DISCUSSIONS about South African media have increasingly been taking centre stage in public discourse of late, placing media under the spotlight, at the centre of their own world.
In the plethora of views that continue to be shared, active media practitioners try to explain the importance of the role played by the media in a thriving democracy, while some individuals have found themselves – justly or unjustly – at the centre of not-so-flattering stories in the media.
Then there are government and corporate spin doctors, academics, analysts and the rest of us, watching and listening with keen interest from safe distances.
Now, few will deny the important role progressive media played in putting the spotlight on countless atrocities perpetuated by successive apartheid governments. Thanks to them, the world and those South Africans who really cared to open their eyes heard about the activities of apartheid security forces in our towns and townships, villages and cities.
Many stories remain untold even up to today. Journalists were arrested, banned and tortured; their families were broken up and some of them were forced to flee into exile.
Many media houses were forced to shut down, either through direct government clampdown or lawsuits that financially brought them to their knees.
But we also know that not all members of the media positioned themselves as torches that shone their lights in the dark corners of the apartheid maze. Several played along with the authorities over time – either because they shared the rationale for separate development or because they valued their own survival above others’ human rights.
Their stories too are yet to be told. What we do know is that such media helped National Party governments hide or spin many bad things.
Today, 21 years since the formal end of apartheid, our democratic government finds itself caught at the centre of free media attention, often deservedly so.
The freedoms many in government fought and sacrificed so much for have come to haunt them because many of them have been found wanting, unable to explain how what they did in the stillness of the night ended up on the front pages of our newspapers.
Like their apartheid foes before them, they are now tempted to clamp down on the media. But, doubtful that a direct clampdown would win any goodwill here or abroad – because it won’t – they use other, not-so-public means to bring media practitioners to their knees. These include withdrawing, reducing, or totally refusing to place public sector advertising in publications seen to be relentless in exposing abuse of public resources.
We seem to have come full circle on this one.
Writing in a recent opinion piece decrying the seemingly widespread lack of understanding of the role played by the media, Business Day editor Songezo Zibi had this to say: “The dwindling revenues and resources of the news business affect the ability to do proper interrogation.
“This means the spin masters in companies or the public sector enjoy more success in fooling the public and their stakeholders than they should. When the truth comes out (usually in a newspaper), ‘the media’ are accused of being complicit in concealing information or advancing spin.”
Please allow me to quote him at length when he goes on to write that “some in positions of power want to keep the media’s influence in check so they can expand their own power and influence.
“For the less than ethical, the purpose is to magnify the extent of their impunity, and the media are often the goose that makes an embarrassing noise. In the end, particularly here, it appears ‘the media’ are the perfect fall guys for everything. When powerful people say wrong things, they complain they are ‘quoted out of context’ or that articles are plain lies. Their supporters throw vile insults at journalists, sometimes threatening violence.
Democracy and the public lose out
“Yet some have gone on to be found guilty after proper inquiries. The pattern is to weaken instruments of accountability so that a culture of impunity may develop. In a time when economic factors are threatening the survival of newspapers, and experienced, excellent journalists seek work elsewhere, democracy and the public are the losers.”
Media practitioners are not always entirely blameless for the situation they find themselves in, of course. Cases have been reported of unprofessional conduct, shoddy investigations, failure to get “the other side of the story”, etc. They cannot always get away with blaming limited resources and the so-called juniorisation of the pressroom for work of poor quality.
But we have no reason to throw the baby away with the bathwater. In the end, the values that we collectively place at the heart of our young democracy will determine the extent to which we appreciate the presence of a free press.
I’ll end with a Mandela quote borrowed from a recent piece by University of Cape Town academic Dr Musawenkosi Ndlovu: “A bad free press is preferable to a technically good, subservient one… None of our irritations with the perceived inadequacies of the media should ever allow us to suggest even faintly that the independence of the press could be compromised or coerced.”(Nelson Mandela, 2009:115)