Joel Netshitenzhe - SANEF World Freedom Day panel discussion

03 May 2000

3 May 2000

Thank you all.

I thought an occasion like World Press Freedom Day would be one for niceties but the organisers of this occasion would have themselves to blame if some of us disturb this nice atmosphere.

So much was said at the hearings of the Human Rights Commission and about these hearings that it would be artificial to try and say anything more profound. In a sense, like the TRC process, these hearings provided some form of catharsis; but like all healing such catharsis can be a profoundly subjective thing.

In this instance there are those whom I will call "perched media freedom fighters" who will shout: Viva media freedom; we fought the HRC and won! There are those that one can refer to as "frustrated reformers" who will philosophise: Black man, you are on your own; there is no purpose in belonging to SANEF! And then there will be the exasperated objects of negative media coverage who will shout: Bua [speak up]! We told them at the HRC! All these three categories will then go back to sleep.

I believe as dangerous and unhelpful in assessing these hearings is an approach that avoids the real complex issues: to search for the most common denominator by creating artificial and mechanical parity among all the views which were aired at the hearings. According to this approach the only task after the hearings is to hold seminars to salve our consciences. We can then all put on dashikis and African print dresses and shout: Ngena African century, ngena! And so the hearings will steadily be consigned to a distant memory.

Yet the real essence of the exciting social transformation will continue to pass us by; and we’ll occasionally be woken from our slumber by a good retired South African journalist or a good foreign correspondent who will write or produce something that truly captures the imagination of South Africans who are starved of accurate information and meaningful analysis.

Therefore, the question that faces SANEF as local leaders of a truly glorious profession is whether it will in these conditions and given these challenges take the profession to new heights. There is no better moment for this.

"Racism and transformation in the media – whereto?" is the formal question you asked us to deal with. That question essentially means: Whither South African journalism;whither SANEF; whither South African public discourse!

In addressing this challenge SANEF needs to start off from certain basic premises so that we can get the red herrings out of the way.

The first premise is that freedom of expression is in the self-interest of all those who believe in democracy. It is quite true that there can be a temptation, especially amongst those in political office, to constrain such freedom of expression and media freedom in particular; but I think in our society we can say without fear of contradiction that most of those who believe in democracy know that there can be no real transformation without freedom of expression.

Yes, it is true that freedom of expression needs to be defended but freedom of expression can also be a refuge for what I will call journalist scoundrels, to hide mediocrity and glorify truly unprofessional conduct. There isn’t sufficient time to give examples: but there was an instance in the Financial Mail a few weeks ago, an article about modernisation of the ANC. I do not speak on behalf of the ANC but I am saying this because I was directly referred to – in case I am taken to the Public Protector. The article says this modernisation, championed by people like myself, means that provinces of the ANC should be dissolved and so on. And this was a continuation of a trend – the trend of a particular journalist who as a result of such writings won the Ruth First Award.

The second premise is that fighting racism is fighting for media freedom, it is fighting for freedom of expression; because freedom expression means that there should be objective reporting and analysis which is not coloured by prejudice. Freedom of expression means that we should all try to ensure diversity: diversity of content, diversity of ownership and diversity of outlook and responses in our advertising industry.

The third premise is that the issue of racism will be debated more intensely with regard to the media because the media are a means of discourse; they are fora for intellectual engagement. Indeed, if racism is more than just an expression of power relations but also and element of ideology, it can have an autonomous existence; it can precede racist power relations and it can even sustain itself in the minds, in the turns of phrase and attitudes long after racist power relations have changed. And because media are mediums of communicating ideas, they will be the focus of scrutiny on particularly issues like racism which is a form of ideology.

So the public examination of racism in the media, I believe, was going to happen – whether it was going to be through parliament or the constitutional court or any ordinary court or the HRC itself. It was historically inevitable.

Now one identifies these three points of departure to argue that an attitude that sees vindictiveness or a threat to media freedom in the Human Rights Commission hearings fails to appreciate the critical and privileged position of the Fourth Estate as an expression of social self-consciousness. It fails to appreciate that the Fourth Estate will itself be under scrutiny. Therefore as we proceed to deal with the outcome of these hearings we need to see this exercise as necessary for the regeneration and renewal of South African journalism.

In addressing the questions, whither South African journalism; whither SANEF; whither South African public discourse, SANEF also has to deal with the difficult questions of the content of reporting and analysis: To move away, in my view through systematic civic education of practitioners, from the simplifications that have come to characterise South African journalism.

One of these simplifications is that in the socio-economic dynamics of South Africa today, there should be delivery but by government to a passive population; and that we should oppose government as a matter of principle. Another simplification is that there should be reconciliation, but on the part of the disadvantaged – the kind of reconciliation whose outcome will be the retention of white privilege.

The last simplification I want to refer to is that South Africa should be an impetuous human rights beauty, quick publicly to mock and humiliate those who are "ugly" and a beauty who readily loses self-confidence if he or she has got a touch of acne. To elaborate: take the issue, for instance of statistics on crime, rape and other issues. It is quite clear now out of thorough examination that we overdo ourselves as South Africans on the basis of figures that are in fact inaccurate. And we do so to come to the conclusion that we are the crime capital of the world. A touch of acne and we see an apocalypse.

For instance, there is currently detailed reporting on the hostage situation in Malaysia and the Philippines. I have strained personally to check whether in our reporting and analysis our media are going to refer to how this is going to destroy Malaysian or Philippino tourism. Throughout the strike of French pilots – remember during the Soccer World Cup – one was interested in whether our journalists were going to say: investors are going to run away from France. No one said so.

But when there is a St. Elmo’s bomb, we will be the first – ourselves as South Africans – to go to tourists to ask: why are you continuing to stay in South Africa with all this? When unfortunately some German journalists who were here a few days ago were mugged, having brought funds for a school of the disabled, their response was to say: this is bad for your image, it is bad for investments. Yes, it is this mindset of self-flagellation that seems to characterise us as South Africans – this impetuous beauty – which we transmit even to others from outside.

Lastly in addressing those three questions – whither South African journalism; whither SANEF; whither South African public discourse – SANEF will need to examine the real issues within and about itself.

We can now openly acknowledge that SANEF is a house divided. Crudely put, there are those posing the question, what purpose there is in remaining within SANEF? Some are condemning colleagues from the same trenches as self-satisfied inheritors of an unchanged tradition: promoted in these media establishments and given authority but like the famous members of the gentlemen’s clubs in India, maintaining the traditions of the departed English colonists. Others are characterised as purveyors of universal wisdom about universal freedoms – ever ready to shout "Bill of Rights, freedom of expression" at the slightest criticism.

What one is proposing is that we need to work out a meaningful program of action to ensure that we restore the credibility and integrity of SANEF as well as the profession itself. The question arises, if indeed SANEF’s Training Committee and the whole organisation had done what they had promised to do in their Mission Statements, would the Human Rights Commission hearings have been necessary, in this form? Indeed should pressure come from outside or should SANEF itself commit the profession to partner the Human Rights Commission in dealing with racism in the media after the hearings – that is, in terms of ownership, the project to the set up the Media Development Agency, diversity in the newsrooms, issues of gender, training, civic education, the advertising industry and so on: all this in an open process of self-improvement that we as the media call on others to follow.

Certainly in dealing with all these issues, we need to strike the correct balance among many, many issues. But in conclusion, I want to say that if we do not deal with these questions urgently, then SANEF may haemorrhage. And at its funeral, the few mourners will wonder: did we in fact need this animal?

This is of course a highly unlikely event, hopefully. Our wish is that we shall have the opportunity in the future to exchange views with SANEF in SANEF-organised events on South Africa Freedom Day, on International Women’s Day, on May Day, on Heritage Day. That is, SANEF-organised events where we meet to join society in its broader endeavours, rather than just celebrating International Press Freedom Day.

Joel Netshitenzhe
Issued by: Government Communications (GCIS)


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