Two developments in our country in recent weeks reveal the extreme class, racial and gender bias in our media. Reactions to the offer to buy the Independent Group by a consortium led by Dr Iqbal Survé, and the leaking of film footage of the crime scene where Reeva Steenkamp was killed, have exposed the core class, race and gender character of South African media. Perhaps more than any other developments, these two examples underline the fact that we need to intensify the struggle for radical change in media ownership in South Africa.
Let us briefly elaborate.
On Monday, the SACP issued a comprehensive statement challenging the views in a statement issued by the South African National Editors Forum (Sanef) on the offer by Survé’s consortium to buy the Independent Group of newspapers. At the heart of our outrage is the selectivity and hypocrisy of Sanef on these matters. Sanef decries the fact that the Independent Group is a monopoly only now when it is being bought by a black-led, South African consortium, but was quiet about this through all the years when it was Irish owned. The message from Sanef is absolutely clear: that a media monopoly is not a problem as long as it is a white monopoly, even if foreign, but it is bad when it is South African, black led monopoly. There is no other interpretation of this outrageous statement.
What the SACP also finds objectionable in Sanef’s statement is that it has never raised issues of monopoly in the media in relation to, for instance, Media 24 and Caxton. Incidentally, Anton Harber’s comments on the Independent Group are highly questionable as he is deeply conflicted on this matter because he is funded by a competitor, the Caxton Group. Again, this clearly shows that Sanef’s position is not a principled stance against monopoly control of the media. They are simply against upsetting the current regime of white monopoly media ownership, especially by a black monopoly over which they have no say and which they fear will be opposed to their currently hegemonic view of South African reality.
Sanef has always distanced itself from matters of media ownership, often pretending that they have no interest in matters concerning media ownership as they are editorially independent. They have always denied accusations that the distinction between ownership and editorial independence is a false one. This time, however, they have raised ownership issues directly, breaking their own ‘protocols’ and pretences. This goes to show that the facade of editorial independence from ownership is maintained for as long as the current status quo of white ownership of the media remains. The moment these ownership patterns and regime are threatened, the distinction between Sanef and media owners suddenly disappears.
We wish to reiterate that the SACP holds no brief for Iqbal Survé, but we are here raising matters of principle. The SACP was the first non-racial political party in our country, and we are still champions of building a non-racial society. But part of building a non-racial society is about exposing and confronting persisting racism in our society. The idea that raising issues of racism is racist must be dismissed with the contempt it deserves; it is merely an attempt to defend persisting racist ideas and practices in South African society.
The race, class and gender nature of our media is also exposed in the way that it has reacted to the leaking of photographs of the crime scene where Reeva Steenkamp was killed. When the SACP joined the protests against ‘The Spear’, as essentially racist and an affront not only to the President but to many black South Africans (who in the past were subjected to the humiliating ‘thawuza’ practice in the mines and in some of the apartheid labour bureau), there was a rallying cry by liberals and other reactionaries that this was the violation of the artist’s freedom of expression. When we further protested against the City Press for displaying this offensive portrait on its web pages, the same forces defended the City Press’ freedom of expression as part of media freedom.
Yet, when footage of the crime scene where Reeva Steenkamp was killed was made public, there are strong insinuations that Sky News has possibly crossed the line and may have even violated the rights of the accused, Oscar Pistorius! It must be noted here that freedom of the media to publish what it likes and its right to freedom of expression has taken a back seat in all the major media coverage on this matter. Even worse, the sentiment coming across is that it is Pistorius’ rights that have been violated and not those of the Steenkamp family and of Reeva whose blood is literally splashed in that footage! Sanef is dead silent on these matters. Clearly, in this instance, it is the rights of the rich, not the working class family of Reeva Steenkamp that matters. And it is also the rights of a man that are elevated above those of a woman. In fact, this patriarchal and elitist message has come to characterise the voluminous media coverage of this matter especially by eNCA on 4 June 2013 and before that!
It is this class, racial, and gender bias of South African media, that has negatively affected its ability to properly inform and engage our people meaningfully. It is a media that is extremely intolerant of critical engagement with its own glaring shortcomings. For instance it is no accident that the SACP statement in response to Sanef was basically suppressed by all the media with the exception of The New Age and, partially, the Business Day. I am extremely disappointed that even the public broadcaster ignored our statement even as it held a SAFM morning debate informed by same statement.
The class orientation and bias of South African media is also largely shown in its coverage of international events and developments. What often parades as international news in the pages of our mainstream print media is simply downloaded from Reuters or AFP. Even the public broadcaster relies on correspondents from the US and Europe. There has been minimal investment in creative and diverse sourcing of international news: reading The Star is exactly the same as reading the UK Independent. Our local media is even averse to engaging the local diplomatic corps regarding events in their countries. For example I have not seen any interview with the Syrian ambassador to South Africa over the last 26 months of war in that country! They simply parrot the interpretations of the western media without giving any other views. I have hardly seen any coverage of the bold Latin American experiments for an alternative, more egalitarian socio-economic order.
These developments underline what the SACP has been consistently arguing – i.e. that the biggest threat to the freedom of the media in South Africa is not the Protection of State Information legislation nor our government, but the twin dangers of media monopoly and lack of transformation. A highly monopolistic media is against diversity of views and opinion. And unfortunately this monopolisation is not lessening but intensifying as community media is daily being gobbled up by the four main media monopolies.
From the standpoint of our movement’s commitment to a second, and more radical phase of our transition, it is urgent that we pay closer attention to the necessity for radical changes in media ownership in our country, as a precondition to genuinely deepen our democracy.