The past two weeks have seen clear divisions in how the media, or mostly print media, is perceived and its role in a democratic South Africa. The pieces by Moegsien Williams of The New Age, in which he said the media acted like an “unelected opposition” featured in City Press, and then The Citizen editor, Steven Motale’s open letter, in which he claimed to have driven an anti-Zuma agenda via his newspaper, aroused a storm of reaction from journalists and commentators from all sides of the spectrum. Both in their ways put forward the point that the media treated President Jacob Zuma and the ANC unfairly and that the media should be more “constructive” and “patriotic”. But has the upheaval in recent weeks taken the debate further or simply entrenched existing views? Glenda Nevill and Michael Bratt report.
Dr Glenda Daniels, senior lecturer of media studies at Wits and author of Fight for Democracy: The ANC and the Media in SA (Wits Press, 2012), says the division isn’t new, “But it’s worrying that they have become accentuated recently”.
“I don’t understand where Motale’s letter was coming from, nor what the motivation was for this,” Daniels said. “He was doing what all editors and journalists should be doing – that is – being critical of the powers that be, holding them to account. It’s now rather puzzling that he is backtracking.”
Daniels believes state regulation or a media appeals tribunal would “spell the end of independent media and reporting in this country”.
Professor Herman Wasserman, professor of Media Studies in the Centre for Film and Media Studies at the University of Cape Town, says the debate about the role of media in society is “usually a good thing as long as this is a bona fide debate and not a way to raise suspicions”.
“The media themselves should also try to take criticism on board, while defending their right to free speech. So yes, I think the purpose of such debate is to help citizens, politicians and the media to reflect critically on the media’s role in democracy, and whether the media is fulfilling that role well enough. What remains important, however, is that certain fundamental principles are respected, such as the media’s independence, their right to be outspoken in their criticism and freedom of speech,” he said.
Stephen Grootes, host of EWN’s Midday Report and a writer for the Daily Maverick, was one of the first to respond to William’s City Press op-ed in a piece headlined, ‘Dear Moegsien Williams, it’s about the truth’. “Coming from someone in the media, during a time when once again people who should know better, like Zweli Mkhize, are calling for “patriotic journalism”, he is clearly trying to influence the debate on how the media operates. Williams goes further, in suggesting that media organisations should “contribute to the country’s growth and development”. He makes some interesting points. The problem is, these points, and his assumptions, are mostly just plain wrong,” he wrote.
Talking to The Media Online, Grootes said Williams and Motale were “just plain wrong”. Motale, when he used the judgment of Judge Hillary Squires as a basis for his piece, was referencing the wrong judgment, Grootes said. “His piece was being used in a way by politicians to basically say that they were right and everyone else’s interpretation of what happened during the Schabir Shaik trial was wrong… I felt that Motale was wrong and he was misleading people as a result and that misinterpretation of the facts was being used by politicians in a very political way to change the debate.”
Grootes said his response was a means of setting the record straight and ensuring people knew “exactly what was going on”.
“Motale was using his misinterpretations as a basis for a claim that the media had been unfair to Jacob Zuma through all of this time. I still don’t see how he backs that up.” Grootes explained that many people think the whole media issue started with the Squires judgment but says that is incorrect as it started long before that when rumours of Zuma’s relationship and financial dealings with Shaik first started swirling around. Grootes does admit that some people did come along and write responses which did not enhance the debate at all, but he says others did quite well in explaining how the media works and its relationship with government.
What Grootes would like to see come out of the debate is the people who criticise the media explaining why they criticise it and for them to appreciate where some of the journalists are in the media. He added that people who say the media has an agenda against Zuma have no evidence to back it up and have not explained why they think this.
Wasserman says the South African media, in general, is feeling “beleaguered”. It’s for this reason that it responds to criticism as if it were a “full-blown attack on their freedom”. “While there are many reasons for concern about the freedom of expression climate generally (the PSIB, the FPB proposed regulations, etc), this is in the first instance of a wider concern than only the media. Do the media do enough to facilitate and defend freedom of expression in a broader sense? Do they present us with what Steven Friedman called a ‘view from the suburbs’ or are they genuinely trying to represent the voices of all South Africans (and not only their own market)?
“If the media can create a sense of trust among the public as a whole that it tries its best to speak on their behalf, and hold the ANC government to account on behalf of all citizens and not privilege sectional interests, they would have stronger allies in the fight against interference,” he says.
Daniels said it was “astonishing” that Williams said there could be a case for more regulation of print media. “The independent co-regulation system we have at present works well and the important thing is that the public trust and use the system,” she says.
Political commentator, author, broadcaster and columnist, Eusebius McKaiser, believes that all of the responses to Motale’s apology piece to Zuma have not added value to the debate as, “Debates about the quality of the media and its relationship with government are fleeting, they don’t always have the most immediate issues surfacing and then drilled down on, and it becomes a posturing that ‘my media house is better than your media house’… and it becomes a bit of a slinging match”.
He went on to add that the quality of the responses to the debate were not particularly interesting and amazing and journalism students would not be rushing to them as an example of quality journalism. “The role of the media is not to suck up to the government, it is not about making the citizens feel good about the country they live in, the media is about reporting the news as an enforcer… with fairness and balance and truth and it should not preach objectivity. Objectivity is not necessary, it is not desirable and it’s impossible.”
He said some of the journalists had responded to the Motale piece as they were looking for benefits from the government, not because of true conviction.
Wasserman believes it is important for more education about the role of the media in a democracy is vital. “Yes I think this is important, and I would really like to see more cognisance taken of the research that academics are doing to establish for instance the levels of trust among citizens in the media, the different roles that the media can play in a democracy, comparative work about SA media systems in relation to other new democracies, etc. The public debate about media, state and democracy is often very narrow, and almost often takes the form of attacks or mud-slinging rather than informed and civil discussion,” he said.
The timing of the Williams and Motale pieces has also raised concerns that the ‘fight back’ was co-ordinated.
“That might be the perception,” says Wasserman. “And one has to guard against encroachments on media independence, ongoing vigilance is crucial. At the same time there should also be an honest attempt made to hear each other out instead of rushing to raise suspicions about agendas.”
Daniels says that perhaps all these divisions are also arising “because the NGC of the ANC is about to take place, (in October) and there is a strong view there that there must be more ideological hegemonic control by the ANC of all the institutions in the country, more control of the media/less independence/more sunshine or patriotic journalism and less uncovering of corruption”.
The problem, says Wasserman, is that views have become entrenched. “Listening (and by the way there is a whole academic literature on ‘political listening’, including some SA research, that would be useful) is a skill that definitely needs to be developed…”
Nevertheless, he said, the process playing out right now in South Africa is quite normal. “again there is a lot of research out there on media in ‘new democracies’, and the conflicts that ensue in this process. We are not alone in these debates, although that does not mean that we should not take them seriously or that they will just go away. Tensions and conflicts are often good, and important parts of the maturing of democracy. Again, as long as the key Constitutional values of freedom of speech, human dignity, equality, rule of law etc are upheld.”
Note: Moegsien Williams and Steven Motale were both approached to elaborate on whether the debate had added to the understanding of South Africa’s media but neither responded. Motale has ‘gone on leave’ and not doing any further interviews, according to The Citizen.
What do YOU think? about this debate? #MediaDebate
Read more: Floyd Shivambu’s Dear Steven Motale, #SorryForWhat? on Daily Maverick. Luzuko Buku’s Citizen editor’s apology exposes lie of self-regulation on Daily Maverick
Want to continue this conversation on The Media Online platforms? Comment on Twitter @MediaTMO or on our Facebook page. Send us your suggestions, comments, contributions or tip-offs via e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.