Essop Pahad - Banquet of the International Advisory Board Meeting of Independent Newspapers

05 February 2001

5 February 2001

May I offer the members of the International Advisory Board, particularly those from abroad, a word of sincere welcome.

We, the Government of South Africa, hope your stay will be enjoyable and your deliberations worthwhile.

I should also like to say that President Thabo Mbeki is very regretful indeed that, because of pressing national business in Johannesburg, he is unable to be here in person, which was his original firm intention. I might mention that he is personally very much looking forward to spending time with the Advisory Board tomorrow, where there will be a full exchange of view on issues that jointly face South Africa and its media. That interaction will, without doubt, be of value to the President and hopefully to members of the Advisory Board.

I should like to thank you, Sir Anthony O’Reilly, for the opportunity to say a few words at this banquet, and I hope that you will permit me a frank appraisal of some of the issues that are topical and require comment or attention. As the Minister charged with responsibility for the Government Communication and Information System, I have some thoughts about issues that arise concerning the media.

It goes without saying that the Government accepts without question that the various branches of the media stand independently in society as permanent and indispensably important institutions, in good and in bad times for the country and the media. It is also accepted that the media should advance the freedoms that ordinary citizens enjoy as of right. Society therefore has a very real interest in media longevity in sound health.

The Government Communication and Information System follows with keen and constructive interest the endeavours by the media industry to improve its professionalism and calibre so as to perform the vital task of informing the public, and at times also diverting them, in the entertaining/amusing sense of the word, of course.

Government and media th fighters in the public interest. They stand apart, but there is no reason why they should not work constructively together in the national interest, while showing due respect for one another’s independence. From the point of view of the GCIS and myself, we shall pursue all avenues to continue with this construcrtive engagement, and to seize all opportunities available to improve this relationship.

While appreciating that this is not the occasion for an extended discussion on media matters, I would note some general points.

First, it must be noted with emphasis that we have a democratic, sovereign constitution in South Africa, and a Constitutional Court to interpret and uphold it, and one of the key entrenched clauses of that constitution is the one guaranteeing free expression. There should never be any question about this. The media’s freedoms are safe in South Africa, unlike in the past, discredited era. That message can go round the world - tonight, as always. The media are free to report, comment and criticise as they wish.

But the corollary of this is that the Government, in a free society, cannot be expected to remain silent when it is criticised. And no one should for a moment interpret our responses as implying any threat to the continued freedom and independence of the media, which is unnegotiable. Government in a free society cannot be expected to remain silent when criticised but at the same time no one should for a moment misinterpret its responses.

It thus strikes me as odd that there are, from time to time, expressions of fear among media practitioners about their freedoms. That is a mindset that pre-dates democratic South Africa. It applied, understandably, in a past era when Government criticism could be equated with Government threats against the press.

Permit me a further a comment. In the same way that the Government requires constant internal reappraisal of the extent to which it is doing its job, eg in terms of delivery, protection of citizen’s rights, ensuring economic growth, battling with poverty, Aids, crime, etc, it is surely incumbent on the media itself to look critically at its own performance in society as well as its own efforts at transformation.

One promising area where joint Government-private sector action is highly desirable is in the establishment of the Media Development and Diversity Agency to support particularly small commercial and community media in the interests of diversity, and also to act as a catalyst for broader changes in the media environment so as to ensure that all our people - and not just primarily those in the metropolitan areas - enjoy media access. Apart from similar sums from Government and donors, we are hoping to draw R20m a year for five years from the media private sector, and it has been proposed that this be done through a half percent increase in the advertising levy which currently stands at one percent and is administered by the Marketing Industry Trust.

On the subject of reappraisal, recently the whole Cabinet underwent an extensive exercise which assessed how we are doing in the running of the country, and I can assure you it was a most realistic occasion. We had to be scrupulously honest with ourselves if we wished really to improve where improvement was needed, and to be scrupulously specific if we wished to draw up the balance sheet of our national performance as it was and not just as we would want it to be.

The media are, by definition, very different from the institution of Government, but in one sense there is a parallel - the need for constant reappraisal of performance. It is a fact of political life in a democracy that, if the voters judge a government to be wanting, they have the right to do something about it at the polls which are guaranteed every five years.

That other major player in the public domain, the media, are in a different and possibly more immediately vulnerable position, for, if their performance is wanting, it is open to readers simply not to buy newspapers, or simply to unplug the radio or TV, today. That of itself should surely be a spur to ensure that they really serve the interests of their readers and listeners; hence the value of regular reappraisal. Fruitful areas of inquiry would include the subject of HIV/Aids, and what specifically the media, as an industry, is doing about this threat to our future; or the extent to which affirmative or corrective action has in fact succeeded or not.

I would go further and suggest that, in a society where democracy still requires much nurturing because of our undemocratic past, not to mention the new threats to the fabric of society such as organised crime, disease, natural disaster and civil conflict near us, there are responsibilities that should be shouldered by the media which go beyond the norms that apply in post-industrial societies, where challenges and approaches necessarily differ from ours. It is up to the men and women of the media to assess where and how they can ensure professional improvement and greater involvement in addressing the unique issues facing us all. And you can count on the support of the democratic Government of South Africa as you seek to do this - and also its criticism, when we think that warranted.

There will be strong criticism of the media if it is felt that some of them are indulging in systematic hostility of a personal nature directed against our leaders - if, for instance, there is a distinct pattern of this in reporting, editorials, columns and cartooning. If we feel that certain critics are flinging around ill-considered and vicious comments, for instance the monstrously distasteful suggestion that our President is in "denial" over Aids (which he is decidedly not) because of some personal failing (which is simply fanciful). We shall criticise such excesses, and we hope that reasonable people will support us in this. Our people would not understand it if we did not ask questions about the commitment of such journalism to the future of the country and its stability.

It is up to the media to work out what type of relationship it wishes to have with the democratic Government of South Africa. If there is frank and robust criticism and the sort of healthy, independent scepticism that good journalism always shows towards government, well and good. But if there is a pattern of rank hostility, reckless reporting and failure to apply the ordinary norms of good journalism in relation to Government individuals and actions, that is a different matter.

We want to have, indeed to encourage, trenchant criticism, and journalistic digging - which can only help the public interest and keep the Government on its toes. That is good for any government. But there is a point where criticism assumes the role of the philippic, bitter invective. That is the language to use against tyrants, and there is no tyranny in South Africa, even if there are ludicrous opposition attempts in some quarters to draw parallels with Nazi Germany and the notorious SA Information Scandal.

Moreover, there is little value in editors who have lost control of their columnists and reporters hiding behind the screen of a vaunted independence. True independence is born of strength, and is not weak-kneed and subject to manipulation by people who have ulterior motives, by people who are bitter because they have lost out in the great transition to democracy, by people who, simply, have an axe to grind.

One has to ask what responsibility not only editors but managers and owners have in these matters. That at least should be made plain.

And it is useful for the media to take to heart and ponder recent remarks by President Mbeki in introducing the new Internet service, ANC Today :

"To this day, any media that genuinely represents the interests and the views of the majority has to live with the reality that it has to overcome such obstacles as an ‘advertisers’ boycott’ and difficulties in distribution. We are faced with the virtually unique situation that, among the democracies, the overwhelmingly dominant tendency in South African politics, represented by the ANC, has no representation whatsoever in the mass media. We therefore have to contend with the situation that what masquerades as ‘public opinion’, as reflected in the bulk of our media, is in fact minority opinion informed by the historic social and political position occupied by this minority. By projecting itself as ‘public opinion’ communicated by an ‘objective press’, this minority opinion seeks to get itself accepted by the majority as the latter's’ own opinion. With no access to its own media, this majority has had to depend on other means to equip itself with information and views to enable it to reach its own conclusions about important national and international matters."

It should be indicated, in the modern and complex communications world in which we live, where ultimate responsibility actually lies - particularly when there is a danger that reckless journalistic activity will do damage to Africa’s most splendid democratic and economic prospect by the systematic undermining of its President and Government leaders, and this despite the fact that their efforts are held in the highest regard internationally, that they play leading roles in the OAU, the UN and the Commonwealth, that they spend their waking hours at places like Davos battling for a place in the sun for a whole hemisphere, that they shuttle around their country and beyond seeking peace at home and abroad.

Give them a break, I say. Or, to borrow from the appeal to the world’s press at Davos by Prof Klaus Schwab, quoted by President Mbeki on his return from there: "Give Africa a chance! Give Africa’s leaders a chance!" This was the World Economic Forum where, for the first time, issues around Africa enjoyed a powerfully prominent place, where the South African dinner was oversubscribed, where there were widespread indications that our country enjoys great respect among the economic leaders of the world. It was the forum where President Mbeki - together with President Olusegujn Obasanjo of Nigeria and with the active assistance of Presidents Ben Mkapa of Tanzania and Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal - was able to launch the imaginative and positive Millenium Africa Recovery Plan and thereby to offer real hope for the African century that is already unfolding.

There is a real prospect of constructive co-operation between Government and media in South Africa; and a few individuals, with pure venom in their computers, should not distract us from pursuing that path.

Let us, then, in the broadest sense, work together on the building of our nation, for we can all be winners in line with the democratic achievements of the past; rather than go down in history as a nation that had the chance of greatness but threw it away - like rats in a bag - because of a preoccupation with petty personal squabbles, gratuitous questioning of people’s integrity, refusal to allow those criticised the elementary right of contemporaneous reply, and a general failure to see the broad picture of the real, unfolding challenges facing us as a new democratic nation.

Maybe I can venture to suggest that South Africa has never faced such challenges as now, and that the role of the media in reporting and commenting on how we measure up to those challenges should, to draw on the published memoirs of Katherine Graham of the Washington Post, involve scrupulous care and fairness. It is up to the editors and journalists to decide how close they can get to the Graham benchmark in their professional work. But it is a fair question to raise, and the public are the only real judges of this.

Moreover, there is a strong case to argue that constructive involvement in beating the massive challenges we face in South African society extends way beyond the media. It requires the willing commitment of leadership and other institutions in society that can vastly influence events by playing either a negative role or a positive one.

It is common cause that our country needs much more foreign direct investment. Yet some business figures spend their time, in effect, chasing investment away by giving vent to overblown fears and phobias about South Africa and Africa when they converse with their colleagues from abroad. My question is simply: why? Why, also, should political leaders use their eloquence and drive, even outside of election time, in effectively driving South Africans away from their own country, by raising their fear level and over-emphasizing the problems that we face as a nation? The more they succeed in this, the more they will chase their potential support base away.

Why this, when we in fact have such a magnificent future, if we handle it as a joint, shared project between government, private sector and civil society? I believe that negative eloquence about South Africa, in some circles, outstrips positive realism in comments made that can influence our future investment capacity. The Government is often told by visiting business leaders that they cannot fathom why we as a nation indulge in such destrustive self-flagellation in relation to what is said about our own country.

And yet there is much of a positive nature being done, for instance the involvement of important heads of corporate South Africa at a bosberaad of the International Marketing Council, whose job it is to help market South Africa to the world; and the coming meeting of the President’s International Investment advisory council where important world leaders in the field of economics, investment etc will work together with Government in the country’s best interests. Over a wider front, we in South Africa are preparing to host the United Nations Conference on Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and other Related Intolerances this year. Next year we will also host the OAU Summit and the Global Conference on the Environment. These have been described by our President as historic events, without exaggeration.

Criticism is very important, and welcome, as I have made clear. And the criticism from intellectuals is particularly important, and a spur to clear thought and action, and should never be discouraged. But sometimes it seems that those who remain permanently and comfortably on the sidelines, with little or no inclination to get into the action, miss out on sharing in the thrills and spills that make up public life. And sometimes it seems that the pool drawn on by some of our media for the harshest criticism of government is tiny, yet it enjoys vast space in newspapers and time on radio and TV. There are a handful of self-appointed "experts" who seem to enjoy the monopoly of negative, damaging comment on the Government. Where are all the other experts?

My plea is for balance, comprehensiveness and reason, not sycophancy and blandness. The media of other democratic countries seem, in general, to get the mix right, where there is a very wide spectrum of comment available to the public - and the sharpest criticism - and yet a broad national consensus on fundamentally important national issues. Let us rather try that as a nation, and win.


Minister in The Presidency, Dr Essop Pahad

Issued by: Government Communications (GCIS)


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