This blog follows the debate surrounding the state of media freedom in South Africa. It is compiled and written by Julie Reid, an academic and media analyst from the Department of Communication Science at the University of South Africa.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The ANC’s media-schizophrenia and the danger of self-censorship

I have a terrible confession to make, and until now, I have not been able to do it. I am, after all, supposed to be an ‘expert’ in media matters and the like. Part of my job is to attend debates, conferences and colloquiums and to sound/look clever when I do so. Journalists call me for an ‘expert’ opinion, and when they do, they expect me to have one. Apart from that, I am tasked with informing my university undergraduates with a clear understanding of the crazy media industry that I am preparing them to enter. But here it is: I do not really understand what the ANC is trying to do to the media. I find the entire issue quite unfathomable.

When you are an academic, finding that you don’t quite understand something that you should, is unnerving. So after doing some serious introspection I discovered, to my relief, that my non-understanding of the matter does not necessarily lie with me. The problem may be that the ANC, as an organisation, seems to be suffering from a case of schizophrenia when it comes to what it wants to do to, or with, the South Africa media in general, and the press in particular. The ANC’s statements and responses in the past few months, with regard to the proposed media appeals tribunal, have been at best in-consistent and at worst, simply confusing. Let me show you what I mean.

Dr Pallo Jordan for example, at various appearances and discussions, emphatically supported the idea of a media tribunal. I listened to Dr Jordan tell an audience of concerned academics that we should stop being “hysterical” in our protestations to the media tribunal and should rather engage in “sober discussions”. (Never having equated having a healthy concern for the state of my country’s democracy with drunkardness or hysteria, I took slight exception to this). Last year Jordan and Times journalist Justice Malala engaged in a rather ugly war of words over the media tribunal throughout which Jordan again supported the motion. But on 23 November 2010 news reports stated that Jordan had done a literal one-eighty on the issue, saying at an ANC gathering that the ANC is trying to create a “lose-lose situation” for itself, and with regard to a media tribunal, “Those who want to rubbish us will have every right to do so” (News24). So, the assumption is that he changed his mind. Well, alright, he is entitled to do that. But how do we explain the other inconsistencies emanating from the ANC with regard to the media?

I am thinking about Kgalema Motlanthe’s meeting with Sanef (South African Editors Forum) in October 2010, where he assured us that if the media would be willing to re-evaluate its self-regulation processes and the role of the Press Ombudsman, then the ANC would drop its insistence of a media appeals tribunal. We all breathed a sigh of relief. Media academic and activist, Prof Guy Berger optimistically told me at this point that this was evidence that the ANC was beginning to soften its position on the media appeals tribunal, and that the engaging discussions between the media, academics, civil society and the ANC were starting to pay off. But a week later, President Zuma told a crowd of supporters in Stellenbosch that the ANC would continue its pursuit of a media tribunal. (This was right after Julius Malema called Helen Zille a cockroach at the same meeting). So, were Zuma and Motlanthe just not speaking to one another that week? Did Zuma not understand the outcome of the discussions between Motlanthe and Sanef? Or, and this is most scary, did Zuma simply choose to ignore the outcome of that meeting?

There have been several inconsistencies emanating from the ANC about the media tribunal: it is clear that for all its discussions and conference resolutions, the ANC does not have a water-tight or firm position on the media tribunal, and that various members of the ruling party feel very differently about the matter. Just this week we have seen these disparities reveal themselves in parliament, when the five shortlisted candidates for the SABC board where interviewed by the parliamentary portfolio committee on communications. One of the candidates was Lumko Mtimde, CEO of the Media Development and Diversity Agency and member of the ANC: Mtimde clearly outlined his support for a media appeals tribunal throughout last year, and in his interview continued this support. However, another ANC candidate for the SABC board, John Danana, stated in his interview that the proposed media tribunal was ill-conceived, “Stalinist” and that the idea of the tribunal was due to die a natural death.

Then there is Jackson Mthembu, the ANC spokesperson and head of communications, and one of the media tribunal’s staunchest supporters. He turned me down for a debate that I organised in October last year about these media issues, stating that the ANC would not be able to participate in debates surrounding the media appeals tribunal until the matter had made its way through parliament. I assumed at the time that this meant that the ANC, as well as Mr Mthembu, would remain quiet on the matter until the parliamentary committee responsible for the discussion of a media tribunal had done its work. However, three months later this is obviously not the case. Jackson Mthembu has indeed had quite a bit to say about a tribunal, and his tone has often been quite threatening and aggressive, suggesting on occasion that a media tribunal would allow for the imprisonment of journalists who “don’t contribute to the South Africa we want” (Mail & Guardian). On 14 January 2011, Mthembu announced, to my fleeting delight, that the ANC would temporarily back down on its efforts to establish a media tribunal, again suggesting that the ANC had softened its position. I then remembered that we have heard this before (from Motlanthe), but on that occasion it proved to be a somewhat empty statement. What concerns me most now, however, is not the ANC’s confusing inconsistency with regard to its position on a media appeals tribunal, but rather the conditions which Mthembu (and previously Motlanthe) offer, which would supposedly prevent the ANC’s continued pursuit of a media tribunal.

Mthembu states that the ANC will allow the media time to “reform” itself, before continuing (or discontinuing?) its pursuit of a media appeals tribunal. Effectively, the parliamentary process for the discussion of a media tribunal has been put on hold, until the Press Council has received, reviewed and adopted new proposals for self-regulatory practice. (A number of public hearings are being held around the country to discuss such proposals, after which new proposals must be approved by constituent members, including Sanef and Print Media South Africa). Worryingly, none of this effort will provide any guarantee that the ANC will drop its pursuit of the media appeals tribunal in future: “We will give you the space to transform yourself and then see where it takes us”, said Mthembu (Mail & Guardian).  This seems to be quite an unfair deal. The Press Council is effectively strong-armed into what will probably be a year long process of review, discussions and reform (all involving a great deal of work) and the ANC, for its part, may pick up on the issue of a media tribunal afterward anyway, having not promised to drop the matter entirely, but only on condition of satisfactory press self-regulatory reform. (And has it occurred to anyone that no matter how the Press Council reforms self-regulatory processes, without a clear and consistent idea of the ANC’s position on the press, the ANC will have a broad space to express discontent with the newly adopted processes once the Press Council has completed its review?). So in other words, the Press Council has by default committed to reform, while the ANC has committed to nothing. That is not a softened position. That is just good tactics.

It seems then, that in 2011 the spotlight for discussions will be on the Press Council, as it prepares to ‘improve’ press self-regulation processes. Generally speaking, this is not necessarily a bad thing, and certainly the forthcoming discussions may reveal aspects of self-regulation which require some critical attention. But the atmosphere in which these discussions are due to take place are far less than ideal, because they operate under the ultimatum from the ruling party: reform, or else! It is my sincere hope that the Press Council will in coming months withstand this political pressure, and not adopt reforms simply because they may appease the ANC in order to avoid the threatening prospect of a media appeals tribunal. But we do face the frightening scenario that the ANC (despite its apparent inconsistency on the matter) may have cleverly manoeuvred the press into performing the only thing that is more damaging to democracy than governmental censorship, and that is self-censorship. Prof Pieter Fourie from Unisa has already stated that this scenario is almost imminent in South Africa now, and describes the threat of the media appeals tribunal as a metaphorical sword, dangled precariously over the media by the ruling party. 

I do not want to sound too dramatic, but we must also remember that the Press Council’s discussions are due to take place in an increasing climate of intimidation of South African journalists. Sunday Times journalist Mzilikazi Wa Afrika’s August 2010 arrest is simply one example. Shortly after that debacle two Daily Dispatch journalists were reportedly threatened by police in connection with an anonymous letter threatening the safety of a cabinet minister, which seemed to be prompted by a public meeting, reported on by the two journalists. The Sunday Independent’s October 2010 exposé of nepotism, corruption and fraud in the crime intelligence unit lead to the police seeking and obtaining a Johannesburg High Court order preventing the newspaper from publishing further revelations. In December we heard that this was followed by journalist Gcwalisile Khanyile’s phone being bugged by the police, and she became aware that she was being followed. In December two journalists, Penwell Dlamini and Antonio Muchave, were arrested in Johannesburg for taking pictures of Hillbrow police evicting nine families from Regal Court flats. And Zuma keeps suing Zapiro.

Again, the atmosphere in which the Press Council must now conduct its ‘reform’ is simply not ideal. I may have struggled to get my head around all of this, but I do know that if media bodies like the Press Council, as well as editors and journalists, become overly afraid of offending the ruling party to the extent where they bow to political pressure in both regulating and censoring themselves, then we are in serious trouble.

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