Opinionista Nathi Mthethwa 20 June 2017

Dear JJ Tabane: A response from Nathi Mthethwa

It is important for us not to always view the media with rose-tinted spectacles. Rosy introspection on the current role of the media will not reveal fault lines.

At the outset let me say that I welcome some of your suggestions of ways in which government and the media are necessary partners in development.

The proposals of standing features on culture and the arts, promoting authors who write in all languages, publishing the fruit of academic research, introducing newer writers, are most welcome; and certainly these are tasks which together we should embark upon.

In the past we have expressed concern about print media, in particular, ruthlessly cutting the pages covering culture, books and the arts in general. We have been concerned about publishers’ reluctance to support books by new authors, hence the initiative of the Centre for the Book, to support those young writers to see their “first words in print” and our recently announced “Debut Fund” which is administered by Basa (Business Arts South Africa). Together with the National Library of South Africa we have had to initiate a project that has republished African Classics in all our languages. We would hope too that the features you propose could become part of the daily stories that sustain readers, listeners and viewers.

What we share is an overwhelming and unshakeable belief in creativity and the need to support of creative work as this seeks to increase the scope for human freedom.

Furthermore, our freedom can only be strengthened by the full exposure of corruption whether in the public or private sector, without fear or favour, and in a manner that is objective, fair and unbiased. Corruption should be called by its name, wherever this occurs and not labelled “collusion” – a seemingly lesser crime – when it occurs in the private sector.

However, it is important for us not to always view the media with rose-tinted spectacles. Rosy introspection on the current role of the media will not reveal fault lines.

The basic tenets on which we view the media are as follows:

  • South Africa has a vast and vibrant media landscape comprising hundreds of print publications and a wide menu of electronic platforms. While greater media diversity is a goal, various initiatives have been put in place to support this, especially at community level.
  • In maximising its reach to the broader South African public, Government communicates with all media in order to reach the length and breadth of the country across all communities.
  • Because different media also cater for particular markets on the basis of social position, class, gender etc., the selection of media platform will also change based on the purpose of the campaign and the ability of a particular medium to deliver optimal penetration.
  • Government, and historically the governing party, remain a principled champion and torch bearer of media freedom in South Africa, and respect the independence of the Fourth Estate.
  • A long-term view that many in the progressive movement hold dear, is the aspiration for a vibrant and transformed media landscape that is committed to truth, objectivity and fairness, and that reflects the perspectives and lived experiences of the majority. Regrettably, we are still far from that ideal.

Let me dispense with some of the issues you raise at the outset of your critique. Marikana was a tragedy and every true South African would wish that it never happened. The Farlam Commission did its work diligently and we respect its outcomes. The question is what do we do going forward based on the directives of the Farlam Commission and other constructive initiatives. Once more we express our deep sense of loss of people’s lives in Marikana.

Second, when I was Minister of Police, under our stewardship we made three crucial changes, among others, in order to ensure that errant police were brought to book. We strengthened the hand of the Independent Police Investigative Directorate and increased its powers. The Independent Complaints Directorate, which became the Independent Police Investigating Directorate (IPID), had been established under the SAPS Act. The IPID Act was passed by Parliament to give more power and teeth to the IPID to enable it to investigate any complaints by members of the public against the members of the SAPS. This was signed into law in May 2011 and its implementation date was 1 April 2012.

There were widespread allegations at the time that some members of the South African Police Services were involved in criminal activities. I instituted an investigation to understand the facts about the allegations. At the end of my term as police minister the implementation process had been started that would weed out criminals from the ranks of the police service. This investigation was aimed at making sure that those, who are charged with the responsibility to uphold the law, are upright and that their conduct is consistent with the values and ethos of our Constitution.

Similarly, the Civilian Secretariat for the Police Service (Act No 2 of 2011) was established under the SAPS Act, during my term, as we had identified a need to have in place legislation that empowered a secretariat to be able, among other things, to handle complaints from the public on matters relating to service delivery as regards SAPS.

These may be modest achievements but nevertheless they made a difference in ordinary peoples’ lives.

Third, in telling the South African story, we have our differences and I think I ought to share with you a different perspective from the one you propagate. The speaking truth to power that you refer to most eloquently goes both ways.

For the same media who sees itself as untouchable, yet claws at others in the name of media freedom, should also be thick-skinned enough and genuinely introspective to accept legitimate criticism rather than shoot the messenger.

A defence of the media cannot be a blind defence but must be one that accepts that this freedom comes with responsibility as indeed the freedom of expression clause states in the Constitution.

A defence of freedom of expression should therefore also be a defence of our country’s striving for a united, non-racial and non-sexist democracy and of national sovereignty wherein individual and collective freedoms reside.

In our case, the overwhelming narrative projected by some strands of the mainstream media has been one-sided, negative, anti-democracy and without hope.

The ways in which the media seek to manufacture consent have been well documented by public intellectuals, Edward S Herman and Noam Chomsky. What we are dealing with is not confined to South Africa but also elsewhere in the world.

Therefore it is worth reiterating here what they have said, as their insights, although first articulated in the 1980s, still have relevance today and a direct bearing on our situation.

They referred to the propaganda model of the media and the resultant filters that raw news is passed through that shapes the news that audiences receive, how they are covered, where they are placed and how much coverage is received.

This shows how limited objectivity is and how manifest are contradictions within corporate sponsored media that result in conflict of interest through the built-in systemic biases.

Sourcing is considered one such filter whereby news stories are made through reliance on information from certain sources and ignoring others, thus focusing on certain stories or people, and not on others, results in these other voices not been given the time of day or not being considered newsworthy.

Concentrated ownership is mentioned as a another filter – whereby the profit orientation of the dominant mass media shows that they take corporate forms and therefore share interests with other sectors who wish to maintain the economic and political climate that keeps them at the helm and as direct beneficiaries of the existing economic system and as guardians of the status quo. In this way their support for change is limited at best.

Furthermore they ensure that they dominate at the level of ideas, undermining any consciousness of change and discouraging alternative ways of thinking. News items endangering the financial interests and networks of the corporate owner face censorship or disciplining from within.

Yet transformation points to deracialisation with changes in ownership and economics of the media away from racist underpinnings, the concomitant change in content, understanding of this role, and the use of media to strengthen democracy and sustain development.

The recent experience of former Citizen editor, Steven Motale, and the revealing emails about his sacking, point to media owners deliberately giving flak and interfering in what constitutes the news and which voices should be heard to the point of suspending the editor.

Earlier this year Motale wrote once more to the President, indicating that:

“Dear President Zuma

It has been nearly two years since I had an opportunity to address you. To be precise, on 12 August 2015 I penned a column while I was editor of The Citizen in which I apologised to you for being part of a media-driven agenda that sought your downfall. Well, this time the message is not to repeat my apology. The aim is to look back and interrogate whether anything has changed since then. Mr President, I have unwelcome news for you. I’m sad to inform you that nothing has changed, in fact things have taken a turn for the worse.”

In recent years, The Forum of Journalists for Transformation (FJT) argues that black journalists and media practitioners continue to face widespread discrimination and marginalisation in the South African media landscape. Moreover, it is reported as saying that the media industry is failing to acknowledge the lack of transformation in the treatment of its members and media coverage.

Ayanda Mdluli of the FTJ is quoted as saying that: “Some elements within the media industry in South Africa are bastions for white supremacy and that narrative has to change in order to realise effective transformation in the industry.”

Advertising, we acknowledge, is a massive contributor to media’s funding sources. It too has largely been tied to existing economic elites or an economic “establishment” with content that is supportive of them.

With regard to advertising, and purely as a factor of scarce resources, we are obliged to select media platforms on the basis of cost, reach, geographic spread and indeed in terms of transformation.

We respect the fact that each publication or media platform is formally independent, with varying strengths, skills and reach and that the different media are indeed competitors.

In conclusion, at the recent World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) held in Durban in June this year, Professor Guy Berger, Unesco Director of Freedom of Expression and Media Development, in a presentation titled The future of trust: Journalism as world heritage under threat warned media leaders of the dangers of the present where fake news disguised as authentic news results in all “truths” being seen “as equally plausible” and eroding society’s expectation that professional journalism is credible.

“Without journalism standing out in the mix, it will not be possible to find the public path to sustainable development – a path that is based upon evidence, facts and informed analysis. To lose journalism will mean that we find ourselves lost.”

His was a challenge to the media to clean and extend its own house and strengthen its relations with other credible voices:

“Journalism needs to reassert its place in the formula of trust. That each person needs, and will get truths that will help them grasp the complexity of reality. We have an urgent imperative to protect journalism and to rekindle and re-inspire public expectations of what journalism can do for us…. There is a need to signal that no other communications service can fill the gap. As important as ensuring protection and reinforcing public expectations, journalism needs to live up to its distinctive promise.”

The aspiration for a vibrant and transformed media landscape, as I outlined earlier, committed to truth, objectivity and fairness, reflecting the range of perspectives and truths of the lived experiences and realities of the majority of our people, remains a tangible goal.

We would want to work together with the Fourth Estate to move forward on these matters. We welcome the conversation you have initiated. DM

Nathi Mthethwa is Minister or Arts and Culture

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