Opinionista Johann Redelinghuys 16 September 2013

‘I applied my mind’: a welcome comment from the President

Having prefaced his decision to send the Protection of State Information Bill back to Parliament by saying that he had applied his mind to the matter should perhaps give us some comfort. The fact that he does sometimes apply his mind is encouraging.

Our restrained sighs of relief were short-lived. His concern was not for the damning content or the frightening implications of the Bill but for the spelling and the grammar and for his observation that “it lacks coherence … and is therefore unconstitutional”.

In fact the President has several issues requiring his attention right now. Was he applying his mind, one wonders, when he, the President of the country, upon returning from his trip to Mexico said that he sometimes wants to leave the country when he hears all the bad news?  Was he thinking at all when he picked up on the comment from SABC chief operating officer Hlaudi Motsoening who wants the media to ensure “70% of positive news”?

While addressing a group of journalism students visiting Parliament from the Tshwane University of Technology the President said we need more “patriotic news”. He wants to control information that may reveal corruption or wrongdoing, and at the same time insists that independent journalism be coerced into reporting sunny optimism and positive stories.

There are two themes coalescing here, and South Africans should take note of the troubling trend they indicate. On the one hand, there’s the instruction for this to be a happy place and for a mandatory percentage of news to be positive. On the other, there’s the ominous state control of information that might lead to embarrassing revelations of corruption or wrongdoing.

What does this remind you of? The Soviet Union? Nazi Germany? Perhaps Myanmar, or Chile under Pinochet? Or is it the old National Party of the information scandal? Wasn’t it the ANC that fought for freedom of expression and liberty for all?

State controlled information and spying on individuals is an increasingly prominent story in the international media these days. Even “liberal” democracies like the US and UK have to answer to their people about the tough and unreasonable treatment of whistle-blowers.

In a recent documentary on life in North Korea, the interviewer asks a girl with a programmed smile if people are unhappy in such a state controlled country. She replies with bright-eyed innocence: “No! There are no unhappy people in North Korea!” It reminded me of the comment made by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad when questioned about gay rights in Iran, he said: “There are no homosexuals in Iran”.

Do journalists also get programmed, and must they sacrifice their integrity and ability to record honestly what is happening so that the outcome is engineered to be positive? Who was it that determined the 70/30 ratio? How can we bend reality, and what should be happening in our country to fulfil the 70% good news requirement?

Mr Zuma overlooks the fact that he is himself a critical component of the news and wouldn’t it be refreshing if he took it upon himself to produce the required 70%?

What is disturbing here is how strongly we are moving in the direction of full state controlled information, and how reminiscent it is of totalitarian states like the Soviet Union, North Korea and China. In fact, the influence of China is getting to be more troubling. China, where all information and news is censored and where a pro-China message is required of all media, is putting its stamp on Africa in no uncertain way. Journalists who worked with the China International Television in Ethiopia say that what China is manoeuvring in African media is much like what is standard practice in their domestic programming in China. All information is controlled to be upbeat and positive, eliminating offence words and any “unpatriotic thinking”.

Much like what is being witnessed in the rest of Africa, Mr Zuma and the ANC are being seduced by the Chinese and are using their methods of bullying the media to ensure the state controls the flow of all information.

A great deal has been said about China’s investments in Africa and how it is taking over the resources of the continent, but their efforts in taking over the media are still mostly under the radar. From newspapers and magazines to satellite television and radio stations, China is investing strongly into Africa.

Witness the deal consummated by Iqbal Survey, who sold 20% of his Independent News and Media to a consortium funded by the Chinese government, the South African government and various private investors. Survey, already in the pocket of the Chinese repeats the refrain by saying the media must focus more on “the positive aspects”.

The history of political parties having their message carried to the people by their favourite newspapers is well known. Newspapers taking up particular political positions is widely recognised and understood. But there is a line that must not be crossed. Party-based political media support in a democracy is one thing. State controlled information manipulation is another, and altogether different.

If Mr Zuma’s ANC party line comes to us via the Gupta-financed media, its message will be tried and tested like all expressed opinions and journalistic endeavour. It will sink or swim on its own merits and credibility. One hopes that the DA and the other political parties will also have their benefactors and methods of putting out their message. The issues preoccupying the President now are somewhat more troubling. They are beyond political party spin. His need for control supported by the ANC’s punch drunk heavy-handedness is very disturbing.

May we suggest, Mr President, that while your concern for good grammar and correct spelling are almost endearing, perhaps you could rather apply your mind to the bigger issue of being sucked into Chinese-style totalitarian mind-control? DM

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