The National Assembly’s Portfolio Committee has, over the past few weeks, been holding important hearings on the state and transformation of South Africa’s print media. These hearings have not been covered as widely as they could be by the media. Possibly this is an attempt to ignore and sideline views that run contrary to the dominant ideas and discourses, daily reproduced by print media, writes Dr Blade Nzimande in Umsebenzi Online.
Instead, where these have been covered, it has largely been to reinforce the idea that the media is under threat of control and muzzling by government and (an ANC-dominated) parliament. Even some of these hearings have been presented as such. The reasons for this are that the media has preferred to choose its own platforms as the only genuinely ‘free’ ones for the expression of a diversity of ideas.
Custodians of our Bill of Rights?
The above attitude of the print media is brazenly illustrated by the Preamble to its Press Code:
“The press exists to serve society. Its freedom provides for independent scrutiny of the forces that shape society, and is essential to realising the promise of democracy. It enables citizens to make informed judgments on the issues of the time, a role whose centrality is recognised in the South African Constitution. Section 16 of the Bill of Rights sets out that:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, which includes:
a) Freedom of the press and other media; b) Freedom to receive and impart information or ideas; c) Freedom of artistic creativity; and d) Academic freedom and freedom of scientific research.
“The right in subsection (1) does not extend to: a) Propaganda for war; b) Incitement of imminent violence; or c) Advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion, and that constitutes incitement to cause harm.”
“The press holds these rights in trust for the country’s citizens; and it is subject to the same rights and duties as the individual” (my emphases).
Of course, this preamble is outrageously far-fetched, if not grandiose and offensive, for the media to anoint itself as the primary custodian of our Bill of Rights and the rights of the country’s citizens, and also equating its rights to that of South African citizens. It illustrates the extent to which commercial, profit based media has abrogated to itself the right to be the guardian of such a fundamental right in our democracy. Hence its attitude that media is the only platform for the free expression of ideas.
This attitude has extended to intense intolerance by commercial media towards any attempt at serious critical engagement about its ownership, views, slants and its state of transformation. It is as if to raise such matters is an attack on media freedom, as it is only commercial media that has a right to criticize all and sundry other than itself.
The SACP has been advocating for measures to create a new regime of accountability for print media, including a Media Appeals Tribunal that is independent of both media and government. However, important as this mechanism may be it is but one of the many measures needed to transform the media in a democratic South Africa. We have been encouraged by the attempts of the Portfolio Committee to tackle these issues.
Ownership, diversity and media freedom
For the SACP the fundamental issue in the transformation of the media is the nature of ownership of especially bourgeois commercial media in our country and globally. Mainstream commercial media is highly monopolized in South Africa, dominated essentially by four monopolies: the Irish owned Independent Group; Avusa Media, Media 24 and Caxton.
Such monopolization impacts negatively on diversity of views and the promotion of freedom of expression. Much as we should continue to be critical on whether diversity under capitalism can ever genuinely promote freedom of expression, nevertheless ‘de-monopolisation’ of commercial print media can go some way in allowing for the emergence of different and alternative voices. This is a campaign that all progressive forces need to intensify.
In an attempt to address the above problems and many others, government decided in 2002 to establish the Media Development and Diversity Agency (MDDA), whose primary goal is to create an environment to develop and diversity media to reflect the many views and needs of South Africans, especially the majority of South Africans. Indeed the SACP welcomed the establishment of the MDDA as an important intervention in the struggle for the diversification media. The MDDA still remains an important institution, but after almost 10 years of its establishment it is also important that we reflect on its role once more.
Because of the power of monopolies in South Africa’s print media, even initiatives at diversification by promoting and creating local, community and regional media, are increasingly being gobbled up by these monopolies. The Caxton Group is seemingly leading the stakes in taking over community and other local media, though the other media houses are pursuing the same path as circulation, sales and readership (and therefore profits) decline. For instance an institution like the MDDA needs to ask itself as to what extent are some of the community and local media it has assisted to set up have actually been taken over, or are under threat of taken over, by the insatiable profit and ideological appetite of media monopolies.
Editors and journalists in the print media repeat, ad nauseam, that ownership of the media has no bearing on the content and covering of news. They repeat this in a chorus, as if it were the ‘gospel truth’. Their only ‘proof’ of this non-interference is that ‘none of us as editors have ever been instructed by our boards what to write or not to write’. Indeed this is not the only, nor the primary means through which ownership dictates the orientation, content and slant of newspapers. They tell us that content and orientation of media is shaped by its primary market – the readers.
What they of course often conveniently forget to say is that it is not the readers that are the primary drivers of media content and orientation, but advertising and advertisers! What is also not said in this regard is how the media itself daily manufactures the very choices and preferences of its readers through what it covers and doesn’t cover, primary influenced by ownership and advertising considerations.
The relationship between ownership and media content is also strongly determined by the primary drive of all commercial media, profit and the broader ideological imperatives to recreate and sustain the ‘free market’ at all costs. For example, no editor will survive in any of today’s commercial media titles in South Africa if she/he chooses to propagate socialist ideas through her/his newspapers!
It is therefore no accident that generally reading through the business sections of South African newspapers, one would think that all these are written by one person. The business sections’ script is the same – neo-liberal market economics are the only way to go for South Africa and the world. Even in the midst of the current global capitalist crisis there is hardly any effort to allow platforms and cover alternative ideas to their single, totalitarian neo-liberal idea.
It is no wonder for instance that there has hardly been any coverage of the very significant leftward shifts in Latin America over the last decade, including the recent landslide victory by the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Instead, with regard to the latter, the little coverage was given to the protestations by the right wing Nicaraguan presidential candidate who lost the elections to a left wing President, Daniel Ortega. Even such stories are simply downloaded, undiluted and without any reflection, from the US and European wires, with no local interpretation whatsoever.
In fact as research has shown that there has been a decline in newspaper sales and readership in South Africa over the last decade as shown by former editor of the Sunday Times, James Myburgh. The more the decline in sales and readership, the more the tendency towards tabloid type coverage of stories proliferate. This is often leads to township gossips and the cynicism of suburban political dinner talks hogging the headlines.
Broadening the debate on media diversity
The Portfolio Committee, and indeed all progressive forces, need to open up debates about some of the far-reaching measures needed if we are to truly promote media diversity, media freedom and freedom of expression, especially for the workers and the poor of our country. This must include measures necessary to build capacity of Institutions like the MDDA to promote media diversity for all South Africans.
One of these measures will be to consider whether South Africa should not restrict the extent of media ownership by any one media house or group. Of course, just like narrow BEE, restricting media ownership only for a new profit-driven media to emerge may not make a difference to media diversity and expression of different views in society. But such restrictions might create more space for community and locally owned media, but also for national media that is informed by pursuance of expression of different views.
For instance it is unheard of in many parts of the world that in a country like South Africa, where the ruling party enjoying about a two-thirds electoral majority, with a large progressive labour movement, there is not a single newspaper that supports the ruling party or this trade union movement, as is normally the case in many other democracies. Instead, print media in South Africa is almost unanimously anti-ANC, anti-Alliance and anti-government, whilst hugely and unashamedly pro-opposition parties, especially the DA.
Another important debate that needs to be surfaced is whether South Africa should not consider restricting the extent of foreign ownership of media. This may be important in order to promote South African media ownership and the building of our own national media assets, as a goal in itself. This is not a ‘xenophobic’ attitude, but is as a result the fact that unrestricted foreign ownership may stifle South African voices and have other pernicious effects on our own media.
For instance, the Irish-owned Independent Group already, on an annual basis, repatriates most of its profits to support its struggling titles elsewhere in the world. This is having a hugely devastating impact on the standards and quality of journalism inside the Independent Group itself, and generally in South Africa. There is the ‘juniorisation’ of the newsrooms, lack of investment in quality investigation and reporting, thus the increase in poorly researched stories, sensationalism and to conflate fact and opinion.
It is also very striking that where a popularly-elected, ANC-led government has placed priority in five key transformation areas (education, health, jobs, fight against crime and corruption, and rural development), there is hardly a senior corps and adequate numbers of experienced journalists who are specialists in some or all of these areas. Instead almost every journalist must become a ‘political’ reporter in order to have any hope of rising up the ranks of journalism.
Language, media freedom and diversity
The greatest injustice and the violation of the rights of freedom of expression of the black majority is language. Commercial print media is overwhelmingly English (followed by Afrikaans) in a country where more that 60 of Africans speak only African languages! With the exception of the province of KwaZulu-Natal, there are hardly any viable African languages newspapers. Maybe for progressive forces this is a blessing in disguise as this space provides huge opportunities for establishing progressive media in African languages. In effect freedom of expression and freedom of the media in the print media of our country is enjoyed by English and Afrikaans speakers! Without the SABC, itself under constant contestation by moneyed interests, the situation would be worse – a continued colonization of the majority through language.
Yet, ironically, in the presentations to parliament by all the major print media houses, the majority of their readership is black with a huge component being African! To them transformation means BEE scorecards, some minimal skills development initiatives, and nothing much beyond that.
Lastly, but not the least, a renewed campaign needs to be waged for massive injection of resources into the MDDA, as one important instrument through which to advance media diversity and freedom of expression for the workers and the poor of our country. A campaign should also be waged for a much higher compulsory contributions by commercial media into the coffers of the MDDA. Perhaps we can also strengthen and reposition the MDDA to be at the forefront of the effort to promote progressive print media in African languages.
We hope the Portfolio Committee on Communications will also take some of these issues into account in discussing and debating media freedom, diversity and transformation in our country.