Guy Berger
Guy Berger

Media campaign gathers reinforcements

South Africa’s journalism schools have joined the movement to keep the country’s media and information environment free.

More than a dozen schools signed a Journalism Educators’ statement, released on Monday, which rejects the trilogy — the media appeals tribunal, the Protection of Information Bill and intimidation of journalists like Mzilikazi wa Afrika.

“We are concerned about what all these developments signal to young South Africans wishing to start a career in journalism,” says the educators’ statement. It declares that shortcomings in the media can only be addressed on the basis of freedom.

Such unprecedented unity and assertiveness amongst the country’s journalism teachers is another unintended effect of the current threats to media freedom. It mirrors the way that the same threats have mobilised editors like never before.

An example is the bold action by the SA National Editors’ Forum last week to go to court to successfully block a parliamentary committee from meeting with the SABC behind closed doors.

It’s a case of the proverbial hornets’ nest having been thoughtlessly kicked. When the concerned critters begin swarming, they respond in unpredictable ways.

For example, the drafters of the ANC document on “Media Transformation, Ownership and Diversity” apparently thought their entire range of media concerns would be engaged with.

Instead the editors’ response has (understandably) narrowed to the danger of the tribunal on the one hand, and also extended into the separate issue of parliamentary transparency on the other.

Although the editors did not make the connection, there is in fact a link between the two issues. Ultimately, it is the same institution that last week sought a closed session with the SABC, which the ANC sees as being the appropriate body to investigate and appoint its tribunal.

A related matter, which may yet attract the attention of the hornet “swarm”, is the role of Parliament in appointing members of the Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa) — something that is often promoted by enthusiasts as the model for their tribunal.

What is conveniently forgotten, however, is that since a law change in 2006 the Icasa council appointments are made by the minister of communications from a slate suggested by Parliament.

And even with this set-up, the ANC is now wanting even greater power for the government. This is evident in a draft Bill tabled in June which gives the minister unfettered power to directly appoint the members of Icasa’s compliance and complaints committee, a body which would have separate authority from the council, according to the Bill.

All this foreshadows a similar symmetry ahead in which a tribunal starts off on the basis of being effectively appointed by Parliament, then subsequently turns into appointment by the minister from a choice of parliamentary nominations, and which then ultimately becomes appointment directly by the minister.

It’s an extremely far cry from ANC reassurances that a tribunal would keep press freedom intact. In fact, sincere tribunal enthusiasts, especially, should use the Icasa model to look down the line and see where their initiative will lead.

Will they? This group failed to foresee the antagonism the tribunal proposal has aroused, including even a lack of appetite from alliance partner Cosatu. They also lacked insight into how stakeholders such as the journalism educators would respond to the proposals.

For instance, the statement by the educators does not even deal with the ANC policy document’s call for “developmental communication” to be part of the curriculum. For those who teach and train the country’s journalists, that is clearly not the primary issue on the table as long as there’s the tribunal threat.

On the other hand, perhaps the educators ought to pay closer attention to the wording of the curriculum matter in the ANC’s discussion document, which asks: “What interventions can be made in respect of journalism curriculum in order for developmental communication to be mainstreamed as opposed to sensationalism”?

Implied in this wording is that the journalism teachers are at least partly responsible for journalism deemed by some to be “sensationalism”; hence the need for “interventions” to change what they teach.

The flawed reductionism in this reasoning is one thing; much worse is a potential threat to academic freedom.

What looms here is a possible scenario as is unfolding in Kenya — where not only do journalists have to be licensed by a statutory regulatory body in order to practise, but sights are also being set on licensing that country’s journalism schools as well as those allowed to teach in them.

It may be a surprise to some ANC people that journalism educators have now joined the “swarm”. It’s time, however, for the ruling party to recognise the legitimate concerns that are driving the widening scale of resistance to the current media and information proposals.