Now that the ANC has dragged out the old chestnut of a media tribunal to add to its determination to force through the aptly named secrecy bill, it seems that US President Obama and his South African counterpart, Jacob Zuma, share a determination to mess with their respective constitutions.
On one hand Obama wants to change one of the most precious amendments in the US constitution, that guaranteeing the freedom of every citizen to bear arms. He wants to change that to “bear only certain arms under certain conditions”.
Equally, President Zuma wants to mess with one of the most precious parts of the South African constitution and that is the guarantee of freedom of speech and freedom of the press.
He wants to change it to “freedom of the media but only if the media stick to an entirely new set of rules about publishing stuff we feel should be state secrets and generally anything that the governing party feels is giving the wrong impression about us or the country”.
In both cases, while there might well be logical reasons for increased regulation, it is perception that counts. And in both cases the perception will be that Obama would have single-handedly destroyed the second amendment and that Zuma would have ended two decades of press freedom and the right of access to information.
The world will regard South Africa as far less of a democracy than it was when Nelson Mandela was sworn in as president.
And while the ANC will bang on ad-infinitum about the secrecy act not being a secrecy act at all and the media tribunal not being some form of press censorship, the perception all over the world will be precisely the opposite.
Of course, one can understand what is motivating the ANC to push for a media tribunal. There is no question that the mass media have made far too many mistakes and far too many knee-jerk errors of judgement. Journalism has become ‘opinionism’ and telling both sides of the story just doesn’t happen anymore.
In truth, the standard of journalism in this country stinks and one cannot blame the ANC for wanting to stick their oar in.
But, is a media tribunal going to help?
Certainly not if all it becomes is a receptacle for cadre deployment. On the other hand, it will be completely unacceptable to the ANC if, like the existing regulatory bodies, they do not enjoy the trust of the ANC.
It is clear that in spite of the Press Council and Press Ombudsman wishing to demonstrate that they can be impartial and efficient regulators and watchdogs, the ANC simply isn’t buying it. It wants some sort of control.
Which suggests to me that it is going to end up rather like the SABC board that certainly has a few independent thinkers but is controlled by a cadre-chairman and a few acolytes who take their lead from the party.
The only workable solution in my opinion would be a media audit body made up of entirely independent, non-party political affiliated, non-media affiliated people of wisdom and experience.
But, that’s a pipe dream because neither the ANC not the media would buy into that sort of deal.
Each wants more control than the other. That’s why self-regulatory bodies will never be acceptable to the ANC and media tribunals stuffed with cadres will never be acceptable to the media.
In my opinion the only solution is that far heavier penalties should be imposed by the media on its own when they get things wrong. Right now a small print apology on page 27 just doesn’t crack it.
If mass media are serious about what they do, they need to demonstrate it. They need to not only regulate themselves with teeth instead of kid gloves and they need to start training journalists to be journalists. By presenting both sides of the story and not punting their own agendas or those of their employers.
I am in no doubt that to a large extent the media brought this whole tribunal thing on themselves.
Having said all that, I still firmly believe that it is better to have a free but sometimes-flawed media industry than one that is restricted by law or government enforced regulation.
No democracy can flourish without media freedom and the imposition of protection of information laws and media tribunals is a cancer to democracy.
Maybe Obama and Zuma should get together to have a chat about what they are doing and at the same time I would hope that Obama would give Zama some tips on how to ignore criticism instead of reacting with knee jerk paranoia.
That’s really what the ANC’s media tribunal is all about. Fragile political egos.