Joel Netshitenzhe - Media Freedom Day Seminar

19 October 2000

19 October 2000

Twenty-three years on: October 19th and we still assemble; primarily in tribute to those who blazed the trail to where we are today.

Six years into our democracy, and the array of players between and within the Estates has qualitatively changed. And when we do assemble on Press Freedom Day, it is often to reiterate the consensus that:

  • there is no threat to media freedom in South Africa, partly because the overwhelming majority of South Africans share a common self-interest in the freedom of expression;
  • it is critical for the media and the government communication system to improve their professional service, for the benefit of society; and
  • our country suffers from shallow analysis and discourse due to the training deficit and the skewed demographics both in media ownership and in the newsrooms.

I will attempt to reflect on some these issues: partly to meet the requirements of a ritual; but more importantly because the journey to the summit of genuine freedom of expression is tortuous and steep. As others have said before us, there is no easy road to real freedom.

And so twenty-three years after the banning of newspapers and resistance organisations, it is critical that we should still meet: if only to remind ourselves not to take the freedoms won in struggle for granted. Freedom of expression and its specific manifestation, freedom of the media, required in 1977 staunch and determined fighters who defended every inch of the space that they needed to pursue the struggle for human rights.

Freedom of expression, today, still requires staunch and determined fighters, under new conditions, to confront the real issues facing contemporary South Africa.

I refer to freedom of the media as a specific manifestation of freedom of expression guardedly. This is because, extracted from its broader context, freedom of the media can easily become the freedom to "dumb", to misinterpret, and to distort – but still, to have the last word.

There are specific lessons that we have learnt in the discourse and praxis of media freedom in the past six years.

Firstly, because of previous experience of government and perhaps even a mistrust of the "terrorists-made-governors", there was a tendency among us to view with suspicion any attempt on the part of political office-bearers to challenge the content and tone of media reporting. At every turn, any attempt to suggest improvements was interpreted as a threat to media freedom.

Secondly, in the new euphoria of colour-blind "non-racialism", the fact of the impact of each of our backgrounds on the approach to social debate was a truth that we preferred to be left unsaid. When this was raised, accusations of reverse racism and seeking to imprison black journalists within the confines of a false loyalty were levelled indiscriminately.

Thirdly, because freedom of the press was often presented as a mantra detached from the broader freedom of expression, a sense developed that what the media wanted was to be left unchallenged, as the repository of all truths.

Lastly, the first experience of the exercise of political power on the part of former freedom-fighters brought much that was new, liberating and innovative. But it also brought to the surface the worst in some of us – temptations towards self-enrichment from the public purse, the arrogance of political office, and a half-hearted approach to issues of transparency and accountability.

Mixed in a vortex of an uncertain transition, with its own pressures on all participants, all these factors created a dynamic that was as unhealthy as it was debilitating on the efforts to build a truly democratic and non-racial society.

But history was, as always, to be the best teacher.

My own assessment is that we have entered a period in which we can transcend this level of exchange. With all its complications, the debate around the hearings of the Human Rights Commission on Racism in the Media, and the report that emerged from this process marked the end of a phase of tentative self-definition.

Since that fateful day of October 19th 1977, since the banning of the Guardian and other voices before then, there has never been a more auspicious moment for the South African media fraternity to examine itself unencumbered by the constraints of dictatorship. The simple and far-reaching challenge that we face today is, how to improve the profession and make it truly South African!

Part of the answer to this question should lie in the extent to which we are applying our minds to the implementation of the many good recommendations that emerged from the HRC hearings. Is anything being done by the profession to take those matters forward? Or have we developed the habits we attribute to government: that is, much fanfare as commission reports are released, a spin here and some crocodile tear there; only to go back to our old ways.

Beyond the issues of race, in this self-examination, there are three broad issues that require attention.

The first of these is that we are dealing with an industry that is respo industry that has to do so in an environment that is complex and challenging. The matters of economic growth, including such issues as new investments, Gross Domestic Expenditure, inflation and new ICT challenges – all pose their own difficulties on the media industry.

The temptation of a business sense is to increase the concentration of ownership in fewer hands and destroy, in the wake of this response, any possibility for Small and Medium Enterprises to emerge and thrive. As such, the challenge facing South Africa’s media is not much different from that facing its financial institutions: applauded as the doyen of advancement in an environment of ICT and convergence, with a developed and sophisticated infrastructure and so on; but perched on a pedestal that is an anathema to the majority of the people – who are un-banked and un-bankable.

Survival will of course be guaranteed as we skim the cream of society; but we shall in time become empty vessels of an elite to whom debate on social questions is a pastime; unable to impact on the real issues of social transformation.

Indeed, one starts to feel an apprehension, when, in the face of these many challenges, the most immediate response of our broadcasters is to propose, among other things, speedier privatisation of sections of the public broadcaster, relaxation of cross-ownership restrictions and greater flexibility on local content. Not that there is anything wrong with a proposal to review the regulatory industry in the light of new circumstances. But one hopes that when this is done, broader questions, including the composition, mindsets and practices within the advertising industry, for instance, will also be examined.

The second of the broad issues facing the media relates to the higher standards of professionalism, including better quality of research that is demanded with the "timelessness" and "spacelessness" of the knowledge economy.

Media are both a beneficiary and source of this massive information flow. And we all know that this can go hand-in-hand with the "tyranny of the sound-bite". This is a situation in which complex phenomena are reduced to sensational simplification.

The President, we are told, has had his reputation undermined by the manner in which he has handled the Zimbabwean crisis. And so every journalist who seeks to be profound repeats this until, in the mind of the media, it becomes the truth. But his reputation among whom; is the conventional wisdom that ZANU-PF is all bad and MDC all good a helpful one; beyond the simple categories of liberal democracy, who are the real transformers in Zimbabwe and where are they located!

The same applies to the HIV/AIDS issue: beyond the unfolding day-to-day story of sound-bites and imagined confusion, communicators at all levels of society need to come back to a pertinent question: is there room in today’s "dumbing" for serious discourse on complex issues; issues which will naturally define themselves not in black and white but in various shades of grey!

The danger with over-simplification is that news starts to create reality rather the other way round. Indeed, we could easily move into a situation in which the peddlers of news may take too seriously Berlott Brecht’s sarcastic comment on the leadership in the then German Democratic Republic: If the leaders are unhappy with the people, why don’t they just elect a new people! In this instance, if the media are unhappy with a boring leadership and a boring society, why not peddle stories that will create the leadership and people they prefer!

The third of the broad issues, linked to the other two, pertains to the challenge of retaining experienced journalist cadres in the newsrooms. It is a challenge of dealing with the "management syndrome".

While the South African media industry seems to have mastered many of the international innovations in this age of the information economy, what seems to elude us is the encouragement and "incentivisation" of expertise. Must experienced journalists, in order "to make it" have to climb the management ladder? A rigidity that seems to mirror the worst descriptions of government bureaucracy seems to be the current stock-in-trade.

And with this, the trail of good journalism and analysis is but filled with mere fond memories of the departed: paper-pushers who are in professional terms as good as dead. Expert, beat correspondents are disappearing in search of a better life, as the media industry wallows in a formality that should otherwise be an anathema in professional enterprises.

We raise all these issues because we are conscious of the social power that the media hold. And what we are appealing for is the exercise of this power in a manner that benefits society, and more specifically, the cause of social transformation. In this sense, the media and government will be partners for the social good.

But the contestation between them should and will always play itself out. Though the state can be characterised as a concentrated expression of social relations, many other centres of power within society constantly challenge the regulation of these relations. Between the state and civil society there will always be contestation about roles. Within civil society itself, such as between business and labour, contradictions will always express themselves with various levels of intensity.

So it is between the state and the media. And the battles here are about ideological influence. This is more so in instances where the social interests that these institutions represent diverge. It is our submission that the skirmishes of the early years of our democracy, and their manifestation in other forms today, reflect, in many respects, this tension.

Whatever the pretences that shroud this contestation, the reality is that, the media do strive to become the primary source of broad policy. This is reflected in its most dramatic form in the instances referred to above, around the policy on Zimbabwe and the science of HIV/AIDS. Our colleagues in the Fourth Estate seemed to have sensed blood, and they threw all caution to the wind; indeed to the extent of formulating the exact words that they expected from the President and the rest of government.

We can all pretend otherwise, but the reality is that deep in the recesses of our minds lurks a social interest that impels us to act in particular ways. And this may not preclude antipathy towards those in government who are objects of our ridicule.

What is also as intriguing is the competition for influence – the contestation for power – among the media houses themselves. Part-business, part self-image, this plays itself out on a daily basis. Don’t the Sunday publications strive to set the agenda for Blue Monday and the earlier parts of the week? The news agencies will naturally seek to register increasing numbers of "hits" and to set the content and tone for everyone else. And the electronic media will fight to be first and fastest with breaking news.

All this is healthy and part of a profession that thrives on adrenalin. But, attached to this is the danger of the herd mentality, where imaginary mountains emerge everywhere out of molehills. And as the plot thickens, the competition becomes one where, to get attention, the angle to a story has to be as outrageous as possible.

Such is the power of media that a dangerous trend can set in, even among those charged by the electorate with the task of regulating social relations. To get the headline, an outrageous statement about how terrible a particular government function is, and how one is going to fix it, becomes the hidden and slavish submission to the tyranny of the sound-bite: Is poverty on the increase in South Africa? What about unemployment?

The same applies among peers in the media. We are constantly told that the newsroom of the public broadcaster is currently under the spell of the Union Buildings. Yet day-in and day-out, what we see and hear defies this logic. But this allegation is repeated so often that it becomes an accepted fact: with the consequence that new appointees at various levels of the public broadcaster are pressurised to measure their professionalism and independence by whether they have made this situation worse.

The contestation between government and the media will continue: elements of it are the stuff of a healthy democracy.

To ensure that the tendency towards conflict is combined with one towards partnership in appropriate doses, government has to make its own critical interventions in this terrain. Among other things:

  • Government should speed up the process of improving the media environment, by creating conditions for the flowers of free speech to bloom for all of society. Much progress has been made in the electronic media industry. And the setting up of the Media Development and Diversity Agency should take us further towards a multiplicity of voices in print. Within a month, the Position Paper on this matter should hopefully have been adopted by Cabinet, so we can start public debate on the principles as well as how to access resources which should amount to about R60-million a year.
  • Government communication structures should improve their service to the public through the media, but even more critically, through direct communication with the citizens. Imbizo, Multi-purpose Community Centres which include utilisation of information and communications technology, and effective information products are critical in this regard.
  • We have to continue with the efforts to ensure integration of government work, including communications. The more government as a whole puts into operation such integrated programmes as the Integrated Sustainable Rural Development Strategy, Human Resource Development Programme and the multi-disciplinary approach to urban renewal, the more should communicators measure up to the challenge of integration. But, communication structures should be found among the pioneers of this process, by ensuring that the many recommendations of the Comtask Group are implemented in a consistent manner.

So, twenty-three years since the milestone whose towering importance we commemorate today, the battle for freedom of expression continues: in new forms, with new players and under different conditions. What we cannot dispute is that the underlying national and social forces remain, in many respects, the same. They may be occupying different positions; and their intentions expressed in new ways. But as they say: A luta continua!

Joel Netshitenzhe
Issued by: Government Communications (GCIS)


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