The relationship between government and media is often a fraught affair. Peta Krost Maunder caught up with minister in the presidency, Collins Chabane, to discover his thoughts on the media industry.
Getting a one-on-one interview with a government minister is nothing to be sniffed at because it takes a while and much nagging to acquire. But whether they offer any pearls of wisdom or the same old government-speak, this is not something we journalists have control over.
So, it was all systems go when I managed to secure an interview with Minister Collins Chabane, the Minister in the Presidency in charge of performance monitoring, evaluation and administration and, whose role it is to oversee government communication.
While he eyed me warily as I sat down opposite him in his massive office in the Union Buildings in Pretoria, he was pleasant and fair throughout our conversation. But at no point did I think he wanted to be doing this interview. My own stuff? Perhaps.
For starters, Chabane insists the government doesn’t have a problem with the media but it is not working with them in trying to uplift the country and transform society. “The media is not playing the critical role in building South Africa as a brand,” he says. “The media focuses on divisive issues in society and tends to work against the moral values we are trying to put into place.”
Chabane agrees that it isn’t the media’s role to be doing the government’s public relations but says: “The media says it represents public interests. What is that? The media should then be doing public relations for the public’s interests. It must find a way to identify things in the public discourse that builds the nation.”
Although he admits he has never been a journalist or worked in the media industry, he says the media can affect the impact of a story by the way it is written and the angle that is taken.
He says that the government is not unhappy with the media exposing corruption, in fact, to the contrary. “We appreciate it because we then find out about it and we can then pick up on it and take the necessary steps to deal with it. But if I am suspected of corruption and there is no proof and there is a story written, then we have a problem.”
Concerning the issue of media regulation, he believes that the media setting up the Press Freedom Commission (PFC) was an acknowledgement that “something needed to be fixed”.
When I pointed out that the PFC was about print media only, he acknowledged that but says that the commission being set up “was a reflection of the challenges facing all media”.
He says: “What exists (with the present regulation) is not sufficient to protect individuals against defamation and infringements of people’s rights.” He also felt it was wrong that if an individual does not get satisfaction from the Press Council he or she was not able to take it to court.
He was pleased with the commission’s suggestions of an “independent body with muscle to deal with these problems,” maintaining that this was what the government had wanted all along.
Whether this meant that the threat of the government’s proposed Media Appeals Tribunal (MAT) was now history, he said the tribunal was just an ANC proposal and hadn’t even been discussed in government. Effectively, he would rule out that government would bring it back into discussion at some point, depending what happened.
In trying to make the point that the government is not anti-media by proposing the MAT and the Protection of Information Bill, Chabane says the ANC, from its inception, “has been led by the media and since then the freedom of the media and freedom of expression was enshrined in the ANC”.
As for the Protection of Information Bill, he says all countries need to protect certain state information. “The USA and Britain have far worst protection of information legislation,” he maintains.
“That bill in the parliamentary process is a Section 75 bill which needs a simple majority and because of this the ANC could have passed it a long time ago. This going backwards and forwards with it is a show of goodwill on the part of the ANC who do not want to steamroll it into law,” he says. “It has been good and a lot of things in the bill have improved though healthy debate.”
He insists that the media shouldn’t be so worried about it because if it is passed and the Constitutional Court finds that it isn’t constitutional, then it will be changed.
“There is a notion in this debate that we need to take what the majority says as the final word. Not all aspects of governance take the majority vote. Imagine if we put the death penalty to a majority vote… This is such a case but we are taking into consideration what people are saying.”
But what of the journalists being criminalised by not only publishing but possessing so-called state secrets that contain information in the public interest?
“Our courts will find a way to deal with that fairly,” he says. If it can be proven that the information is in the public interests, courts will do the right thing in supporting the media, according to Chabane. He stresses that the bill is not about keeping those stories out of the media because ”wrongdoings can’t be classified like that” and “journalists won’t be hamstrung by this law”.
In the process of publishing stories that might contravene the POIB, he says he expects that lawyers will be brought in to advise editors whether the story is worth running and if they think they can get away with it, the media house will take the chance.
This bill, he says, is about making sure that real state secrets are kept from the public eye, not criminal activities. An example he used of real state secrets was: the South African and Mozambican government having an agreement on how they intend to deal with pirates. In this case, if a publication runs it as a story, it risks the whole operation and a sensitive agreement. “The Mozambicans may well pull out of the agreement because of what our media did.”
He believes there have been significant improvements to the bill and it is time for it to be passed.
One of the other problems between the media and government we discuss is the fraught relationship the media have with Jimmy Manyi, cabinet spokesperson and CEO of the Government Communications and Information Systems (GCIS), which falls under Chabane’s purview.
Chabane accepts that the media does not necessarily work well with Manyi. “One has to make the distinction between the attitude of the media towards a member of government and its attitude towards government,” he says. “People in the media are open about not being able to work with Jimmy but the media can’t determine who is employed by government to be spokesperson.”
Over a year ago, Manyi revealed that he was going to publish a government newspaper, turning the bi-monthly magazine Vuk’uzenzele into a monthly tabloid. He said then that it was ultimately going to go fortnightly. Manyi said at the time: “The media is censoring a lot of government information” and journalists were going to government news conferences where 10 issues were raised and they wrote about one.”
Also, there was a recent announcement of an online government radio station being launched and by the Department of International Relations and Co-operation (Dirco) that would be modeled on the Voice of America.
Chabane smiles as he realises that this worried the industry. “Government is news and the media writes about news,” he says. If all that government did was covered in the media, that would be great but “it is objectively not possible”, he says. “We generate good news all the time but there is no space in the media and it picks up what it wants. So the government must publish its own news and that is what we are doing. It is not to undermine the media, we will continue to do the same as we always do,” he says. “But with Vuk’uzenzele, we can let everyone know about all our programmes in every language including Braille.”
As for the radio station, he explains there isn’t proper understanding in society of international matters; that is why issues like xenophobia arise so DirCo will have a station that can explain things and focus on Africa.
“Neither of these are meant to undermine the media,” he says, because they will just put things out there but not interpret them like the media would. “And if we write something wrong, the media will pick it up and run with it,” he says, chuckling.
Another issue of sensitivity between the media and government is the recent Media Development and Diversity Agency (MDDA) call for government to give a certain percentage of advertising spend to community rather than mainstream media. “I am amazed at how people look at things,” he says. “If I am advertising a Rolls Royce, I can’t do it in a village newspaper, I am going to do it in the media aimed at the people who can afford to buy it,” he says.
He maintains this is the same thing. When government can use community media to help sustain them by spreading messages that are meant for their audience, he says, it definitely must do so. “We have to decide to encourage their growth. The state will have to find a balance to contribute to a vibrant media. The MDDA must continue to advocate advertising in small media and they must pressurise us to spend money on them.”
And finally, he answers questions about the SABC. He maintains that people need to acknowledge that while some would like it to be a state broadcaster, it is the public broadcaster and therefore not the mouthpiece for the government but rather independent in terms of content. But despite being independent on that level, it depends (at the moment) on state funds for survival.
Chabane explains that because of this complicated relationship, it naturally attracts criticism from all sides. “It took a lot of time for some people to understand it is not a private enterprise or a mouthpiece. So some question why give it money if it isn’t offering state propaganda or if it isn’t totally independent. However, I get a sense that there is a belief that most of the criticism may be behind us because a quality board and CEO have been put in place by government.”
In truth, the relationship between government and the media is never going to be cosy because that wouldn’t be healthy but is there a truce in sight? Possibly an uncomfortable one that is shaky at best. Is Chabane ever going to be a huge fan of the media? I get the sense he sees working with this industry as an interesting chore…
This story was first published in the July 2012 issue of The Media magazine.