strong.

But the media industry is in crisis, newsrooms are shrinking and have been doing so for more than a decade. Big tech is taking away ad revenue and South Africans are turning to other sources to get their information. More worryingly, on the political landscape new parties have emerged that are not in favour of an independent free press. It is a crisis that is already showing itself in an index that measures just how free the media is.    

The latest World Press Freedom Index, which is released every year by the organisation Reporters Without Borders, has revealed that the media in South Africa wasn’t as free as it was a year ago.  

This year South Africa came in at 38 out of 180 countries; last year it was ranked 25th.  

“The biggest reason for this slide has been the economic indicator (one of the indicators the index uses to gauge press freedom) and this relates to diversity issues, media outlets closing and how this impacts on media freedom,” explains Associate Professor Glenda Daniels of Wits University’s media studies department. “Newsrooms are underresourced and it is a big threat to media freedom, we forget the commercial issues and the commercial implications of retrenchments.”

In an election year, with the media facing such a crisis, it would be expected that political parties would have taken notice and had a say about the media in their policies.  

But, surprisingly, there is very little mention of the media in the various political party manifestos.

Of the big parties only the EFF and the ANC include media in their manifestos.

The EFF’s manifesto states that if it came to power it would ensure the “diversification of media ownership and transform the media”.

An EFF government, the manifesto continues, would ensure that half of government advertisements would be spent on black-owned companies, in particular those owned by women and the youth.

media manifestos

Malaysian journalists put cameras and media badges on the ground during a solidarity protest with Gaza press members organised by the united voice of Malaysian media known as ‘Save Press 4 Gaza’, on Independence Square in Kuala Lumpur on 18 November 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Fazry Ismail)

The ANC’s manifesto reminds South Africans that today “we have vibrant democratic institutions, a free media, an active civil society, regular, free and fair elections, and respect for the rule of law”.

Over the next five years the party plans to “promote media diversity and fight cyber bullying, fake news and promote mindful use of social media”.

The ruling party also wants to introduce measures that will help with the sustainability of the public broadcaster.

But the nuts and bolts of how these objectives will be achieved is not spelt out. And dealing with something like fake news can be difficult if you happen to become the ruling party.

Also, manifestos aren’t always a party policy document, warns political analyst Khanyi Ngubane.

“First of all the big thrust of a manifesto is to elicit votes. So the messaging is aimed at what South Africans want to hear. If parties are not mentioning the media, it doesn’t mean that that particular party has no intention of dealing with the media in a particular way,” she says.  

William Bird, the director of Media Monitoring Africa, said he wasn’t surprised that political parties were neglecting issues around the media during this year’s election.

Read more in Daily Maverick: 2024 elections

The problem, he says, is that politicians generally don’t like journalists. “You don’t want a media that asks questions, and most of our politicians don’t see the value of journalists.”

What is more worrying, according to Gumede, is that many of the recent breakaway parties from the ANC, such as the EFF and MK, are anti-constitutional and negative towards the mainstream media.

They use social media to not only spread their ideology but also troll and attack those – particularly journalists – who go against them.

“They dominate Black Twitter, and this has become a parallel universe in our society. I fear for young people, particularly young blacks, who take this as their source of information. Because they reject the mainstream media as part of a big conspiracy of imperialism, Stellenbosch mafia and white monopoly capital,” Gumede says.

These elections come at a time when there have been attempts that some see as actions to intimidate the media.  

Recently the SABC’s group executive for news, Moshoeshoe Monare, had to submit to a vetting process by the State Security Agency, relating to his appointment as a key figure at the public broadcaster two years ago.

The Presidency said this was the usual procedure and that Monare hadn’t completed the process when he joined. Others, however, felt this was a scare tactic that came not long after President Cyril Ramaphosa was caught in a recording complaining about the negative media coverage the ANC was receiving during its election campaign.

For Daniels, she believes that a political manifesto should have in it a commitment by the government to help address the media crisis. An example she uses is the recent Competition Commission submission by the South African National Editors’ forum to get fair compensation from the big tech firms.

“You want political parties to say that’s a good thing. And we need a thriving media. I would like to see political parties speak to that issue,” she said.  

“What I would also want to see are parties with a media policy and them saying, ‘we support the role of independent media in South Africa and we want more diversity and plurality in the media space’.”

Read more in Daily Maverick: Battle for the future of media — Daily Maverick’s submission to the Competition Commission

Bird believes a party manifesto should recognise the importance of media in shaping society.

“I would say a manifesto should recognise the critical importance of public interest content to the development of and sustainability of our country, to the building of social cohesion, to addressing issues of polarisation while helping to build, maintain, restore and protect the rights to dignity and equality,” he says.

Read more in Daily Maverick: State of the Media

Ngubane would like more detail in those manifestos.

“The ANC says in the next five years they will promote media diversity. So what does that mean?” she asks.

But Gumede feels that just a simple statement in a manifesto would suffice at a time when the enemies of free press are out there and contesting in what is likely to be a tight election.

“To say that the media is important and critical for our democracy.” DM

This reporting is supported through a Media Monitoring Africa fellowship.


Daily Maverick has closed comments on all elections articles for the next two weeks. While we do everything in our power to ensure deliberately false, misleading and hateful commentary does not get published on our site, it’s simply not possible for our small team to have sight of every comment. Given the political dynamics of the moment, we cannot risk malignant actors abusing our platform to manipulate and mislead others. We remain committed to providing you with a platform for dynamic conversation and exchange and trust that you understand our need for circumspection at this sensitive time for our country.

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