Defend Truth


A Government Performance Tribunal – feel it, it’s needed

Sipho Hlongwane is a writer and columnist for Daily Maverick. His other work interests also include motoring, music and technology, for which he has some awards. In a previous life, he drove forklift trucks, hosted radio shows, waited tables, and was once bitten by a large monitor lizard on his ankle. It hurt a lot. Arsenal Football Club is his only permanent obsession. He appears in these pages as a political correspondent.

Reading the ANC’s “Discussion Document on Media Ownership and Transformation” is rather enlightening. The logic used to justify a statutory-controlled media appeals tribunal is very spotty, especially if you consider applying it to the government.

The ANC’s vision for the country is that everything should be aimed towards “social transformation”. All functions and arms of the government should be aimed downwards, at the poor. The discussion document on media ownership makes it clear the ANC wants the fourth estate to march to that drum, essentially making it in its various forms mouthpieces of the government.

“The ANC holds that in our national democratic revolution, the media should contribute to the transformation of our country,” one part of the document reads. “Building social cohesion and promoting values of a caring society are an essential part of the battle of ideas and must underpin and inform the manner in which the media operates. The accountability and fairness of reporting are central to the objective assessment of the gains of the NDR.”

The developmental state the ANC envisions would see this country turn into something akin to China or Malaysia. Whether or not that would be a bad thing is entirely dependent on where you sit in the living standards measure. If you’re poor, the idea of government driving development and generally looking out for the little guy appeals. If you’re a rich industrialist – well, the appeal is probably less.

However, if the media doesn’t play ball, the developmental state has a problem. By the ANC’s own admission, media plays an important role in shaping the minds of the people. “The media are not merely reflective of what readers, viewers and listeners want. They do have values and choices which help to shape social preferences. Despite the media’s limited direct reach, they occupy an important position to facilitate or to serve as a break (sic) on social transformation.”

And that’s precisely where the rub lies. The media wants “neo-liberalism, a weak and passive state, and overemphasis on individual rights, market fundamentalism”, while the ruling party wants a “developmental state, collective rights, values of caring and sharing community, solidarity, ubuntu, non-sexism, working together”.

From that point, the argument arrives at the conclusion that a media appeals tribunal is necessary. Ignore the argument that the media hurts people through false reporting (real-life examples for this argument are always wanting) – this is about the media fulfilling a government mandate by doing as it’s told.

But without leaping into the developmental state debate, the double-standard applied by the ruling party is galling, to say the least. On the one hand, they want to impose control and even sanctions (remember Jackson “Jail the Journalists” Mthembu?) on the press for not fulfilling a transformation mandate, and on the other hand, government ministers who don’t fulfil their mandate are let off scot-free.

Who is more detrimental to society: a journalist who gets his facts wrong or a government minister in charge of a crucial department who stuffs up completely? Which hurts the people more, a factually incorrect news story or a health minister who decides not to give Aids sufferers antiretroviral medication based on a ridiculous conspiracy theory and superstition?

From whom does society need greater protection?

In April President Jacob Zuma announced he was in the process of signing performance agreements with the country’s 34 ministers, but if they failed, it didn’t mean they’d lose their jobs. According to Business Report, Zuma said, “Some people may not be measuring up to the task because of expectations. We can’t put an axe [over their heads].” Minister Collins Chabane, whose job it is to make sure everyone else in Cabinet does theirs, reiterated Zuma’s stance on ministerial performance on Wednesday when he announced that quarterly reports on the various departments would be made. He said, “The danger we make is that we focus too much attention on individual ministers. The co-ordinating ministers are just co-ordinating stakeholders in a partnership to deliver a particular outcome.”

Imagine if they applied the media appeals tribunal logic to ministerial performances. If you, as a government minister, don’t do your job well, you get hauled before a tribunal and if you are found guilty, you lose your job. It’d be as simple as that. If you really screw up, and I’m looking at a certain former communications minister here, you could face up to 25 years in jail. DM


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