The publisher of the Zimbabwean Daily News, Jethro Goko, was recently awarded his masters in journalism leadership from the University of Lancashire. His subject? The relationship between South Africa’s media, and President Jacob Zuma’s presidency. It’s no secret there is significant tension between the press and the administration, with the ANC accusing media of being “the opposition” and threatening all manner of reprisals, from launching a Media Appeals Tribunal to certain sections contained within the controversial Protection of State Information Bill, dubbed the ‘secrecy bill’ that impact on the ability of the media, particularly investigative journalists, to do its job.
The Media Online caught up with Goko to find out more about his dissertation, ‘An exploratory study of the relationship between the South African Press and Jacob Zuma’s Presidency’.
“There is a mutual lack of trust and a significant contestation for power between President Jacob Zuma’s government and the media in South Africa – arguably more so than was evident between the media and Zuma’s post-1994 predecessors Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki and Kgalema Motlanthe,” says Goko. “This difficult relationship is marked by a relentless and often dismissive finger-pointing between the two estates – the current and long-term consequences of which are perceived negatively by the media itself and by analysts.”
Goko says there is a significant proportion of people in government who view the media with some suspicion. “But similarly, many journalists in South Africa do not trust the government,” he says. “Virtually all the editors, senior journalists and media experts that I interviewed for my MA study perceived the relationship between Zuma’s administration and the media to be generally bad”.
Interestingly, he says, most of the interviewees – including active editors and senior journalists – placed almost equal blame on Zuma, the state and the media for this bad relationship.
“Some interviewees felt that the bad relationship between Zuma and the media was unavoidable because of the different roles and interests of the two estates,” Goko says. “However, they also felt that the implications of this bad relationship for the press, the state and the country were negative in the long-term.”
That there is no love lost between the press, the ANC and is government, a lack of understanding of the media on the part of government is just one reason for this state of affairs, says Goko.
“Indeed, my research found out that neither the state nor the South African media is happy with how the two estates relate to each other. Even more worryingly, the media itself is concerned about the long-term impact of the tense relationship it has with Zuma and the state – with both sides perceived to be culpable for this poor relationship.”
He lists the other major factors that the study identified as responsible for this bad relationship as:
– A lack of trust between the state and the media;
– Alleged state efforts to control the media;
– Zuma’s ‘controversial’ life;
– Unwillingness by the presidency to engage with the media;
– A perception of high levels of corruption in South Africa;
– ‘Poor’ journalistic culture and ethics;
– A deficit of experience and journalistic skills in newsrooms; and
– Increased competition and bottom-line pressure within the media industry.
Goko says his research found there wasn’t a deliberate targeting of the ANC and the government by media. “After all, the fact that the ANC is the ruling party means that it will always come under the spotlight more than any of its competitors,” he says.
But, he adds, “perception is powerful and the fact is that both the ANC and the government often feel hard done by the press in particular – and that is not always a healthy state of affairs, as conceded by media leaders themselves.
“In addition, many experts interviewed in the study felt that the media were also not doing enough to understand how the government worked and, in some instances, to ‘change gear’ in the way they reported on government post-1994 compared to how they related to the government pre-1994.”
He says while the concept of a press ombudsman is good, the ANC and the government are critical of the current set up and “mostly view the press ombudsman as embedded to the interests of the media rather than being an impartial arbiter of disputes. This is one of the reasons that there has been some agitation in some government circles for a Media Appeals Tribunal,” he says.
Goko says while an element of tension is “natural between governments and the media in functioning democracies, particularly if the media is to fulfil its watchdog role, but that “there is an appreciation that there comes a point at which the tension needs to be managed before it becomes counter-productive and destructive”. He says his research showed the media “is concerned about the long-term impact of the tense relationship it has with Zuma and the state – with both sides perceived to be culpable for this poor relationship”.
Goko says the critical issue that arises from this is what both estates are doing, or can do, to either remedy or mitigate what they perceive to be their unhealthy relationship?
“The Leveson inquiry in the UK is a stark reminder of how the media can unwittingly end up at odds with the state and society if relationships are not nursed,” he says.
One of the issues media can’t understand is why the Zuma administration is fixated on media ownership and diversity, particularly in the print media, yet it ‘owns’ the South African Broadcasting Corporation, the biggest and most powerful media platform in the country. Goko says this is “baffling” and questions why the government has “expended so much energy on media ownership and diversity as if that is in itself the source of the tension between the state and the press. And indeed, the government controls arguably the biggest and most powerful media organisation on the African continent, in the SABC”.
Yet there is tension in that relationship too, he says.
“But here again, we have to remember that the ANC, as they say, is a broad church representing diverse political, economic and ideological interests. As a general consequence, its relationship with the SABC is complex and can range from complete happiness with or utter contempt for the public broadcaster depending on a particular faction’s access to the corporation. So, by and large, the SABC does not always escape the criticism that the ANC and government level against the media generally,” he says.
An issue that continues to strain the relationship is that of leaks to the media. Government – as it did recently over the leak of the public protector’s report into excessive state spending on Zuma’s private home in Nkandla – tends to blame media for the leaks. But the media knows government leaks like a sieve, particularly as factions within the ANC are often at war with each other and use the media as a means to settle scores.
“In a structure as big and as diverse as a national government, one can expect sensitive state information to leak from time to time, and for news-starved and competitive media to lap this in,” says Goko. “But this is neither here nor there in the big scheme of things as the perception within certain sections of the public sector that the media is out to get them is what contributes to the bad relationship between the state and the media. As it is also said, perception at some point becomes reality – and this is often not helped by sloppy journalism within the media when reporting on the government, which strengthens stereotypes.”
Goko says South African investigative journalists, the teams that are exposing stories such as Nkandla and other tales of corruption and greed in high places, are doing a good job. “There is very little doubt that investigative journalists are generally doing a good job in South Africa,” he says. And their contribution to create a healthy, thriving democracy is vital. I”ndeed, South Africa would be the poorer for it if the quality of its investigative journalism was not this high.”