Janice Winter
Janice Winter

Supporting (limits to) media freedom

Zuma has received his award as Newsmaker of the Year for 2009. Not surprising, given last year’s events: a mixed bag, with the withdrawal of corruption charges, his election to the presidency, the launch of the presidential hotline and controversial appointments of a new chief justice, national director of public prosecutions and national police commissioner, to name a few headline events.

Receiving his award from the National Press Club on Friday, he light-heartedly acknowledged: “It is always a pleasure for me to spend time with the media. Perhaps it is because there is a never a dull moment in my relationship with journalists, whether in South Africa or abroad. I seem to attract your attention no matter how hard I try to stay out of the spotlight!” But overall, his speech did not sit well with me. It was a little like those frustrating 3D posters that were popular in the 1990s: not particularly eventful at first glance, but making you uncomfortably aware you need to adjust your senses to pick up the hidden message.

Zuma celebrated the freedom of media as enshrined with other human rights in the Constitution, but seemingly as a subtle segue into a lecture about its possible limits, suggesting that it was time to “look at how far the exercise of media freedom should go”. He mentioned three areas:

First, how to balance media freedom with the rights of individuals to human dignity and privacy, when reporting “becomes tantamount to the harassment of an individual”. This is an expected, given the criticism he has faced from the media and the reciprocal criticism he has given. However, media criticism is one of the inconveniences of democracy for a national leader, and a cornerstone of independent journalism. There are constitutional and legislative mechanisms for balancing the rights of the media with those of individuals, and institutional safeguards to make effective democratic decisions when these are in tension. It is not the role of the president to lead a public discussion on this matter.

If this is not the president’s role, neither, certainly, is advising the media on its approach to news reporting — Zuma’s second suggestion. He said: “It would also be helpful at some point to discuss with the media some of the news approaches that we feel would help the country to attract investments, grow the economy and achieve other developmental goals.” Though he (defensively) reassured journalists that “we are not seeking to interfere with editorial independence” it is interventionist to a degree that exceeds democratic governance.

In a veiled accusation, he said that the choice of editors to criticise a prominent person’s lifestyle rather than to celebrate national achievements or pursue developmental goals is out of a profit motive. Quite apart from, and preceding, any market preference in motivation is the fundamental Fourth Estate function of an independent media in a democratic context, which is to hold power to account and encourage an engaged and informed citizenry. It is not the role of journalism to curb criticism and celebrate state achievements in order to assist the state in its nation-building political project by becoming “a vehicle that promotes unity, reconciliation and a better life for all South Africans”. That is not its mandate. Developmental journalism does not strengthen democracy.

Finally, he took exception to the media’s coverage of the Presidential Protection Unit (PPU), which has come under fire for its heavy-handed approach. Zuma explained that the “minister of police wants to strike a balance between ensuring that the PPU does its work effectively, while also allowing space for journalists to do theirs”. Allowing? Seriously? It is not within the jurisdiction of the minister of police to influence the media’s approach to reporting the PPU or to “allow” journalists to do their work. If Nathi Mthethwa feels that the media is reporting the work of the PPU unfairly and inaccurately, he is welcome to take his complaints to the Press Ombudsman or lay a charge of defamation.

Commendably, Zuma condemned as “totally unacceptable” the alleged spying on journalists by government officials, an important statement after this weekend’s expose on the matter by Ferial Haffajee’s City Press investigations unit. He nonetheless avoided the awkward acknowledgement that accusations were made against the ANC Youth League. Well, more than accusations, in fact: admission. The youth league last week threatened to publicise dossiers of private information about certain critical journalists in the party’s possession, such as their salaries and sexual behaviour.

At a Human Rights Day event in Mpumalanga on Saturday, Malema engaged in a vitriolic verbal attack on the media, warning that he would not allow the country to be “run by journalists” and cautioned the public that unless they remain on their guard, journalists will bring down the government. Specifically, he spoke of the “white boere” journalists who he accused of conspiring against him and undermining “African” journalists. He then led the crowd in his “Shoot the Boer” song. For this, he now faces a second charge of hate speech. Malema may succeed in rousing some crowd anger by framing his criticisms as a crude racial argument, positioning “white boere” journalists as indiscriminately critical of him, against “African” journalists who, by implication, are loyal, but only by conveniently ignoring the fact that many of his fiercest critics are respected black journalists.

Talking of limits to freedom of expression, President Zuma, you might want to start within your direct arena of influence — your party and your politicians — and publicly admonish Malema not only for his destructive instantiations of hate speech, but also for implying that the adherence to critical, watchdog journalism is only a white ideal.