Journalists Adrian Basson and Mohammed Jameel Abdulla offer important insights into the difficulty of working as a journalist in volatile contexts where protesters, private security and the police may harass, threaten or assault journalists.
Abdulla speaks to key themes we touch on in our Media Studies lectures at UCT. I think that his account of the ways in which male photographers behaved at the recent naked protest at Wits speaks to the male gaze as theorised by Laura Mulvey – the unquestioned hegemonic belief that the sensational shot of naked women will boost click streams and newspaper sales and the assumption that these male photographers are entitled to behave in ways that are plainly voyeuristic and objectifying. So it is not just news that is the commodity, but the female body as well – or, in many other instances, spectacular footage of violence and destruction. To repeat the tired cliché: if it bleeds it leads.
This brings us to a consideration of the political economy of the media: thanks to neoliberal economics, we struggle (or refuse) to develop models for funding of news media beyond throwing it to the mercy of the market. Markets seek profits with little consideration of ethics, racism or sexism – unless these issues hurt profit margins.
What we need is funding models that operate outside of the commodification and corporate monopolisation of everything. This requires a shift away from neoliberal economics. We need state intervention in the market that creates space for developmental media, alternative media, community media and advocacy media to operate in a context where a free press is not merely protected by constitutional mechanisms, but also in a context where legislation ensures that commercial entities are prevented from buying out or pushing out these forms of media. In other words, the state should ensure that commercial media ‘stay in their lane’ to ensure that we have true media diversity beyond mere brand diversity.
For example, the free ‘knock and drop’ newspapers that are owned by Independent Newspapers and Naspers are positioned as community newspapers when communities neither own or edit these papers. We know that these ‘knock and drop’ papers generate large amounts of revenue from advertising – they are always stuffed with pull-out booklets and flyers. What if actual communities were able to tap into these advertising revenue streams to fund true community newspapers that are not dominated by corporate monopolies? What would the news media landscape look like then? How would democracy be served?
The Media Development and Diversity Agency (MDDA) has not done enough, partly because it relies significantly on corporate funding and because we do not have sufficient legislation in place to enable true media diversity in a context where the operation of free media is ensured. From the state’s side, the proposed Media Appeals Tribunal, attempts at ‘regulating’ online publication or the Protection of State Information Bill will not solve this problem. Instead, it is clear that these are merely attempts at censorship.
Returning to the task of being a journalist on the beat, I should point out that no right is absolute. The interests of a free press have to be balanced with concerns about human dignity, rights to privacy and introspection on issues of possible exploitation or cultural appropriation. Some of the same issues relating to research ethics in academic contexts apply to photojournalism and news reporting.
On the other hand, activists on the ground need to know that a free press is essential to the democratic rights that they are trying to secure and that their desire to lay down rules of engagement also need to be balanced with the public interest. It is not in anyone’s interest to alienate or threaten journalists who may be very helpful in exposing social injustices.
It is not merely educational institutions that need to decolonise. News media need to seriously consider the intersectional ways in which they contribute to the very forms of oppression that student activists are engaging critically. In short, news media need to decolonise. That said, the state and the ruling party also have a key role to play in creating an enabling environment for news media to operate beyond the constraints of narrow commercial agendas, state censorship and intimidation or assault of journalists on the beat.
They also need to lead by example by offering convincing evidence that they respect freedom of the press: for a start, the state and ruling party could stop articulating unfounded conspiracy theories about “CIA spies” and “regime change” plots and respect the fact that journalists, activists and scholars have a key role to play in a functional democracy.