Monday, September 6, 2010

Another side of the press freedom crisis

by Sibonelo Radebe
Had it not been for the clumsy intervention of the ANC and the baggage that comes with being an African liberation movement-turned ruling party, we could be writing a different story around the prevailing press freedom crisis in South Africa.
The alternative story emerges from a successive list of ‘independent’ initiatives undertaken in the past 16 years or so and designed to infuse a ‘substantive social role’ into South Africa’s news media fraternity. Successively, the country’s press community clung onto archaic and elitist ideologies of press freedom thereby working itself into a vulnerable corner. To borrow from Michel Foucault’s thinking, the press community helped to write a ‘genealogy’ of marginalised thought. This is such that the ANC’s initiative, in its clumsy and opportunistic form, fits what might be called the insurrection of subjugated knowledges”.
Granted, the cacophony of media unfriendly rhetoric emanating from the direction of the ANC and its allies is worrying. To be sure, the information protection bill and other moves of that sort play no part within “the thoughts of this piece. It is the talk of establishing a statutory media tribunal which somehow fits into a ‘genealogy’ of initiatives designed to democratise South Africa’s press. One after the other these initiatives were frustrated and went to waste. And now emerges the extreme option. It did not have to come to this.
Courtesy of a PhD study concluded in 1998 by Lesley Fordred, we can begin this genealogy in 1993. The Institute for Democratic South Africa and the Institute for Multi Party Democracy thought it wise to advice the news media fraternity about shifting social patterns and needs. They organised an Indaba of sort titled: The Symposium on Political Tolerance: The role of opinion makers and the media. The idea was to sensitise news reporting to new imperatives including voter education and political violence. It is safe to conclude that the initiative flopped at the hands of a fraternity hell bent on setting up a ‘folk stat’.
A representative of the South African Union of Journalists (SAUJ) expressed discomfort with the framing of the symposium. The argument was that journalists should focus on ‘facts’ and ‘facts’ alone. Not even a need to “foster political tolerance and a democratic political culture” should come in the way of facts. In this talk lies the naked claim of the modern news media to be a science of sort which delegitimizes ‘common sensical’ voices. The SAUJ talk claims an ‘epistemological high ground’. It says: I know the facts better than everyone else. And so the seeds that were to fit into the ‘genealogies’ of ‘antisciences’ were planted within South Africa’s media landscape.
Interestingly Fordred juxtaposes the latter chapter to Nelson Mandela’s attack on the media during the Mafikeng ANC conference in 1997. While it is the cause of this piece to put aside ANC’s polemics from the making of the country’s press freedom crisis, a portion of Nelson Mandela’s words are worth noting, more so because of the tendency to misappropriate Madiba’s political stature. Mandela is quoted saying “To protect its own privileged positions, which are a continuation of the apartheid era legacy, it [the media] does not hesitate to denounce all efforts to ensure its own transformation consistent with the objectives of a non racial democracy”.
Fordred’s characterisation of Mandela’s speech is useful. She suggests that Mandela’s speech comes with a conspiratorial thinking. But she notes that this thinking partly feeds from the media’s resistance to engage the debate about “the cultural politics of news”. This resistance, argues Fordred, pushes the ANC deeper into the conspiratorial discourse in understanding “media ailments” and in seeking solutions.
Now that the ANC is talking a tribunal language, who can deny that the gestures of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) provided another golden opportunity for South Africa’s media fraternity to carve a sustainable social pact. In 1997 the TRC did extend its investigation into the role of the media in the pre-1994 era and the legacy of that role. The response of some media leaders to that process was at best nonchalant and at worst hostile as shown by the resistance of the Newspaper Press Union, a forerunner to the current Print Media SA. The recommendations of the TRC process have been gathering dust. This may be due to positions taken by key stakeholders within the media fraternity.
Writing in 1997 Guy Berger, the head of Rhodes Journalism School, stopped short of dismissing the TRC findings that the media colluded as a collective, save for a few journalists, with the apartheid regime. “Not even the verdict of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission (TRC) can remove the ultimate burden of accountability from the individual journalist,” wrote Berger. More than making a judgement on the TRC process, Berger was driving towards the point that journalism at its ethical best and because it is placed in between competing social groups does not allow for collective collusion with any ideological agenda. If and when that happens, it is more a “cock up” than a conspiracy. This argument served to say journalists must be left to their own devices. Not even the TRC should be allowed to influence the character of newsrooms. It is not the merits of Berger’s argument that are at stake here but the character of its discourse. His argument equals the establishment of a ‘scientific standard’ around the conduct of traditional newsmedia. It begs the question raised by Michel Foucault: “What types of knowledge are you trying to disqualify when you say that you are a science”. In this case, a well meaning initiative from the direction of a harmless commission was suppressed. And so the universe of opposition against an ivory tower perched media was gathering pace.
Shortly after the TRC process concluded, the Human Rights Commission (HRC) launched in 2000 an enquiry to look at the persistence of racism within South Africa’s newsrooms. Once again, the media freaked out and clung to its ‘leave us alone’ attitude. The origins of the HRC process could not persuade the media from taking a hostile position to the inquiry. Remember that the HRC process emanated from complains filed by the Black Lawyers Association and the Association of Black Accountants of South Africa. When the media came to the party, half heartedly so, the HRC process was tainted and its recommendations went largely unheeded. These included that the media must invest resources to strengthen self regulatory mechanisms. The HRC research undertaken by Claudia Braude recommended that “... the relevant industry bodies that fund them [self regulatory mechanisms] should be encouraged to provide adequate resources in order for them to be of real rather than token service to the public”.

The press community reacted by attacking Braude’s research, her person and the legitimacy of the HRC. Post this saga, Kevin Durrheim and three co writers produced a useful ‘discourse analysis’ and concluded that the media partly employed “epistemological positioning” to discredit the HRC process. The media was essentially saying it is only us who understand the spectre of racism and when and where it occurs. Not the HRC. Not Braude. Not BLA and Abasa let alone a group of black journalists who broke rank.

In the period following the enactment of the broad based black economic empowerment act of 2003, other key industries jumped at the opportunity presented in the act to establish transformation charters. These initiatives amount to self regulation of sort. They give birth to transformation commitments negotiated by key industry stakeholders and deliver charter councils which include government, civil society and private sector. If there was any less state led non intrusive idea of infusing an element of accountability to the country’s press, it is the charter council formula. It presents a platform where all relevant stakeholders can get a sense of representation. Having swerved out of the way of the advertising and communication industries’ charter, the news media fraternity has dismissed the idea of establishing its own charter. The painful thing is, initiatives like charter councils are not of radical character. Organisations like the Black Management Forum have criticised charter formations as too lenient and an escape route out of stringent transformation. Point is, the media fraternity has been blinded by an archaic ideology of independence to an extent of missing free rides.

In view of all these relatively well-meaning initiatives, how is it that we are served with such a narrow and conspiratorial explanation of the status quo.
Sibonelo Radebe is a freelance journalist.