Analysis of the third kind
25 September 2017 19:08 (South Africa)
Opinionista Ivo Vegter

When government co-opts the press, the press is not free

  • Ivo Vegter
    IvoVegterBW
    Ivo Vegter

    Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets. He is seldom wrong.

At the conclusion of a meeting between government and the South African National Editors’ Forum, deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa was able to describe government and the media as being “joined at the hip”, while the editors reportedly declared government’s policies to be supportive of free speech. The former is repugnant and the latter is naïve.

No doubt warmed by canapés and cocktails supplied by the taxpayer, many token niceties were spoken at an indaba between government and the South African National Editors’ Forum (SANEF) on Saturday 21 November 2015, held at the luxurious Sefako Makgatho Presidential Guest House. But the actual bills before Parliament belie the sweet talk of accountability and press freedom.

Deputy president, Cyril Ramaphosa, affirmed the government’s commitment to a free and thriving media. “We hold the view that the media is critical in informing citizens about the work of government and educating them about their rights and responsibilities.”

This is a very limited view of the role of the media in a constitutional democracy, and in fact duplicates functions of the government itself. Ramaphosa continued: “To be successful as a country and nurture a functioning democracy we need to partner with the Fourth Estate so that it can empower citizens. South Africans expect the media to scrutinise the actions and policies of government.”

After listing many of the ruling party’s policies and good intentions, all of which he claims have been endorsed by the electorate, he added: “We look to the media not only to report on these efforts, but to engage with them, to critique them, to analyse them, even to embrace them.”

So, not only should the media act as a PR agency for the government, it should embrace government policies determined by the ruling party, and help implement them.

Of course, the press is not a monolithic entity, nor is it always objective. Historically, around the world, many media outlets have been allied with particular political parties, social movements or ideologies. They have been explicitly partisan. However, in partisanship, they competed with each other. Differing ideologies and policies were represented in the public debate conducted through the press. What Ramaphosa appears to propose is that all the major media houses represented by SANEF should practice partisan journalism, but favouring only the policies of the government, because that is allegedly what the electorate wants. But what if some publications do not agree with the goals or policies contained in the National Development Plan? What if they ideologically differ with the ruling party, or believe that government policies will cause more harm than benefit?

Ramaphosa forgets that “the electorate” is a political term, and is not the same as any particular media outlet’s audience. Just because the ANC has an electoral majority does not mean that everyone endorses its policies. It does not even mean that those who voted for the ANC endorse all its policies. It does not prove that those policies are best suited to achieve national development goals, nor does it imply that these goals are in the country’s best interests.

Yet in seeking “healthy media relations”, SANEF appears to be content to promote “and even embrace” the policies and development goals of the government. Of course, all of these words came with caveats. “Government and SANEF agreed on the importance of maintaining healthy relations between government and the media to ensure that South Africans are fully informed and engaged as active participants in the country's development, while government is also held accountable,” read the official statement, relegating the media’s watchdog role to an afterthought. And although SANEF raised pending legislation such as the Protection of State Information Bill as “concerns”, it gullibly “welcomed President Jacob Zuma's stated assurances that hearings will take into account constitutional provisions on free speech and free media.”

Eyewitness News, which employs a number of the senior editors involved, reports that “despite threats made against the media by some individuals, [SANEF] recognises that government’s policies are largely supportive of free speech.”

This is uncommonly naïve. SANEF itself is on the record as saying the Protection of State Information Bill is “arguably the biggest threat to press freedom and freedom of expression since the dawn of democracy.”

This statement came after many modifications that removed the most objectionable provisions, such as a clause which permitted the government to classify purely commercial information, or allowed bureaucrats to widely classify information they deemed to be in the national interest. Although the terms have been tightened up, there is still no “public interest” defence for investigative journalists who receive classified information, nor is there a defence for whistleblowers who leak it. SANEF rightfully wants the Bill be referred to the Constitutional Court.

If a legislation does not embody government’s policies, what does? And how does a bill such as this support the view that “government’s policies are largely supportive of free speech”?

It gets worse, however. SANEF made no mention of the latest bill to come before Parliament: the Cybercrimes and Cybersecurity Bill, published on 28 August 2015 by the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development and open for comment until 30 November 2015. This bill, in effect, re-introduces the broad language that was excised from the Protection of State Information Bill, making it a crime punishable by imprisonment to disseminate, possess, or even just receive government information classified as confidential. This effectively outlaws both investigative journalism and whistleblowing, and makes it possible to set someone up for criminal prosecution merely by sending them an email.

In what way does this convince SANEF that the “government’s policies are largely supportive of free speech”, or that these policies are sufficient to hold government accountable and to scrutinise its actions and policies? They are not, and repeated efforts to legislate away the freedom of the press should convince even the dullest of editors that the government distrusts the media and wishes to disempower it. The idea that the media should become a partner of the government, “joined at the hip”, is especially repugnant. Instead of a worthy adversary acting in the interest of readers, listeners or viewers, this would make the media no more than a faithful government toady operating a professional public relations service at their own expense.

It is the role of an independent press to disclose wrongdoing in government to the public. Government wishes to make this illegal. It is the role of independent media to debate ideology, critique policy, and communicate public opinion. Government wants the media merely to market its agenda to the public. It is the role of the media to act as a watchdog. Government wants to put it on a leash.

SANEF should reject any attempt by government to co-opt the press in the implementation of policies adopted by the ruling party. It is naïve to think government’s intentions towards the media are benign. They are not, never have been, and never will be. DM

  • Ivo Vegter
    IvoVegterBW
    Ivo Vegter

    Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets. He is seldom wrong.

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