What are the real issues facing the media? Raymond Louw puts it all into perspective, revealing a particularly worrying picture in a story first published by The Media magazine.
The latest South African newspaper circulation figures show losses for most of the established dailies and weeklies, reflecting the slide that has overtaken print media throughout the world. A few newspapers, however, have shown gains as have many magazines.
This raises questions about the health of print, whether its problems are affecting its fortunes and whether the declines are caused by a drop in standards and quality of publications.
The South African industry is indeed beset with problems. The circulation losses seem similar to those in the United States and Europe where the ‘new media’ – internet and cell phones – have made inroads as news and information sources and, to use that awful term, platforms. The global financial crisis, from which the world is slowly recovering, has also eroded profits.
The South African media are confronted by a hostile official environment. The ruling African National Congress (ANC) accuses the press of being an enemy and acting as an opposition party. The anger of one of these critics, the ANC regional chairman in the Nelson Mandela Bay municipality, Nceba Faku, boiled over when he urged a crowd of supporters from the steps of the Port Elizabeth City Hall to burn down The Herald newspaper over the road because of “its opposition to the party”. He later denied uttering the threat, but it was confirmed by several reporters and party supporters.
Journalists have been at the receiving end of police antagonism. More than 20 reporters and photographers have been arrested and often detained in cells overnight in the last few years for allegedly ‘interfering’ with police carrying out their duties. But the police could not sustain the charges when the journalists appeared in court and prosecutors dismissed them. The police often expunged the images from photographers’ cameras and, on occasion, barred reporters from court cases.
Most newspapers involved responded lamely but the SA National Editors’ Forum (SANEF) complained bitterly to the Police Commissioner and the Minister of Police, though without apparent effect. International organisations such as Amnesty International and the Committee to Protect Journalists voiced sharp protests. Freedom House, the New York-based world monitor of press freedom, cited governing party hostility as one of the reasons for it downgrading South Africa from a ‘free’ country – a status it has enjoyed since 1994 to ‘partly free’, its rating during the previous National Party government regime.
The ANC has gone further, requesting parliament to investigate establishing a statutory Media Appeals Tribunal to deal with complaints against newspapers. It declared that the industry’s self-regulatory system – modeled on similar best practice institutions in other democratic countries – is ineffective and ‘toothless’ despite the Press Ombudsman having found in favour of the ANC and government in two-thirds of the cases they have brought against newspapers.
Journalists, lawyers and civil rights organisations have protested, believing the tribunal will operate like similar institutions elsewhere and censor the media by imposing their values on reporting and information dissemination.
This proposal has been coupled with the ANC currently bulldozing through Parliament a frightening Protection of Information Bill that enables an enormous range of information to be declared as state secrets. Journalists and lawyers believe the Bill is unconstitutional and will prevent the public from being informed by the media about public interest information about abuse of power, maladministration and corruption. Possession of protected information carries a mandatory 25-year jail sentence penalty. Many journalists believe that their exposure of corruption in high places underpins the government’s determination to enact this legislation.
Several other Bills and legislation threaten to restrict access to, and the dissemination of, information. Among them are the National Key Points Act – which prohibits reporting or picturing security features and operations at certain buildings and institutions declared ‘key points’ but unidentified – the Films and Publications Act, the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act, the Protection of Personal Information Bill and the Protection from Harassment Bill. Two pieces of legislation concerning public broadcasting and the operations of Icasa (Independent Communications Authority of SA) wait in the wings.
In contrast to the arrival of democracy in 1994 when civil servants were delighted to respond to reporters’ requests for information, reporters now encounter reluctance if not refusals to answer questions. The latest public example of official clamming up drew protests from the Parliamentary Press Gallery Association on May 26. During a briefing about the latest cabinet meeting that day, government spokesman Jimmy Manyi refused to elaborate on a cabinet statement stating that: “The cabinet endorsed the view that the next leadership of the International Monetary Fund should come from the emerging countries”. Manyi refused to answer reporters’ questions whether the cabinet would support Planning Minister Trevor Manuel for the position or whether it would lobby other governments for a developing country candidate.
Manyi’s censorship was ironic following his earlier accusation that reporters at those briefings were censoring him.
Newspapers are facing defamation actions from President Jacob Zuma – totaling more than R12-million – plus frequent expensive court actions to fend off attacks or which relate to publication or gaining access to information. This requires newspapers to make substantial profits to remain viable but a question that continues to arise is whether the focus on profits is disproportionate and results in abnormal cost-cutting.
Creeping up on the media are competitors with whom no one appears to know how to deal. These are free news websites and postings by bloggers that together with numerous half-hourly radio news bulletins are enticing readers – and in some instances classified and other advertising – from the media.
Against this background, financial pressures have resulted in operations in newsrooms being severely strained by retrenchments, the departure of senior journalists for better paid positions in government or private business causing ‘juniorisation’ and thus under-trained staff. Cost-cutting has also resulted in some newspaper groups creating centralised sub-editing offices situated far from newsrooms and without ready access to the writers.
All this has given rise to complaints about falling standards, inaccurate or shabby reporting and journalists relying on handouts rather than active news-gathering. This is reflected in the complaints to the Press Ombudsman which last year totalled 213. However, that figure is relatively small compared to the number of complaints dealt with by similar institutions in other countries; and is minimal compared with the myriad stories published yearly by the country’s newspapers and magazines.
This indicates that South African journalistic standards may not be as low as some critics suggest. Indeed, there is a great deal of excellence as is borne out by the huge number of ground-breaking journalism entries rewarded at the Taco Kuiper Investigative Journalism and Mondi-Shanduka and Vodacom journalism of the year award ceremonies.
Louw is a former editor of the Rand Daily Mail and until recently editor and publisher of the weekly current affairs newsletter, Southern Africa Report.