Guy Berger
Guy Berger

Taking the ANC media tribunal at face value

Most media responses to the ANC’s recently released discussion document have come out fighting.

The particular target is the proposed media appeals tribunal, a body that would give ruling party the final say over what the press can publish.

A few media responses, however, have been mea culpa. But where problems have been acknowledged and apologies tendered, these have been co-opted as admissions to give succour to the tribunal proposal.

There are good reasons to support the combative approach over the apologetic one.

As a special interest group, the press is absolutely right to defend its turf. Newspaper owners are entitled to defend their business interests which, when last I checked, are legitimate within our national economy policy. Their journalist employees generally aspire to generate news and views in cause of public service, even though media freedom encompasses the right to be sensationalist and do low-quality journalism.

While there are often contradictions between the commercial and journalistic interests within the media, both are correct to unite against the tribunal. This is because the proposed tribunal is a political intervention that will constrain free speech and especially serve to curb criticism of those wielding state power.

There is an argument that the tribunal will not involve pre-publication censorship — but the ANC document, conveniently, pays no regard to the effect over time of post-publication punishment by a tribunal.

In ominous words, the SACP’s Jeremy Cronin has written in support of the tribunal: “Saying sorry after the event is just not good enough.”

Enabling vs constraining regulation

There’s a different kind of political intervention that could expand, rather than reduce, the range of opportunities for more voices — like funding broadband access for the masses or providing for toll-free SMSs to be sent to the SABC.

The ANC’s document all too briefly touches on this kind of intervention. It calls for public funding for SABC, community broadcasting, local content development and rural transmission and it urges more support for the Media Development and Diversity Agency, as well as government advertising in small-scale media.

These kind of interventionist recommendations are not the ones eliciting media opposition. It’s the tribunal that’s being seen as negative and correctly so.

The reason why everyone should support a self-interested media fight against the tribunal intervention is simple. It is because, as an earlier version of South African Press Code of Professional Practice puts it:

“The freedom of the press to bring an independent scrutiny to bear on the forces that shape society is a freedom exercised on behalf of the public.”

In short, the interests of media owners and editorial staff in opposing the tribunal are simultaneously in the wider public interest in helping to hold the powerful accountable.

That’s why all democratically-minded people, especially in the ANC, need to say “hands off” as regards the tribunal.

Myths and realities

The trouble with this argument, however, is that the ANC also claims to be acting on behalf of the public in pushing for the tribunal. You can see this from the title of its document: “Media transformation, ownership and diversity.”

When the ANC looks at the media, it sees a reality that’s quite different to fine-sounding rhetoric about the role of the press. Likewise, when the media looks at the tribunal proposal, it is similarly sceptical about whether the ANC’s motives are honourable.

At the same time, both perspectives also have telling blind spots.

* The media’s critique of the ANC discussion document has, quite symptomatically, largely ignored the proposals around ownership change.

* Meanwhile, the ANC document has absolutely nothing to say about the political and economic crises which have wracked the SABC for the past three years.

These mirror-opposite omissions reflect the vested interests of each side. And, ironically, each side also overlooks its own stake in the contest, accusing only the other of having particular interests.

Thus, the ANC sees (print) media as white business, conspiring with nameless sources to tarnish the cause of transformation. For its part, the press sees the ANC’s proposals as coming from corrupt fat cats planning to close down criticism.

Suppose, however, we set aside these long-standing suspicions, and operate instead on the hypothetical terrain of highlighting bona fides on each side. How then does the ANC proposal stand up?

Taking ANC at face value

To start with, the discussion document says the ANC respects media freedom. It also calls for journalism that reflects on “how our souls are being poisoned by the spirit of conspicuous consumption in a socio-economic formation that encourages greed”.

One would have therefore thought that the exposés of high living would have been welcomed. Instead, however, the document motivates for the tribunal by proposing that “many who find themselves ‘in the news’ are unhappy about the way their story has been presented or the way journalists have obtained information”.

It adds that “people need recourse when media freedom trampled their rights to dignity and privacy”.

Yet, supposing the document’s authors genuinely see the tribunal as being in the broad public (rather than the narrow party) interest, what is their reasoning? Here are the key assumptions embedded in their case:

* Unlike broadcasting, print media remains untransformed in terms of ownership and hence the newspapers retain an ideological outlook contrary to the ANC’s within the “battle of ideas”.

* This situation, combined with commercialisation and ethical corruption, produce negative journalism. According to the discussion document, to date any journalist who “dared to acknowledge progress in service delivery and government performance was condemned by peers as a lapdog”.

* The masses do not have access to, or redress from, newspapers, hence diversity is limited. In particular, the existing self-regulation system is simply a self-serving gimmick by the press.

* Contrary to all this, newspapers should be “instruments of transformation” in building a better South Africa.

* The ANC is a united political force guided by progressive values, enjoys a popular mandate and can be trusted to set things right.

It’s in the light of this analysis, that the discussion document regards the press (as a whole) as a problem, and then suggests the solution. Among the elements here, the most important are:

* A parliamentary investigation into ownership and control of print media, and into whether there should be a media charter for ownership transformation.

* A media appeals tribunal which will be “accountable to the people through parliament” and which can discipline “journalistic scoundrels” and ensure “objective reporting”.

The document refers to the Complaints and Compliance Committee of the regulator Icasa as if the tribunal is a justifiable equivalent. It does not deal with the argument that print is not like broadcasting which attracts special statutory regulation for relying upon a finite public resource — the airwaves.

Flawed assumptions

The assumptions listed above simplistically ignore a great deal of nuance and contradiction among and within newspapers. Like the good faith of many journalists and editors who do ethical and high quality in the face of challenges, and who don’t want statutory regulation.

And while treating the press as homogenously opposed to reporting on progress, the document also mistakenly assumes the ANC is homogenous.

It pits the ANC and the press against each other, instead of regarding each as sites of struggle. The results are:

* A failure to recognise the value of an uncontrolled press to open ideological contestation within the ANC itself.

* Blindness to the value of the watchdog role of media (even newspapers that act as a guard dog of conservative interests can provide a check and balance on government and business).

* The way the self-regulation system has been used by ANC people, and occasionally ruled in their favour.

The document says that the ANC was voted into power on a platform of services that government should deliver: job creation, rural development, land reform, better education and health, and combating crime and corruption. It observes: “They are not the stuff that sell newspapers and make news, but they are what people want … ”

Not discussed is that the public don’t usually buy or read pro-government “good news” newspapers, making for a problematic business model. In this way, the document ignores the economics of ownership concentration in a sector that’s not in the finest health — and where even the tabloid press has reached a plateau.

You may grant the ANC concern about ownership issues, but the issue involves more than owners’ selfish reluctance to have a charter for substantial BBEE.

More generally, the document proposes that because the ANC stands for progressive social change, “we must take charge to ensure they dominate the national discourse and that our voice is heard clearly above the rest”.

This admission is made unashamed, because it assumes the correctness of the self-regarding view that the ANC is singular and that it intrinsically represents the public interest.

Assessing the rhetoric

The press, it can be accepted, is somewhat further away from being in touch with public interest than is the ANC. As an illustration, take the massive amount of reportage that missed the Zuma rise to power.

But that’s not to say the ANC is exactly in touch, as evident in the rash of community protests and the 2008 xenophobic violence

Yet, let’s still stick with the position that the ANC’s intentions (like those of journalists) to approximate the public interest are honest. Is the tribunal then acceptable?

The answer here is no. This is because of the underlying ANC notion that South Africa’s default should not be minimum regulation (eg via general law and via self-regulation).

Instead, for the ANC, the “developmental” state must intervene against “market failure” and harness (literally) newspapers to its project.

Whether you accept this project or not, you would need to acknowledge that this perspective is a totalising one. It is at odds with a libertarian one that prefers pluralism to centralisation.

The point of the document is to seek to subordinate the newspaper institution to the state institution.

If you think you can trust Parliament to appoint a neutral tribunal, which will invoke state power to enforce its rulings, then you may reflect on MPs discomfort at the Travelgate scandal coming to light.

But leave aside whether that control involved could be politically abused; the matter is whether institutional autonomy is a good thing or not.

If it’s good, then it’s a bad move to put paid to press autonomy. That is the case even if we accept ANC claims that the tribunal will be in genuine public interest motivation, working to promote fairness, diversity and access in newspapers.

Ultimately, it’s a sign of weakness when the ANC want to use force, rather than persuasion, to change what newspapers do. That’s why the tribunal can and should be resisted.

  • Siobhan

    @Guy Well argued but way above the heads of the vast majority of ANC cadres.

    The ANC are trying to sell the tribunal as a tool to increase the already apparent signs of transformation in the press. They suggest a ‘study’ to determine press ownership. Why not just read the masthead? It lists the names of the publishers, editors, columnists, etc. and includes ways to get in touch with them, including writing letters to editors.

    What the ANC seem not to ‘get’ is that every tool can also be used as a weapon. The NATS justified using the tool of censorship for ‘national security’ but it was actually a weapon used against a free press that would have ended apartheid long before the ‘struggle’ did.

    The ANC and other struggle parties needed the SA press to be FREE. The ANC should be able to see that a law that seems to favour their partisan interests today could be used by a different party against the ANC in future. Any political party could win the next election if the ANC keep bungling, stealing from the public purse, and ignoring the needs of the ‘masses’ for service delivery.

    Perhaps that explains the rush to create the media tribunal: the ANC are afraid of losing their majority because their bungling and corruption are becoming too well known. Rather than clean up their act, they want to muzzle the one element of our democracy that publicises government wrong-doing.

    This tribunal is tyranny’s footprint.

  • V3

    There is absolutely no grounds to suppose that the “shoot the messenger” Cover-Up Law will be administered by the ANC any differently to the way it dysfunctionalises and corrupts every other aspect of SA life.

    Who can believe that the chief Commissioner will be Pikoli or Tutu; he or she will be another Simelane, Hlophe or Selebi type deployee. Just as the Scorpions (who got Selebi) were replaced by the Hawks, with their Stasi tactics against wa Africa, the Ombudsman will be replaced by a Croniate kangeroo Star Chamber.

    There are 783 reasons to fear this actionL all of them pronounced Zuma.

  • HD

    This is the best article so far on the proposed media tribunal.

    You are spot on in terms of the ideological framework.

    In SA there is a real ideological struggle between two contending and opposing world views.

    One that views that state as central to every aspect of political, social and economic life. The state is a progressive vanguard, who’s tentacles should be used and extended to shape and transform all aspect of society along a single incontestable vision. It has a monopoly of ideas and legitimacy. It is Orwellian in nature and has little faith in society in which it sees all kinds of enemies.

    The second is a vision of a plural and open society in which the state has a limited role. The state functions as a instrument through which society manages its disputes, contradictions and protects the basics rights & freedoms of all its citizens. In this society the state has clear boundaries and respects the right of citizens to make decision for themselves and believes that government is a partnership between the state and other centres of power in society.

    It is only in the first vision that media is expected to play an educational role and report the “truth”. Because in such a society there is only one single legitimate vision,narrative and truth. There is not room for contestation of ideas nor the process of truth seeking (getting is wrong, getting to the truth step by step). There is only revelation and domination.

  • Cathy

    I agree with everything Guy says. But here’s the rub: academic rational logic vs political zeal tinged with fevour, passion and a belief that their way is for the greater good. No guesses who will win this battle.
    Sadly, sometimes, the pen is not mightier than the sword. Media censorship is endemic across Africa. Why should SA end up being any different?

  • http://southafricana.blogspot.com Dave Harris

    “..media appeals tribunal…would give ruling party the final say over what the press can publish.”
    Absolute misrepresentation of media tribunals!
    Media tribunals have become ESSENTIAL in our media environment since it will serve to deter a minority of rogue journalists aka “bloody agents” that lurk among us. They abuse free speech rights by FABRICATING stories to destabilize our nascent democracy, damage our economy and harm our international image, by pursuing their underhanded politics of fear and division.

    ““Saying sorry after the event is just not good enough.””
    Quite true!
    Its too little, too late. e.g. the hysteria created before the World Cup damaged our economy since FIFA had revise its projection of tourists downwards by over 30%. An economic blow that can never fully be quantified since the damage to our international image will only affect us much later.

    ” in the wider public interest in helping to hold the powerful accountable.”
    Sorry, that is hard to believe, since the powerful actually control our economy and a large part of our media.

    Yes, the media is essentially controlled by a single media conglomerate (“media as white business”), window-dressed to mask its ownership. Rouge journalists, with political agendas, fabricate stories to spread misinformation, hysteria, fear and division. The media-circus has become increasingly out-of-control and forced the government to take the unfortunate but necessary step of media tribunals – the ONLY viable way to enforce journalists code of conduct.

  • BS Spotter

    At last, a sober analysis of the ANC’s discussion document. I have always respected Prof Berger as a Media Guru. And Prof, you have not disdappointed me. Instead of shouting “Censorship”, the media needs to engage with the ruling party on exactly what it means. I am certain that during this engagement ‘both sides’ will come to some agreement on what needs to be done, some sort of ‘middle-way’.

  • iMPEDIMENTA

    I was hoping you would weigh in on this debate and bring your academic logic to bear. I agree, we should resist the tibunal.

  • leshoto

    wel you cannot be a player and a referee at the same time,tribunal answering to MPs it won’t work.leave the press as it is instead restore the moral fiber period.

  • Leon Pillay

    Guy Berger, media activist, what a load of hogwash. It is time that people like him stop giving us their onesided views. In bed with the present press moguls that is what it all about. These are the same commentators who never looked any further at developing the press to reach the majority of South Africa’s population. Instead they supported the profit max culture of todays white media. Transform the press, now !!!

  • Felas

    On face value bringing some sense of accountability to our media is important. We know that other than the commercial interest aspect that leads to things like sensational reporting, loosing focus on real issues that are of interest to the public, the media is also used or allows itself to be used to push particular ideologies. Between the political parties and the media none of the two can be trusted because both have vested interests and though at varying degrees both claim to be acting on public interest. While they operate from different angles they both compete for the title of public interest. As much as there will always be coalitions and alignment between particular political parties and media houses there will also be ongoingoing contestations. The other common feature between the media and political parties is that they are both contesting for the attention of the elite (monied, educated, opinion leaders etc.) members of the society. Overall,it is therefore not surprising there will always be ogoing battles between the political parties(ruling) and the media. Rightfully, non of the two contestants will ever trust the motive of the other. It is up to the elite to lead the way in deciding on issues such as the media tribunal. Unfortunately for the ANC the timing could have never been worse with all the allegations and evidence of corruption currently taking place the only conclusion is that the suggestion of a tribunal is only an attempt to silence the media.

  • Saffa Expat

    Freedom of Information… Mr Harris, might this be you?

    http://www.davidlewis.org.za/index.htm
    http://www.whoswhosa.co.za/user/3122
    http://www.themediaonline.co.za/themedia/view/themedia/en/page260?oid=36819&sn=Detail
    http://www.parliament.gov.za/live/commonrepository/Processed/20091112/175215_1.pdf

    for those in doubt – i believe Mr Harris is indeed well connected in ANC circles, hence his fierce propaganda

  • Peter L

    @Dave Harris
    Your (if true) sensational and shocking claims fall into the same trap as some of the “biased” and “rogue” media elements that you allege exist and refer to – a complete lack of any substantiating data, no sources cited, no reliable sources cited, just puerile pedantic pontification without the benefit of humour or alliteration.
    I have often seen you use the term “everbody knows” – that the Earth is flat, perhaps?

    The only proven fabricated story that I am aware of so far, Dave is the one paid for by the ANC’s Ebrahim Rasool, for which he has been hansomely rewarded with an overseas Ambassadorship.

    Let’s hope when he hands in his credentials they are not in a plain brown envelope!

    Many of the media hype stories around SWC 2010 that were published in the tabloids were recylced Germany 2006 stories that were equally untrue (40,000 prostitutes to be imported, child trafficking etc).

    As for FIFA’s tourist projections, if you believe anything that that organisations says, then I have some prime real estate in the Karoo to sell you – marvellous sea views included.

    Media in SA is owned by a vast variety of different organisations and interests, as you well know.

    If you are worried about bias and political agendas, you might want to start with the biggest local media organisation of them all – SABC.

  • Rory Short

    The first priority of any healthy society should be a free press and that means zero political interference. Which ever way you look at it the proposed tribunal is an attack on press freedom and it should rejected.

  • David Brown

    @Dave harris Rouge journalists sow confusion? What about the unpicking of corruption at the highest levels of the police force? Rouge journalism spreading pessimism? The opportunities to democratise the media could start with our public broadcaster struggling still to become a public broadcaster. State and ruling paerty seem unable to control its own at the moment and this discourse springs from a faction in the ANC which wants to continue its tendering ways…. let alone less than tender ways in Mpumalanga for which Mzilikazi Wa Africa just got bundled into the dock for.All of this is the symptom of a party fighting itself and the devouring has just begun. Selective leaking will be approved just you wait and see who gets the bad press as the left gets dug up and hung out to dry for public consumption by Mbulala ,Malema and the boys and girls from the ANCYL in their quest for power. Rob Davies and Jeremy Cronin et al will be drawing unemployment as they witness the tribunal do its work. Who are they arguing for. Press ownership ownership and monopoly should be handled by the ministry of trade and industries it never was and given over to Irish butter kings and any investor who wanted wahtever and got good associate deals that amounted to fronting and cultivating super elites. But the pubilc broadcaster challenge would have to be solved first. We do not have one and the constitution gave SA citizens one. Every night tedious soft peddle.

  • http://hardtalk Siphiwo Siphiwo

    Same old same

    Another one-side analysis

    More of the same defensive propaganda from media chief-spindoctors.

    I suppose this gives us more viguar to call for implementation of media tribunal bill to take effect as of this month.

  • Kwame

    South Africa is a constitutional democracy, which translates to the broader citizenship having the right to scrutinize, debate and make suggestions on any matter they see fit. The ANC is part of this citizenship and as such has provided this country with the very constitution and media freedom that is enjoyed. The suggestion of a media tribunal is as a result of such freedoms being exercised. Granted the meadia tribunal may not be the greatest of ideas, but it is not up to the media to say such debates and suggestions cannot take place. My advise to the media is engage the process and don’t gang-up to stifle the very democratic process that allows freedom of expression and ideas by the citizens of this country. I am of the view that this country can do with a more open media, that is fair and accountable to its citizenship and the idea of a media tribunal is just the begining of an ideal not the end. If you don’t like the idea please take it to the constitutional court where everyones rights are guaranteed.

  • Trevor

    How desperately we need a free press, especially in our notorious context of political corruption and self-interest.We hope the press stand strong on this issue. Who wants to listen to the ANC, or any political party give their perpetual ‘objective’ analysis of their own performance and bona fides? We have enough of that on Women’s Day and other speech-making days.Give this to the ANC, though: they’ve produced enough self-incriminating scandal for wanting a muzzled press.

  • http://blogroid.wordpress.com blogroid

    An interesting and accurate analysis but inherently too complicated. The simple truth is that in a free society people are free to read or not to read whatever is presented by the print media… in fact fewer people are reading: eg: the best selling daily… the Daily Sun [tabloid froth] sell 250,000 copies in a region of 8,000,000 million prospects. Papers like the Business Day sell under 30,000, most of these latter readers would also access the global press via the internet. Is this much ado about very little?

    The Sowetan went the route of presenting ‘objective’ neo- marxist incoherence and very nearly went out of business, before they rushed back to their tabloid perspective.

    A muzzled press in any form is a dying press with no credibility and the government that does the muzzling will likewise struggle to generate credibility.

    It could be argued that the very concentration which the media critics promote as their rationale for this proposal was the natural outcome of the muzzled media pre ’94.

    Undoubtedly alternate voices need to be heard and alternate viewpoints need to be able to argue their case in the marketplace for ideas, and this should be the route to follow: not that of shooting the messenger.

    Presently such media that do this have not proved to be too dynamic, and you can’t force people to read what bores them… it is hard enough to generate interest in reading at all in our increasingly Alliterate society.

  • macks

    It is interesting how the debate on media tribunal unfold in particular in the print media. Two things which should be noted, print media in the country serves narrow interests of the shareholders and the white capitalists who are hellbent to oppose transformation of the media environment. Why is there such an outcry on introducing the regulatory framework in the print media. Is it constitutionally correct for the print media to tremple on the rights of citizens without being regulated. Print media should like other institutions travel this road of transformation. We cannot afford to be stomaching a junk that is driven by the print media. Let the public also be afforded a space to make their inputs on the issue not be cajouled by editors and foreign business to agree that media tribunal is incorrect. The. ANC has been given a mandate through the ballot by eleven million voters through its manifesto to drive societal transformation and that includes the media specifically transformation of the print media and its ownership. The four major owners of the print media are not semi god to dictate the societal needs. Worse to drive the narrow foreign inerestsm ANC rules and leads the country.

  • Hein

    Democracy. Government by the people for the people. Do we have it? No.The biggest stumbling block : Political Party System.Biggest single problem? ANC. (Read: Arrogance, Nepotism, Corruption).
    We pay the Government to do a job-manage our country-but they spend too much time and money on self interest and Party issues.
    Media Tribunal is a Polokwane resolution with transparent motivation-nothing to do with making SA a better place. How many times has the media (print or radio) approached Govt officials for comment on some issue and simply refused to comment or were “not available” for comment? If you had a business and your employee takes as much money as he wants, does just what he likes and refuses to answer to you, what would you do?.
    The media is our link with our employees. All Govt information is public information apart from that which an independent court by transparent criteria classifies as otherwise.Journalists should have free access to all spheres of our communities (including Government) and it should be a criminal offence for an official to refuse comment on any relevant question posed by the media. Other laws and mechanisms exist to deal with inaccurate reporting. If we want transformation in the Media we should start by giving it more powers, not less.
    Think our Government will take this route towards eventual democracy? Yeah, me too.

  • Ingela Richardson

    Hitler’s decree, the “Protection of the People and the State” (Feb 28, 1933) changed the constitution. It restricted the right to assembly, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press. It gave government the authority to overrule state and local laws. This law became a permanent feature of the Nazi police state. Zuma also likes the word “protection” (the “Protection of Information Bill”). He would like to “protect” South Africans from the media. In other words, close doors, switch off the lights, leave people in the dark and ignorant.