Local media freedom is not set in stone

Vigorous white journalists are liable to be accused of racism, while their black confreres risk condemnation for lack of patriotism.

Summary - The media in South Africa has never been so free, but ironically it is probably subject to more self-imposed limitations than it ever was in the past. The hostility of Mbeki’s administration to the press is well known. White journalists who criticise the government are accused of racism, while black critics are condemned as unpatriotic or as lackeys of whites. This has had a ‘terribly destructive’ effect on the media, says Anton Harber, and a number of journalists have either been cowed into silence or have become victims of ‘intellectual cleansing’. The Human Rights Commission’s investigation into racism in the media three years ago, which was ridiculed for finding racists under every garbage dump, concurred with the government’s view that white male racists dominate the media. However, most newspapers today have black editors, and black editors are even more prevalent in TV and radio. The problem area is in ownership and management: black companies still own only 13 per cent of the press. Excluding the SABC, therefore, allegations of white control are not without substance. Differing black and white perceptions of the media may reflect differing views about the relative importance of constitutional rights. Whereas whites view press freedom as fundamental, blacks value the protection of human dignity more highly. Thus blacks tend to regard media criticism of Mugabe, for instance, as an attack on their values, since Mugabe was at one time dedicated to restoring human dignity to black people. Mbeki’s guardians are skilled at manipulating these sentiments. For example, Thami Mazwai, a self-appointed defender of ‘Thabocracy’, seems to be on a mission to build an unquestioning, president-centred patriotism similar to that shown by embedded American journalists during the Iraq war. Our equivalent of the embedded journalist is the ‘praise-singer’, of which John Battersby is a notable example. Some may argue that during the fragile transformation stage we need imbongis. Professor Harber, however, argues that what we need is ‘a rich mix of complex voices’, together with an ‘absolutely scrupulously independent’ public broadcaster. ‘The SABC,’ he writes, ‘can help create… a national identity, but it best does that by allowing open debate and a critical exchange of views.’ South Africa needs journalists who are fiercely independent, brave enough to ask the hard questions, and tough enough not to be silenced by insults. The media must give space to many diverse voices to invigorate the national debate. We must use our hard-won freedoms and never forget how easily they can be lost.

Never before has the South African media been so free, so diverse and so large. But ironically there are now probably more self-imposed limitations on the media than in the past.

The apartheid era gave the media a straightforward "mission" - either you were for it and defended it with all the force of the discriminatory and oppressive laws behind you or you were against it and negotiated your way through a minefield of legislation with the backing of anti-apartheid lawyers and colleagues who shared your values. It defined everything an editor did.

Today the media finds itself choking on the sweet air of new freedoms, trapped in a racial purgatory characterised by patriotic praise singing or thinly-veiled bigotry. There is a great need now for a more astute and nuanced response from editors and journalists.

Under the administration of Thabo Mbeki, it is a truism that if you're black and critical of the government you're either unpatriotic or, worse still, dominated by or thinking like whites, while if you're white and critical you're a racist. Although these divisions may have been latent in the society anyway, they have become manifest under Mbeki. The discord is - to quote Anton Harber, professor at the Caxton School of Journalism at the University of the Witwatersrand - "terribly destructive" for the media.

"Unlike Mandela, Mbeki does not do enough to discourage that kind of division," Harber says. "It is a major concern. The apartheid era was undoubtedly more dangerous for the media. But today's media environment requires a much greater level of subtlety and complexity."

A number of critical voices in the press have already been cowed into silence or marginalised by these accusations. Two editors of the Mail & Guardian and a number of senior journalists at the SABC have arguably already become victims of "intellectual cleansing" - not "ethnic cleansing" because black journalists have been effected too. The new Mail & Guardian editor, Mondli Makhanya, soldiers on, ignoring those critics who accuse him of not being truly African. His paper is still a thorn in the flesh of the government.

In his book Beyond the Miracle Allister Sparks refers to "worrying tensions" between the media and the new Mbeki administration. "Government's tolerance threshold is low, there are serious deficiencies within the media itself, it is racially and ethnically divided and shot through with mutual suspicions, journalism is at a low ebb, proprietorship is unstable, and the industry as a whole is in a fluid condition as it struggles through its own uncertain transformation."

So while the post-apartheid state's founding constitution is a beacon of all that is good and free, the reality gap between that vision and the new regime is glaring. That is in turn fed by a deep suspicion of the true intentions of the media. It has no right after all, the president has said, to see itself in opposition to the government.

"As the courts have been expanding the common law of freedom of expression, official hostility to the press has been increasing," writes Sparks. "The new regime, particularly since Thabo Mbeki became president, has been acutely sensitive to criticism which it sees as being negative and unfair or, worse still, derisory of black capabilities and intent on portraying a country going to the dogs under black rule."

Radio journalists, too, complain of how difficult it is to find good critical voices to thrash out the issues of the day. Instead of addressing the arguments of the Treatment Action Campaign and its supporters, the minister of health dismisses them as racists. The anti-Mugabe camp has suffered the same fate at the hands of the Mbeki administration. Rather than getting to the heart of these perceptions in the media, the South African Human Rights Commission (HRC) investigation into racism in the media three years ago only made matters worse. It was described as a "statutory inquisition". Accusations that the press was "engaged in negating African excellence" and was "an obstacle to change"1, were brought into ridicule and dispute by an inexperienced researcher who, on assignment for the HRC, found racist journalists under every garbage dump. Its conclusions will forever be equated with the infamous image of a scavenger and a garbage heap that the researcher found portrayed "subliminal racism" and anti-African attitude.

The press was seen by the commission, and clearly by the government as well, as being overrun and overruled by blinkered white men who, at best, misunderstood Africans and at worst, willed a black government into failure. White male editors, however, did not dominate then. They certainly do not now. The great majority of newspaper titles today have black editors. If the racial identity of editors in television and radio are taken into account, the picture skews even more heavily into the hands of the black majority.

But, and it's a big but, the problem area remains ownership and management. Press ownership by South African black empowerment companies and consortia constitutes a miserable 13 per cent, according to new research done by a Wits journalism student2. In the sphere of radio the state-owned SABC is still a giant, cornering 77 per cent of the total number of listeners. Black empowerment companies control around 10 per cent of the market. But, discounting ownership of the SABC by the black-dominated government, it is arguable that until the ownership picture changes allegations of white control are not without substance.

Sparks describes a free media as the "essential freedom" upon which all other freedoms are constructed. But if blacks and whites in South Africa's still largely divided society, place different currency on those freedoms, which freedom is regarded as fundamental and which freedoms as dispensable? Once stripped of their human dignity, the majority of black people now hold that asset as the most precious in the new constitution. As a result it is more difficult to criticise a "liberator" - like Zimbabwe's president Robert Mugabe - whose noble mission was, once upon a time at least, to restore human dignity to black people.

Some guardians of the president and his press have very effectively manipulated these passionate sentiments. A good recent example of that is Thami Mazwai, a prominent member of the SABC board and a self-appointed defender of what has been called "Thabocracy". He serves as the chairman of the SABC's new sub-committee.

He is known to have called the SABC newsroom to tell them off for using Nelson Mandela's condolences on the death of Walter Sisulu instead of president Thabo Mbeki's. The long partnership of Mandela and Sisulu as comrades in the struggle and as co-prisoners on Robben Island dictated that Mandela's voice should be conspicuous when Sisulu died. Mazwai, however, seemed impervious to that imperative.

The creation of presidential reverence is, it seems, what makes people like Mazwai tick. The drive to build a form of new president-centred patriotism is manifest in the United States by its coverage of recent news, including the Iraq war and the visit of president George W Bush to Africa. Mazwai and his ilk apparently want South African journalists to develop a local variety of that kind of patriotism.

For embedded journalists during the Iraq War there was no question in their minds that US (or British) troops were righteous knights, that God was on their side. But as a former colleague of mine said (wryly?) in a piece-to-camera: "The people of Iraq don't have satellite channels like Sky News and CNN. They don't know that 'our troops' are here to liberate them…"

They didn't need to be told what to say, they fundamentally believed it. They were living, sleeping and eating with the troops: if they didn't think like them before they no doubt did by the time they left. Once the war began, the issues of its illegitimacy or that of unilateral or, more accurately, bilateral, action beyond the parameters of the United Nations were thrown aside in a fever of pride at the military might of the American and British forces.

Their hand-on-heart, unfettered patriotism has reportedly led people like international entrepreneur and philanthropist George Soros to think about pulling back from less developed areas in the world to put more resources into the US where they perceive a greater need for a open media and a more translucent society.

So with South Africa's own presidential press corps still a neonate and untested, the only equivalent we currently have of embedded journalists is what's now being referred to as "praise singing" journalists. The Independent group's John Battersby has got it in the neck from a few media observers, notably human rights activist Rhoda Kadalie, for being Mandela's and, for that matter, Mbeki's imbongi or praise singer.

On that note a personal experience may be relevant. I, together with some black colleagues, sang Nkosi Sikele iAfrika/ God Bless Africa at a lunchtime memorial service for 166 mineworkers who had died at Kinross Mines in the 1980s. It was sung in the traditional way of the time: with a raised fist. The BBC fired me for showing partiality.

The irony, though, was that I had been hired for having partisan associations. The BBC at that time got itself several exclusives for the very reason that I was in touch with the ANC underground. Many white colleagues admonished me. But black journalists hailed my somewhat naïve act as truly patriotic. The then City Press editor, Percy Qobozo, called for my reinstatement in a front-page editorial, headlined: Bring back Crowe.

Fast forward to a decade later and a country freshly revolutionised: after working the international circuit, I was among a new breed of journalists from the anti-apartheid camp that had been brought in to the SABC to "turn it around" from being a white state-owned propaganda machine to a public broadcaster in the BBC tradition. It was now a very different situation: a fledgling democracy had been born and we were part of a team building a new nation that would cherish a robust press. What Sparks called a "Prague Spring" describes that time well as it didn't last and several of us, including Max du Preez and Barney Mthombothi, were flushed out.

The SABC is still in a critical state and now it seems SABC journalists and editors will have their rights and powers usurped by business executives who may not be able to stand up to pressures from politicians looking for a more positive spin.

There are those who would say, perhaps with some justification, that we are in such a fragile state of transformation that we need imbongis. It is a common feature of conflict, like apartheid, or full-out war, as in Iraq, that the "objectivity" present during everyday freedom flies out the window with the proverbial dove of peace at the very first sound of the guns of war.

Professor Harber argues, "What we need is a rich mix of complex voices. But we... need an entirely separate set of rules for the public broadcaster. It must be absolutely scrupulously independent - particularly given its past. The SABC can help create a sense of nation consciousness, a national identity, but it best does that by allowing open debate and a critical exchange of views."

It's the sort of gripping, rigorous debate now unfolding in the British media in the aftermath of the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq and the accusations that British prime minister Tony Blair exaggerated the threat posed by Saddam Hussein to justify the decision to invade. The British media has been engaged in deep soul-searching about its own journalism practices after the extraordinary "suicide" of the scientist Dr David Kelly, whose revelations to the BBC led to Blair's government being accused of hyping up the threat of Saddam's weapons.

Yet despite this shadow cast over the BBC, British journalists have held the high ground. They did not give in to government pressure. The BBC management stood fiercely by their journalist. They protected the source and were not cowed by criticism. They doggedly pursued the truth about the reasons given for the war. All fundamental tenets of journalism were summed up with that one plucky question that silenced the usually eloquent Blair: "Mr Blair, do you have blood on your hands and are you going to resign?"

Sunday Times editor Mathata Tsedu deserves sound praise for defending his journalist's sources too in the Jacob Zuma vs the Scorpions arms scandal investigation recently.

This should all present something of a beacon for other South African journalists - particularly those at the public broadcaster - to be emboldened to make full use of the freedoms chartered in the constitution; to be tough enough not to be sidetracked by insults and to be sufficiently robust to pose those sorts of questions not only to our own politicians but also to other African leaders. The SABC's grovelling interview with president Mugabe in June could not have been further off the mark.

So let the praise singers sing if they sing from the heart: we do indeed need imbongis to engender a spirit of nationalism. But ultimately the press needs to be defined by a fiercely independent voice and not by restraints brought about by a self-imposed desire to be more "African" or worse, by political pressure to be patriotic.

According to Sparks there are now more newspapers in the Gauteng area than in New York. With more and more newspapers hitting the streets - This Day is keenly awaited in September - it becomes imperative that diverse voices be given space to invigorate the national debate. Whether all these titles will survive economically is highly doubtful. But the greater goal should be to use the freedoms we now have and never to forget how easily they can be lost.

1 Quote from the commission's chairman, Dr Barney Pityana
2 Postgraduate Wits journalism student, Les Tilley, conducted the research