Joel Netshitenzhe - Keynote address: Media Freedom Seminar

19 October 1998

19 October 1998


I should start first by thanking you for the invitation to take part in this seminar on one of the most venerable days in the calendar of the Freedom Struggle. I use the words Freedom Struggle advisedly because it is our conviction that the struggle for media freedom is a critical part of the struggle for all other freedoms and human rights.

It is unavoidable that a commemoration such as this would invoke the names of giants such as Percy Qoboza, Steve Biko and other heroes whose fate is intimately linked to this day - and whose powerful pens spewed the revolt and sense of rebellion from their powerful minds.

They were all soldiers in a tradition whose court of wise elders includes the likes of Can Themba, Nat Nakasa, Dan Tloome, Ruth First, Joe Gqabi, Sol Plaatjie and John Tengo Jabavu.

To all these and more, we owe gratitude not only for the fact of freedom; not only for helping to define the content of that freedom - but also for laying the foundation of South Africa's tradition of journalism. As to whether we are worthy heirs to their toil and worthy claimants to their mantle is a question that we need to answer in day-to-day work; in the media, in government and NGOs.

In more ways than one, by reminding ourselves of their feat, we are placing before ourselves the lodestar of attributes that many of them possessed in abundance: an incisive intellect, a keen grasp of complex social realities; a preparedness to face danger and not flinch, a captivating style, an appreciation of the humane social mission - all wrapped in one; attributes that the profession of journalism is meant to represent.

It is in this context that I will approach the question of media diversity: both in terms of the social environment we are nurturing and our praxis. The question is whether we are helping, in our approach to the issue of media diversity, to foster free, informed and rational discourse in the context of democracy.

I will not deal with "Legislation to regulate Media Ownership" as the programme suggests: because strictly-speaking, there is no such legislation envisaged, except in the specific context of the IBA Act which already exists and general Competitions Policy, a Bill on which is now before parliament.

However, there is a massive drive, yes, to promote diversity of voices without which democracy will be a mere swan-song. The issue of diversity of ownership should be approached from this perspective. Diversity of ownership in whatever form is not an end in itself.

For a start, we need to remind ourselves that media diversity - diversity of voices - is inspired by elements of South Africa's national contract, our national consensus, about the kind of society that we seek to build; a consensus that is underpinned by the best in international norms and practices. What are these elements?

Firstly, our Constitution and Bill of Rights guarantee the right to information and comment, freedom of speech and that of the media.

Secondly, there is a recognition that for the massive project of social transformation, the RDP, to succeed, there should be mass involvement. This in turn requires that people should be informed about events and phenomena; and further, one of the major players in this regard is the government.

Thirdly, everyone agrees that we should engender the culture of openness within society as a whole; and the state has a huge responsibility to avail information in its hands. This is the spirit guiding the Open Democracy Bill now in parliament; and though government does have problems of capacity and infrastructure to meet the requirements of the Bill, the consensus was that we should go ahead regardless, and find ways of meeting the demands.

Fourthly, freedom of expression and the right to information also imply the right to speak and even the right to be heard. In other words, we should seek mechanisms for those who are disadvantaged to acquire the wherewithal to air their views. They should not merely be recipients of the views of others; but they should also have the right to impart their own information and ideas. Information about social phenomena should not be the preserve of the rich and the powerful.

Lastly, in its submission to COMTASK, the Freedom of Expression Institute makes the profound observation that the foundation of freedom of expression is: "the search for truth via the free exchange of ideas, the pursuit of individual autonomy and self-fulfilment, and the exigencies of political activity".

All these elements of national consensus on matters of media freedom are principles on which all who profess to support even a modicum of democracy will be at one. But the principles in themselves are insufficient; they are mere declarations of good intentions.

Indeed the realisation of the imperative of freedom of expression in its true meaning requires that we change the relation of citizens to the means of dissemination of news, views and comment. We have to reconfigure property relations as they pertain to the means of communications.

A number of rhetorical questions pose themselves in this regard. Is freedom of expression possible in a situation in which 82% of ABC-registered publications excluding magazines are owned by the four major media houses: Independent, Times Media, the Perskor/Caxton alliance; and Nasionale Pers!

In other words, virtually all the dailies and weeklies are in the hands; and possibly most of the local papers and knock-and-drops. Further, essentially the same houses control mass printing (and Sowetan knows better about the implications of this, given the artificial deadlines imposed on it); and distribution such as Allied Publishers (and Sowetan again is forced to heave under the burden of the percentage of sale price it has to pay). To boot, the same companies control Gallo, Nu Metro, Urban Brew to name a few other media-related institutions.

Would it not be correct to say that the vibrancy that we witness today in the electronic media derives in part from the freeing of the airwaves and the regulated three-tier ownership structure that goes with it: public, private and community stations!

A bit of this is starting to emerge specifically in television: though the jury is still out given that what we witness is not creativity but broadly-speaking, we are starting to see in the area of electronic media, particularly radio, this institution becoming a critical means of social dialogue.

Is rational discourse possible where management, senior positions in news-rooms and other positions of influence are occupied mainly by white males: with virtually a similar upbringing, culture, and perhaps politics and army service!

Unfortunately, even in instances where attempts are made at diversifying the news-rooms, promotion of blacks and women easily becomes co-option into the dominant culture. Beyond that, training on what constitutes news and the methodology of analysis fits into the paradigm of the establishment. I do not usually agree with Sandile Memela, but in his article in yesterday's City Press he makes the important observation that an unwritten condition of success for those blacks and women being promoted is a conscious of subconscious adoption of the existing culture: to behave in a way that pleases the seniors.

Proceeding from this broad premise, our submission therefore is that a variety of measures are required in order to attain diversity.

One of the primary expressions of such diversity is of course the structure of ownership. There is, as we have indicated, broad consensus with regard to the electronic media. The argument often used is that the frequency spectrum is a finite resource which thus needs the kind of regulations we now have.

But if this were the only reason, we would not have had, in the IBA Act provisions such as a three-tier ownership structure (everything could have been left to a regulated "free market"); we would not have had provisions on cross-ownership, local content and measure to advantage the disadvantaged in granting licences. All these are part of the legislation because there is an appreciation of the need to regulate the environment in which content is devised and ensure a variety of programming that takes into account the national interest.

What of the print media? As I said earlier, there is no legislation envisaged to regulate print media ownership. Various measures - both general and media-industry-specific - are either in place or have been proposed by the COMTASK group.

In so far as ownership is concerned, competition policy in the form of the Competition Bill now before parliament should suffice; with its provisions regarding monopolistic behaviour, price collusion, access to general services and so on. It needs to be debated whether additions or exemptions should be written into the Bill for media-related issues. But I should underline that, in as much as this Bill does not envisage the breaking up of monopolies, we do not intend either to break up NAIL, Johnnic, Omnimedia, Nasionale Pers, the Independent or anyone else.

In our view, most critical for both electronic and print media is the setting up of a Media Development Agency (MDA) proposed by COMTASK, which will help ensure a spread in the base of ownership. This will be done by allocating resources to media establishments with potential but who are hampered by lack of skills, a small advertising base and so on.

The MDA will be an independent structure which should receive resources from government, the industry and donors. It will itself determine the criteria for the allocation of resources: with the underlying principal that there should, as much as possible, be no direct link between the origin of the resources and the actual disbursement. And the resources can be provided in the form of broad training, management skills, funds and so on.

Beyond the question of ownership of media houses themselves, COMTASK also raised the critical question of distribution of publications. The principle it proposes is that we should introduce a common carrier system. This can be achieved either by regulating the cross-ownership of publications on the one hand and distribution houses on the other. The other option may be merely to introduce regulations to enforce fairness, parity and so on.

My own view is that consideration will also need to be given to the question of ownership of printing houses and how this impacts on media houses that do not have these resources.

In the overall, my argument is that ownership of the media is a critical, but not the only, imperative in striving for the diversity of voices.

We also need to change the news-rooms; and in this regards SANEF and its Corrective Action Committee need to be congratulated for their efforts in this regard. Related to this is the debilitating practice where individual black for female journalists with promise are promoted out of the profession: "kicked upstairs" so to speak and unable to write or to produce. And, without initiating witch-hunts, we do need to ask ourselves as a profession the question: what follow up is necessary to the superficial revelations at the TRC about the infiltration of news-rooms by the previous regime.

Also among the critical considerations to attain diversity of views is our system of training, including the very conceptualisation of the mission of journalism, its history and the broad base of heroes that I referred to earlier.

It is a measure of the extent to which the South African paradigm has been corrupted that in discourse about the fight for media freedom, we will readily invoke Lawrence Gandar (and this is not to question the contribution he made); and not John Tengo Jabavu, Ruth First, Can Themba, Dan Tloome and Sol Plaatjie. It is this same paradigm that often results in invoking Helen Suzman and Alan Paton (again this is not to question their contribution) in discourse on the struggle for human rights; and speak about Oliver Tambo and Chris Hani in hushed tones!

We need to consciously challenge this corruption of history. Ant it is in doing so that we shall start in earnest also to rationally address the question of "public trust" to which the profession should defer.

Without this, we shall find ourselves celebrating without qualification a Court Judgement that gives the media broader space to peddle untruths or at least to be less rigorous in checking facts.

Without this, we shall find ourselves accepting as journalistic licence a "timeless" TV news report about a baby who died in Mpumalanga because of problems at a clinic- "timeless" but deliberately chosen to be broadcast on 27 April, South Africa Freedom Day.

Without this, we shall find ourselves repeating untruths about the SADC Lesotho intervention simply because a certain political party says it is the truth.

There will be no specific legislation on media ownership bar the COMTASK proposals; there will be no legislation on content of the media beyond the generalities in the Constitution and the IBA Act.

However, for its own credibility, and in order to be at the forefront of determining the agenda for change and not against change, the media (in the same measure as Government Communications) need to shape up!

Issued by: Office of the President, 19 October 1998

Joel Netshitenzhe
Issued by: Government Communications (GCIS)


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