SABC chief Hlaudi Motsoeneng wants all journalists to apply for a licence. Wadim Schreiner sketches the scenario.
It’s a cold winter’s day in June 2016, 8am in the morning. A long queue of people has formed outside a grey building in the centre of Tshwane. Insight, the monthly Media Licencing Committee under the leadership of chairperson Mac Maharaj and deputy chairperson Thandi Modise, is sitting, ready to approve journalistic licences for those still freezing outside. The queue is moving slowly through the building, as the committee evaluates each individual thoroughly.
Some emerge red-eyed, having been denied the licence to write for a sixth time in a row. I recognise Chris Roper, of the Mail & Guardian, shedding a tear, desperate. “Too much NPA [National Prosecuting Authority] reporting,” he sobs. Ferial Haffajee appears, but she also did not get one of those yellow slips allowing her to continue earning a salary. Iqbal Survé emerges clutches something, a tiny smile on his face as he hops into a waiting car. Branko Brkic, followed by half a dozen pale-faced individuals, leaves the building and heads across the road to the nearest soup kitchen.
Inside the Ministry of Communications, the committee has just adjourned for another month. Those still waiting outside grab their placards and head back to the intersections. “Journalist without licence, please help with anything” they read. Sadly, they are all unable to witness the official launch of a new documentary on SABC ’22 years of democracy – 22 reasons to be happy’ launched at a SABC/The New Age breakfast and hosted by lifetime chief executive officer, Hlaudi Motsoeneng.
Of course, the scenario seems crazy. Journalists would never stand at intersections. No, sir. They would get back to their homes or offices and figure things out.
And this is why discussions about journalistic licences’ are ridiculous. Firstly, what is a journalist these days, where blogs and social media dominate news and information? Is it someone employed by a media organisation? If so, what about the many freelancers? I can use a blog to publish my investigations into corruption without the need to be formally employed by an organisation.
South Africa has 50 million potential ‘journalists’. Qualifications are good, they help with quality and ethics, but do I need to have studied journalism in order to be a journalist? Some of the best opinion makers writing in the press have no journalism degree, but their insights are invaluable. And if the government really decides to clamp down on media freedom and shuts down websites and blogs, there are plenty of international platforms available that will happily ignore a lawyer’s letter from the South African government.
Instead of the stick approach, try the carrot. I know this seems unthinkable for many in government, where cadre deployment and party loyalty often trumps common sense. Take the criticism on the chin, work with it. If you really feel that you have been mistreated by the press, approach the ombudsman. Accept that this is the democratic process.
Accept that you will not be able to control public opinion with selective news reporting. If reality does not match experiences, you can shout as loud as you want to: no one will believe you. The printed editions of the Good News South Africa newspaper will quickly become window-cleaning material.
And no matter how hard you try, a real journalist always finds a way to express his or her opinion, and a willing audience always finds a way to listen. And that audience might well withdraw your licence to govern at the next election.
This story was first published in the September 2014 issue of The Media magazine
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