Jane Duncan recently returned from a trip to Egypt where she made an input at an academic conference about media transformation in North Africa.
Is there a place in the South African media for a government newspaper? Cabinet spokesperson and head of the Government Communications and Information System (GCIS), Jimmy Manyi, clearly thinks so.
Plans are afoot for GCIS’ existing publication, Vukuzenzele, to be transformed into a tabloid newspaper. If the proposal receives a cabinet stamp of approval then the paper will appear monthly initially, and then fortnightly.
In motivating for the newspaper, Manyi has argued that the existing media censors government information. He has been quoted saying that ‘we [government] can’t depend on the editorial independence of the newsroom to communicate with Joe Public out there’. Furthermore, Manyi has warned that if newspapers do no improve their coverage of government, then Vukuzenzele may be ‘forced’ to appear daily.
The GCIS also appears to be concerned about the lack of accessibility of existing newspapers. If it comes to fruition, the paper will have by far the largest footprint of any newspaper, with a print run of two million. The paper intends to reach audiences not traditionally reached by commercial newspapers. To this end, it will be published in all official languages, and will be distributed through Thusong Service Centres. But what comes through from Manyi’s statements is that this proposal is really a continuation of the African National Congress’s war against South African newspapers by other means.
On the other side of the continent, the opposite discussion is taking place. While South Africans ponder government involvement in the newspaper industry, Egyptians are trying to get the government out of the newspaper industry in the wake of the country’s revolution.
State owned media generally have a reach that no other media enjoy, which is what makes them so powerful as propaganda tools. The Egyptian government’s media interests are extensive, and were used recently to spread blatant falsehoods to protect the Mubarak regime. The government broadcaster, the Egyptian Radio and Television Union, is a media empire with 46 000 employees, and the state newspaper, Al-Ahram, is the largest newspaper in Egypt. Before the January 25 revolution, both institutions were accountable to the Ministry of Information.
Now, Egyptian civil society is engaged in fierce debates about the future of the country’s media, including the government newspaper. Business interests have suggested privatisation; however, this option may not put an end completely to government control, as large private media groups are often tied to dominant party interests.
Furthermore, the Egyptian media tend not to represent the totality of Egyptian society, prioritising urban areas, and neglecting Bedouins, Nubians, Christians and women. Privatisation will probably exacerbate this problem.
Al-Ahram’s journalists have also proposed a share ownership scheme to enable them to buy the newspaper and run it themselves, paving the way for government propaganda to be replaced by professional journalism. In another scenario, the newspaper would remain in state hands but will be converted into a state-owned company, with a Board of Directors running the paper on an arms-length basis. A combination of these two models is also being considered. The difficulty is that while there are models for the transformation from state to public broadcasters, models for similar transformations in the print media do not really exist.
Since the revolution, Al-Ahram has experienced its own internal Tahrir Square. Journalists have demanded a new board of directors and editorial council ahead of the elections, and on March 31, Al Ahram’s editors, together with editors of other major media, were fired by the transitional government, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.
However, there is a deep awareness that changes to media leadership will not automatically lead to changes in newsroom practices. If the revolution is to be successful, social relations in the newsrooms and beyond must be remade. As protests erupt again in Tahrir Square, only to be violently put down by the army, the question underpinning media transformation, and in fact transformation as a whole is “how do we keep the spirit of Tahrir Square alive?”
To its credit, the Council has ensured that one key change, to the Ministry of Information, has already taken place. Mubarak’s Information Minister, Anas al Fikki, made himself particularly unpopular by ensuring that the government media suppressed information about the revolution and portrayed Mubarak as unassailable. To this end, he ordered the closure of the Al Jazeera news network in Egypt.
After Mubarak’s demise, the Council dismantled the Ministry of Information and replaced it with a Ministry of Communications. Ministries of Communication differ (or should differ) fundamentally from Ministries of Information: the former are meant to facilitate access to communications through the development of national policy on issues like universal access to communications networks, ownership of communications systems, local content and the like.
On the other hand, Ministries of Information tend to focus on controlling the content of communications to achieve particular national objectives. In practice, they have become tools for government, and more narrowly, ruling party control of the media. Small wonder that Ministers of Information, from Connie Mulder to Jonathan Moyo, Ronnie Skipawasha, and al Fikki, have become disliked, even despised, for misusing public resources to make government propaganda.
South Africa, too, had a Ministry of Information, established by the National Party when it came to power in 1948. This Ministry, together with the Strategic Communications Service of the State Security Council, propped up the apartheid regime through disinformation. It continued in various guises until a Communications Task Group (Comtask) decided to do away with it and replace it with the GCIS.
According to media academic Robert Horwitz, in making this decision, Comtask rejected a statist current of thought in the ANC, which wanted the government to retain a strong informational role; at the time, the idea of a state news agency was even floated. This current of thought understood government communications as a one-way affair from government to subjects.
In this regard, Horwitz argued, “A ‘Ministry of Information’ or centralised information service has no place under a democratic government as a matter of political principle…As a long line of academic research has shown, few pay attention to this kind of communication except under the peculiar conditions that support propaganda.”
Comtask wanted to see government move away from the role of direct communicator, where government information was delivered from on high. Instead, government should adopt a two-way, participatory, dialogic approach to communications, while providing citizens with the informational tools for self-empowerment.
Furthermore, Comtask argued that the GCIS should act as a service provider to government departments, and also empower departments and other government agencies to communicate, rather than becoming a communication arm in its own right.
Comtask also proposed measures to diversify the media and ensure universal access to communications, mainly through a subsidy system. This proposal led to the establishment of the Media Development and Diversity Agency (MDDA), which was meant to complement the work of the Universal Service and Access Agency of South Africa (USAASA).
In the era of social networking and mobile media, two-way communication is easier than ever before. Yet in spite of this, the dialogic vision of communications in South Africa is clearly in trouble. Government’s measures to realize this vision are inadequate, which communicates the message that they don’t really want a citizenry that speaks back.
If Moeletsi Mbeki’s prediction is correct, and South Africa’s own Tunisia Day is looming, then the lack of access to the means of communications will ensure that the revolution is not televised, printed, blogged or tweeted, or at least not to the extent that it was in Egypt.
Egyptian activists, on the other hand, were able to go round the Egyptian state media and communicate effectively because the Internet penetration rate is higher than in South Africa. This meant that activists could use Twitter to announce protests, Facebook to organise them, YouTube to ‘broadcast’ them, and Flickr to document them (although Flickr was subsequently censored).
The MDDA was established with a sixth of the budget it needed to make a substantial difference to media diversity. Many independent community and small commercial papers have not had a fair shot at life. Since 2008, many have collapsed, as they have been unable to compete with the big four commercial media groups. USAASA has received a drubbing twice in a row from Parliament for its poor delivery record. Access to media and communications remains highly uneven.
Manyi is now using this unevenness opportunistically to motivate for a government newspaper. Whether Manyi admits it or not, the GCIS under his leadership is attempting to re-establish a Ministry of Information by stealth.
But as the Egyptian revolution has shown, once again, Ministries of Information, and they values they represent, are on the wrong side of history.
Professor Duncan is Highway Africa Chair of Media and Information Society, School of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University.
Copyright: The South African Civil Society Information Service (sacsis.org.za)