Defend Truth


SA’s great media debate: Moegsien Williams is (mostly) right


Lumko Mtimde is a former Special Adviser to the Minister in the Presidency. He is also an ANC and SACP member.

Moegsien Williams’s recent opinion piece charging that the South African ‘media acts like the unelected opposition’ and Stephen Grootes’s response to it have helped the discourse which is important in the media landscape after 20 years of democracy.

On Tuesday August 11 2015, Stephen Grootes wrote a revealing response to editor-in-chief of The New Age and ANN7 Moegsien Williams.

Moegsien Williams had written an opinion piece in the City Press newspaper and Media24, in which he reflected as a mainstream media editor that “the media acts like the unelected opposition”.

These two respected media practitioners have helped the discourse which is important in the media landscape after 20 years of democracy. In the main, Williams, was critical of the media, arguing that its negative reporting causes it to be perceived as oppositional. He cited examples of reporting based on opposition party statements and views. Williams introduced the concept of solution-driven journalism, which reflects the society but also educates, informs and influences. In the main, he expresses a concern about the gutter press and unethical journalism.

In his response, Grootes correctly states that the media is not homogenous and said strongly that he find it difficult to agree with Williams’s points. He stated a fact I agree with, that not all journalists who work for the dominant print media houses have an “identical political point of view”. But Grootes makes a mistake similar to the one he accuses Williams of, he assumes it’s only the African National Congress (ANC) that supports the views expressed by Williams.

Concerns about the falling standards of the profession of journalism have been raised by journalism professors, media veterans, political parties across the spectrum, media analysts and experts. In his response, instead of focusing on the issues raised, Grootes misses the point and focuses on Nkandla, Waterkloof, Marikana, etc. He then reduces Williams’s article to being about sunshine journalism. He also confuses patriotic journalism to mean ‘sunshine’.

Googling the definition of patriotism, would have made Grootes a better understanding before he challenged ANC treasurer-general Zweli Mkhize’s call. Reporting on wrongs is actually patriotic and good for our country. That is why, in its manifesto, the ANC has prioritised fighting crime and corruption.

The ANC government’s auditor-general exposes much of the financial mismanagement and corruption that exists. ANC president Jacob Zuma, as president of the country, has made many proclamations mandating the Special Investigating Unit (SIU) to conduct investigations into the affairs of many people accused of wrongdoing. The ANC government established the Hawks. The public protector is appointed by the president to deal with similar matters affecting the public interest like corruption.

SA also has other constitutional bodies supporting our democracy and protects media freedom and freedom of expression in the Constitution Act of 1996. This has enabled our country to strive for a diverse media with a plurality of voices, reflecting and representing the diversity of our society. It is in terms of this that the media has an enabling environment to report freely, including reporting on wrongdoing, crime, corruption, etc.

The message I got from Williams is that media must also report good stories, assist in constructing a better life for all and take our country forward. Williams and I have heard no one in the leadership of the ANC ever instruct the media never to report on and expose wrongdoing.

Again, Grootes can just Google and read several speeches by either or both Zuma and Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa to South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) meetings.

To again use Grootes’s language, which I don’t like to do as I respect everyone’s view, it is wrong to say that the ANC proposed the Media Appeals Tribunal discussion as a “bid to stop media from reporting the truth”.

Grootes’s biggest problem is that he believes in himself so much that he disrespectfully argues that Williams’s points are wrong, implying that his are right. He even, while correctly saying that what is a good story to some may not be a good story to others, says we all agree that the Springboks losing against Argentina is not a good story. Not all South Africans support the untransformed and resisting transformation Springboks. So Grootes is wrong (to use his language) to think everyone sees it as he does. South Africa is a diverse country with a divisive apartheid history regarded by the United Nations as crime against humanity, and we have different experiences. But I agree with Grootes that both he and Williams and every citizen have a right to express their view and opinions in our constitutional democracy.

While I agree with the concerns Williams raises and the essence of his article, I don’t agree with just one paragraph. The proposal to discuss the desirability of a media appeals tribunal aimed at strengthening media accountability mechanism in terms of the Constitution Act of 1996, is premised on the principle of independent regulation. The proposal is for an independent appeal mechanism to be established over and above the current ineffective self/co-regulation. This cannot be anti-Constitutional even if you have the most irrational judge. A need for discussion can never be wrong or be unconstitutional.

Further, if this proposal is approved, the mechanism must comply with the Constitution Act of 1996. This means the legislation that will establish this Independent Media Appeals Mechanism will have to comply with not only Section 16 of the Constitution Act but with the entire Constitutional framework of our democracy. There is no basis for saying that either the discussion itself or the outcome (an Independent Media Appeals Mechanism) aimed at ensuring accountability, can be said to be unconstitutional.

Coming back to Grootes’s response, I agree that not all media are against the ANC. I also agree that transformation does not mean the media just becoming part of the solution to the country’s challenges and in so doing removing the demand for media accountability mechanisms.

Williams correctly suggests that media plays a role in society. This role could range from providing information, reporting fairly and factually, educating, building the nation, defending and deepening democracy, etc.

The proposals for media accountability mechanisms which include independent regulation, compliance with the Press Code, a review of defamation laws and ensuring that regulation is in the public interest, are necessary debates as our democracy matures. They must be there, whether our media is for or against the ruling party. Grootes is wrong (again to use his language) to think that this debate arose because the media reported on the wrongs (allegedly) done by government officials and some service providers under the security upgrades in Nkandla. In fact, the very government led by Zuma issued a proclamation mandating the SIU to investigate what went wrong in Nkandla. Lastly on this, Grootes must read the Jabulani: Freedom of the Airwaves, August 1991 report, where as ANC delegates, we met in Amsterdam and agreed on the principle of independent regulation. This principle was adopted in the ANC Media Charter, 1992. I invite Grootes to also read the ANC 52nd conference resolution that motivated for an investigation into the desirability of establishing a media appeals tribunal. The analysis that informed and resolve that resolution was informed by the discourse on the state of the battle of ideas, “strategies & tactics” discussion and was guided by the ANC Media Charter and Constitution Act of 1996.

Grootes also argues that media organisations’ coverage is the sum of the views of the people working there. I am not sure if journalists who capture, gathers and write stories would agree with him on this. Editors and sub-editors have a major say in the final article and the editorials of newspapers. Grootes should amongst others read the submission by some journalist to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Rather than just dismissing Williams’s reference to some in the media having “one goal, of destabilising the country and breaking the ANC’s hold on power” as “fiction”, we should all agree with the essence of his message – that we need a diverse and independent media that reflects our society broadly.

Contrary to Grootes’s reference to “an act of fiction and repeated over and over again, until the old maxim of a thousand-times-repeated lie kicks in”, there have been a number of incorrect media repeated reports, such as that R246m was spent to build Zuma’s Nkandla residence. Another example that was repeated by the media a “thousand times” was that a certain judge said, in his judgment, that Zuma had a corrupt relationship with Schabir Shaik. The judge himself had to say that he had never said that. If I had no limitations on the length of this article I would add several examples of repeated non-factual and incorrect media reports. Just a simple perusal of the website of the press ombudsman will show Grootes many judgements against media houses for unfair and non-factual reporting.

Grootes also said that the “other mistake both Williams and his fellow travellers in the ANC make repeatedly is that they both seems to agree with Number One that the ANC will rule until a certain prophet comes and that ‘the media’ hates them forever”. I repeatedly read Williams’s article and did not see this statement but I must confess that I do agree that the ANC will rule for many more years, for as long as its manifesto is acceptable to the people, it plans to redress the imbalances of the past and it implements the radical economic transformation programme to take SA forward and create a better life for all.

Finally, Grootes says in his response, “news is not people doing what they are expected to do. It’s people doing what they’re not expected to do”.

It is thus narrow construct and definition of news that is a problem. Grootes assumes that we all agree with his definition of news and what is newsworthy.

Again googling “what is news” provides many definitions — online dictionary says: “Information about recent events or happenings, especially as reported by means of newspapers, websites, radio, television, and other forms of media.”

Lord Northcliffe (British publisher 1865-1922) says news is what somebody somewhere wants to suppress; all the rest is advertising.

Grootes should know better. The big ongoing question remains: What and who decides what we will see, read and experience; and what we won’t? Who decides what is important and what is unimportant? DM

Lumko Mtimde is an information and communications technology, media and broadcasting and regulatory expert.


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