Helga Jansen
Helga Jansen

Threats to the media — we brought this on ourselves

Society and progressive civil society in particular, must take some of the blame for the state threats to the media. This is not some sensationalistic shock statement meant to upset you into action. In it lies the years of abdication from social responsibility to build a vigilant society. A society that guards its democratic freedom jealousy and vigorously — beyond the activism of media workers and NGOs. Instead, we allowed political interests and political actors to do so for us, to stand guard at the gates of a metaphorical constitutional hill, and watch out for those who would trample the hallowed grounds of democracy. Perhaps the Tata status of a fatherly Mandela in the early years lulled us to trust. Perhaps the nanny-like regime of the Mbeki years, which some say sought to squash political opposition inside the ruling party, incapacitated us, made us feel inadequate, bullied us into submission. And now the tragi-comedy played out by the Zuma regime with its kleptomaniacal overtones, have perhaps shocked us into inertia, embarrassment, cluelessness. We brought this threat to the media on ourselves.

Throughout this has been an “independent” media, free to take up the baton for our responsibility towards our democracy. We allowed the media to become the “unofficial” opposition. The “serious journalism” of the “trashy tabloids” and the “acres of middle-class whingeing” confirmed our worst nightmares, a black ruling party would degenerate into a banana kleptocracy. The trashy tabloids dulled any reporting or portrayal of working-class political opposition, while the English-speaking dailies entrenched racial fears of “the other” through horror stories of black criminals violating innocent middle-class victims. Service-delivery failures, HIV/Aids denialism, the rape trials, and corruption tribulations of Zuma and others in the black government, and the imminent failure of the first African World Cup — these “true” stories sold newspapers.

The anti-government trend is not new in South African mainstream print media. This does not mean that genuine media investigative journalism into the irregular use of state resources is not needed, and necessary. But what passes as good journalism? Are our news rooms a healthy balance between journalistic experience and youthful enthusiasm or is it just youthful arrogance passing itself off as political journalism. However, as Jeremy Cronin calls it: “The oppositionist inclination is the media’s view that it is a watch-dog over those in power (usually those in political rather than economic power).” As deep disappointment and growing anger towards the African National Congress, seethed, and settled, so the “independent” media fed this anger. And as they uncovered one truth after another about the ANC, in the name of media freedom, they also sold newspapers by the ton loads, and helped shape our political and national identities, and perhaps also reinforced our prejudices, our Afro-pessimism. We brought this threat to the media on ourselves.

The ANC too, however, played its part in creating the kind of media we have. We watched as our economy swayed from serving the people to serving “the ANC’s embrace of neo-liberal policies in the late 1990s — the ANC pursued a largely market-led approach to media transformation”. The foreign and largely white-owned print media reconsolidated after the mid-1990s and regained an entrenched foothold as the only kids on the print media bloc. Black print ownership was edged out of the market through enormous costs of printing, and their own debt-funded equity — think the rise, and quick demise of This Day. Over the years the ANC has pursued an anti-media diversity path, despite paying lip-service to the contrary. Media academic and activist Jane Duncan gives several instances. The ANC’s rejection of legislated levy to fund the Media Development and Diversity Agency has meant this agency designed to ensure media diversity is powerless and under-funded. The South African Broadcasting Corporation has been known to “dump uneconomic audiences in favour of those who attract ad spend”. Community radio stations, instead of serving communities, chase government and commercial advertising to remain afloat — a far departure from the ethos and foundations of the beginnings of the community radio sector in this country.

As we must take responsibility for the threats to the media, the ANC too must take responsibility for deviating not only from its social contract, but from creating the environment in which the “market” superseded its vision of a role for the media. In its discussion document “Media transformation, ownership and diversity” it acknowledges: “There can be no full realisation of media freedom in a situation of growing conglomeration of ownership and homogenisation of content. One consequence of such conglomeration is that newsrooms are being cut down, research capacity is being decimated and lifting from the wires as distinct from real investigative work is becoming the norm.” Duncan is correct when she says “the ANC talks left, but walks right on questions of media transformation”. The threats to the media, I believe, are borne after long years of ANC frustration with a media machine whose wheels the ruling party oiled through its opening roads to the “market”. In return the ANC perhaps thought it “bought consent” through its acquiescence to neo-liberal media economics. The ANC was wrong to think it could buy consent, and we, civil society, will pay for its allegiance to the market.