Defend Truth


From leadership to leadershi*


William Bird is the director of Media Monitoring Africa, Ashoka and a Linc Fellow.

What these parties fail to realise is that the more they undermine the media and their own profession the more they undermine democracy and the less likely people are to vote.

There are times when our politicians make us proud, when they take a decision that is bold but in line with our country’s Constitution. For example, when South Africa opposed the invasion of Iraq, or when the EFF kicked off the “pay back the money” chant, or our current President’s Thuma Mina speech. Sure, these examples are flawed but they speak to moments when our politicians seek to act in the public interest, and in such a manner they become believable.

Much has been made recently of how agent orange (AKA Donald Trump) has undermined the media, and how his racist, sexist and frankly, megalomaniac tendencies have threatened media freedom, and many of these comments are spot on. More fundamentally however, Donald Trump’s approach has demonstrated how politicians can deeply and profoundly undermine our faith in politicians and the system they maintain and uphold that is meant to serve the public interest.

Now, of course there are still good politicians, those who often have to actually work together, to make things run, to meet and compromise. We don’t hear about these because that is the boring work of government and it is also not in most of our political parties’ interest to let the public know that behind the scenes these people actually get on with doing their job across party lines.

I’m talking about the stereotype of “how do you know when a politician is lying?” Answer, “their lips are moving.”

Our faith in politicians has always been low, understandably so because for most of our country’s existence we have had scumbags using a system to oppress and crush humanity during the colonial and then apartheid years. It has only been since our first democratic government that we have actually had an idea that politicians are there to serve all of us, the people of South Africa.

Have no doubt, our media are flawed, but without them we wouldn’t have known about Nkandla, Mido Macia, Andries Tatane, or what really happened at Marikana – let alone the litany of world-class investigative journalism stories done every week.

The last few weeks have seen a range of attacks on our media, attacks that seek to incite bullies and censors. Like flies to dog poo our parties have taken to social media as their new platforms of influence, where they can shape their own messages, and better still enlist the help of supporters to be trolls and slam down anyone who has contrary views.

Attacks on the media range from the dismally, despicably embarrassing response from Dirco who didn’t roundly and firmly condemn the illegal detention of a South African former editor, Angela Quintal, in Tanzania; to Minister Bathabile Dlamini denying access to eNCA on the flimsiest of grounds to a public 16 Days event; to attacks on our public broadcaster where instead of fighting for a guarantee, parties seem set on political point scoring, to the crass and anti-democratic attacks on our media and some journalists by the EFF.

What these parties fail to realise, as most seem unable to think beyond five years or the next election date (whichever is closer), is that the more they undermine the media and their own profession the more they undermine democracy and the less likely people are to vote. Behaving like parasites means that as they lie to their voters, as they undermine the credibility of media who seek to inform, they are ultimately eating away the chances of them getting new voters. After all, who would want to vote or switch party if people simply don’t know who or what to believe. So, either our politicians are behaving like short-sighted parasites, or they are only too aware of what they are doing and want simply to destroy democracy.

This isn’t to suggest that media shouldn’t be criticised or strongly engaged. As a series of entities that are dealing with digital shifts with varying degrees of success, they have become a lot more open and accountable. Many key editors are on social media platforms and if people have questions they can be put to them. But we aren’t seeing critique, we are seeing attack and incitement to harm, silence and censor. From our government, instead of leadership we get leadershi*! We can’t even condemn the arrest of one of our own former editors? When a party attacks media, we don’t immediately see the condemnation of the party’s actions and support for our media by the various other political parties. Leadershi*, again. Critically, however, with elections just months away, when parties use violent discourse and attack our media we don’t see instant counter-narratives that seek to engage dialogue, de-escalate tensions and look for solutions. Instead we get more playground antics of bullies.

What does it tell us about our political parties when they can’t even leap to the defence of media freedom when it is being attacked and when it is exactly that same right that facilitates the spread of their own ideas and helped get them into power? Should we believe any of them if they can’t defend or fight for our democratic institutions?

Here’s the thing – the ‘leaderships’ in our political parties have pulled the wool over our eyes for far too long. Many of them keep moaning about how the media is unfair, gives them a hard time, has an agenda etc, but in most instances they neglect to use their power to do anything but moan or attack.

If they actually wanted change they could take complaints to the Press Council or the Broadcasting Complaints Commission of South Africa, or if they really don’t like those mechanisms they can go to court. They can meet with editorial bodies, they can make submissions to Parliament on media diversity, they could support the media development and diversity agency (MDDA), they could seek to have meaningful debate on funding the SABC or small commercial and community media.

Pressure resulted in the SAHRC Inquiry into racism in the media and also the Press Freedom Commission headed by Justice Pius Langa. It’s not the media that isn’t accountable, it is our politicians and political parties. We only get one chance to get them out of power every five years and even then, as the public we have no say in who is on the actual list, it is decided by their membership.

The spread of misinformation and disinformation is real and we are working to combat it, but it is made a thousand times worse when the threat comes not from dark forces seeking to destabilise our democracy, but from our own political parties who seek to destabilise our democracy and to defend it daily when it is attacked.

So the next time politicians attack the media, if they represent your party, ask them for evidence, ask them to use the mechanisms available, ask them why they are asking you to silence journalists because they disagree with your party leaders. Ask them how they will deal with you if you take them on and question them. Will they ask other members to then silence you? If the politicians who are attacking media are from a party you don’t support, ask those who do why they are not standing up for media freedom? Ask your party leaders what concrete steps they are or will be taking in the lead-up to elections to protect and deepen media freedom. If they brush you off or feed you nonsense ask yourself how safe your opinions would be in their hands if you ever changed your views.

Finally, next time party leaders or their minions attack the media, you may agree with the attack, you may even think the media are rubbish or have an agenda, but you need to think about what kind of democracy you want. One where media can interrogate all parties, where you can set up your own if you wanted to, and where media can be improved or a “democracy” where media freedom means simply toeing a party line? The last option might sound enticing but those systems always fail. Just ask the old National Party. DM


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