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SA media hardly the ideal poster boy for press freedom

You know something is wrong when Jackson Mthembu comes across as the reasonable voice in any debate.

The media is its own worst enemy in this whole brouhaha regarding potential media freedom infringements in the Protection of Information Bill and the mooted Media Appeals Tribunal. It should not ever be the most difficult thing to do to defend media freedom in a country with as robust a Constitution and free press as ours. But for all its posturing and hysteria, the media is doing a very crappy job of arguing its case. I have to say this applies more to the print media than online as the level of analysis and argument over the issue (see Prof Pierre de Vos’s blog) is superior on the virtual medium. With print media having a wider reach in our largely offline country, the cause for press freedom still needs the broadsheets and tabloids to champion.

Now why do I say that Mthembu is coming across as the rational side of this argument? Pick up any newspaper and read their reporting on the issue. It’s all doomsday hysteria about the ANC looking to transport every journo in the country into Robben Island blindfolded and in shackles. Cheap, alarmist and misinformative. The thing is it is very easy for the ANC, especially in a country with a media as prone to embarrassing lapses in quality as ours, to highlight the positive intent behind the bill and the media tribunal. Just this week a major daily extension of a large Sunday broadsheet had to run an apology after the Press Ombudsman found that a front-page headline article about an official in the Office of the President was no more than conjecture and hearsay.

The truth is there is a very good argument to be made for toughening the ethical requirements for journalists and allowing for a more robust avenue for recourse for those wronged by shoddy reporting work. The apology forced by the Ombudsman cannot for example erase the perception that has now been created against Presidency director-general Lakela Kaunda. A vague page-two apology can never undo a bold front-page splash. But that is as far as recourse goes in this country. An undesirable situation and one which the ANC has seized upon brilliantly to further its surely undeniable aim of muzzling a critical press. It is very hard to argue against the tribunal when one views the current laissez-faire approach to fact-checking and ethics in (mostly) print media. In fact only the (very important) principle that the government should never be allowed to dictate terms to the press is about the only one that has been raised against the tribunal.

The bill is a rare example of guile and cunning on the part of the ANC. I say rare because the ANC in government has had all the subtlety of a bunch of pigs jostling for position in an ever-shrinking trough. The concerns raised against how it could be used to curtail media freedom are legitimate, yet it is only very recently, and in the online realm that the bill has been dissected logically and plainly enough for the layman to understand just what is at play. The ANC has made great noises about all the remedies (wonderfully repudiated by Prof De Vos and Mike Trapido this week) the bill avails and the print media hasn’t taken the hint and gone out to educate people about the bill in a logical objective manner before arguing its case. Instead all you get is hype about the downside of the bill, which to a society that is already sceptical of the media, comes across as exactly what it is, panicked paranoid ramblings from people who know they haven’t lived up to the standards they profess to uphold. The same media that speaks down to South Africans is now hoping to rally them to their cause, for their sake.

This is a media that has in recent years, predicted the downfall of Jacob Zuma, painted him as a rapist despite his acquittal in a court of law, predicted the imminent end of ANC domination of the polls, the rise of Cope as a viable opposition movement, raised fears of a non-existent plague of xenophobia and has for the past year told us that Malema is on his way out very soon, and still claims to be the voice of the people. Make no mistake media freedoms must be protected, government must never be allowed to interfere in how the media works, especially not a government that is doing such a rubbish job of delivering on its promises. But good God, we are in desperate need of a media sector more deserving of such protection.

This article first appeared on www.newstime.co.za

Author

  • Siyabonga Ntshingila is a walking example of how not to go through life productively. Having been chanced his lackadaisical way through an education at one of the country's finest boys schools and a noted university, he then proceeded to unleash his special brand of inertia on the unsuspecting corporate world. Alas, as with all things in life, the scam could not go on forever, and like a deVaselined Ananias Mathe reality caught up with him and he is now (thanks to the undue influence of his beloved) making a living as a freelance writer and a sub-editor for Newstime.

34 Comments

  1. haiwa tigere haiwa tigere 2 September 2010

    Thanks Siyabonga- I was thinking all in the media are hysterical pratts until I read this blog.You cannot have amedia running amok lying and painting people as rapists. Mr Kaunda got an apology. Zuma is still waiting for his.

    One of the reasons why the government cant function properly is because it is answering to the chattering class(who by the way will never vote for teh ANC) who have the phones to ring the ministers up instead of attending to the rural electorate who constantly elect them in.A case in point is a minister who was invited to openning up a gay pornographic expose masqurading as art and she spent weeks defending her descision. The sooner the ANC ignored this lot and just concentrated on their rural electorate the better

  2. Level-headed Level-headed 2 September 2010

    Brilliant!

  3. Peter L Peter L 2 September 2010

    I agree wholeheartedly with everything that you have said, Siyabonga.

    The other thing that is missing in many of these debates is a clear and viable alternative to the Poiob and MAT.

    Even the media itself accepts that it needs to brush up on its standards and attention to detail, and small print page 2 aplogies do little to undo the harm casued by inaccurate and damaging front page headlines.

    The print media says that having to issue a retraction is the worst censure and worst thing that can happen to a jouralist or his or her reputation, but here I have to agree with the ANC – there is no restorative justice for the VICTIM of bad, inaacurate or unethical reporting when a page 2 retraction and apology is printed.

    I am totally opposed to Poib and MAT – what we need to do is to look at viable alternatives that will best serve all stakeholders.

    For example – we have more than enough laws capable of censuring errant journalists and media owners, plus applying restorative justice to victims – how about setting up special legal aid processes to allow alleged transgressions to be prosectuted?

    Another one – how about creating more budget and “teeth” for the press ombudsman, to be overseen by civil society?

    If we were to achieve this, then the ANC’s fig leaf of “Poib and MAT are needed to protect the national interest and protect the people from damage caused by malicious and inaccurate reporting” would fall away.

  4. Johan Johan 2 September 2010

    Siyabonga makes an interesting point or two, but also a few that once can not agree with.

    1) I’ve never heard the media lay any claim to being clairvoyant. Getting the future wrong is understandable (Malema’s fall, outbreak of xenophobia), reporting the news incorrectly I agree is a problem. When those in the Presidency are to scared to speak out, what do you suggest the media should do?

    2) The apology requested by the press ombudsman against the Sunday Times hardly dismissed the newspapers allegations as “conjecture and hearsay”. Many of the complaints were dismissed, and those that were upheld was based on the phrasing of the article as opposed to the content.

    I’m to believe that bad newspapers will lose their credibility and stop selling. Good newspapers will become more respected and thought leading.

    I don’t think the media portrays itself as the “voice of the people” (as you do). However, I do think the media can be considered the messenger.

    The ANC wants to kill the mensenger for bringing bad news, you want to belittle the messenger for inaccurate news. Me? I’m just happy to be allowed to choose which messenger to listen to.

  5. WTF WTF 2 September 2010

    This article is absolute rubbish. Freedom of speech is not a right governed by its potential subject matter, or society’s ability to assimilate the latter. (“OK, we’ll give you freedom of speech as long as you don’t paint pictures of penises, or as long as the media lives up to some abitrary standard”)

    Freedom of speech is constrained only by the counterbalancing right of people not to be defamed, slandered or subject to crimen injuria or hate speech. Nowhere in the constitution does it say “The Media is only free until they commit act,”

    The media is governed by its consumers. If a newspaper obviously sucks and loses credibility, people stop buying it, or its ratings decline and advertisers refuse to take space and profitability suffers. Ditto for websites, TV and radio. If the media sucks, it’s because the consumers are comfortable with it sucking. Since those consumers are the same people who voted the government into power, why should they want the government (ie. the media-consumers-by-proxy)to change the status quo?

    That’s *IF* the media sucks. But it doesn’t. It does a tough job with a remarkably low error rate considering the poor training and pay of many journalists.

    Media suppression is far too serious an issue for opinion writers to play Devil’s Advocate with, and I wish they’d stop it.

  6. Atlas Reader Atlas Reader 2 September 2010

    Sucking up to the ruling regime really isn’t a criterion for a “good” free press.

  7. fergie fergie 3 September 2010

    @Siyabonga, the ANC doesn’t give a damn about the quality of the press in SA. The ANC is concerned about the press exposing the graft and corruption that’s going on in the ANC led government. If the ANC is concerned about quality in SA, why don’t they setup a system to monitor the corruption in the tenders that are given out? The ANC did the same thing when the Scorpins were arresting their member for stealing from the government so they killed the Scorpins. You try to act as an independent thinker but you are a cheer leaders to the ANC graft and corrupted government.

  8. Benzol Benzol 3 September 2010

    Correcting one mistake by putting another one in place??

    The real issue here is that not many people trust the intentions of the ANC and its leading politicians.

    Too many ANC politicians have had their days in court, dragging on their cases and -for the general public- dubious acquittals.

    15 years of ANC has been long enough to create the feeling that ANC places power above good governance. This information bill is generally seen as part of this power game.

  9. Kelly-Ann Prinsloo Kelly-Ann Prinsloo 3 September 2010

    You summed up perfectly what I think about the media tribunal! Yes, the government should never be allowed to interfere with a body designed to keep them in check, but the media (and I include myself in that) seriously needs to step up their game. Thanks for an awesome blog!

  10. Bongz Bongz 3 September 2010

    This is the most re-freshing commentory I have ever heard thus far on this issue.

    Thank you , this is the kind of reporting I will support and protect.

  11. X Cepting X Cepting 3 September 2010

    I totally agree with you. Just yesterday, I found a perfect example of what you are saying, and at M&G nogal.

    “God did not create the Universe”. Wow, hey, totally designed to start a war between Hawking and religious people, when what he actually said was that, based on his research, he discovered that the universe could have started up spontaneously and not needed devine intervention. Sensationalist fact as opposed to theory, based on scientific fact. Something I expect from the tabloids, but not M&G.

  12. X Cepting X Cepting 3 September 2010

    I totally agree with you. Just yesterday, I found a perfect example of what you are saying, and at M&G nogal.

    “God did not create the Universe”. Wow, hey, totally designed to start a war between Hawkins and religious people, when what he actually said was that, based on his research, he discovered that the universe could have started up spontaneously and not needed devine intervention. Sensationalist fact as opposed to theory, based on scientific fact. Something I expect from the tabloids, but not M&G.

  13. Mkhulu Mkhulu 3 September 2010

    Exactly who does the print media claim to represent? Clearly no the majority of poor blacks that it now needs support from.

  14. Sipho Sipho 3 September 2010

    @ Peter L. “Someone close to Peter L. confirmed that Peter hates black people and by extension the ANC”. This statement which cast Peter L relies on a source that cannot be verified no questioned. It could happen that the source doesn’t exist at all.So before you defend the indefensible Peter please think beyond your personal preferences.

  15. Kwame Kwame 3 September 2010

    I’m glad to see that more and more people are seeing through the smoke screen that the print media has projected. All along they knew that they were not being objective in the debate concerning MAT. Afterall the media is sitting on the other side of the fence.

    They have come out in great hysteria to say the ANC is introducing draconian measures of the apartheid era. Yet, none of the newspapers have given liberty to the people to have their own analysis by firstly publishing the document for comment. Instead, they have sought to influence the public rather than report on the matter.

    I think they have miscalculated the intelligence of society, as it no longer takes whats on the newspaper at face-value. It is also quite revealing that there is a monopoly of western values, control and ideas that is lacking behind the scenes of print media. I’m of the view that it is this monopoly that is threatened by this debate.

    It would be a sad day if soceity is to allow the media to dictate the discourse on the media, let alone the intepretation and perception of events in society. We need more media platforms for soceity to find true expression. I believe this will allow soceity to disinvest in the current media if they choose to.

  16. Monde Nkasawe Monde Nkasawe 3 September 2010

    Thank you Siyabonga for a very good piece, and I do share most of your views. I can’t help thinking though that regardless of the value of the MAT proposed by the ANC, its opportunity cost is the total overshadowing of the priorities to fight crime, better access to education, health, rural development, and decent work. Which do we want win more urgenttly, the battle of ideas? Or the war on poverty?

  17. Fiona Fiona 3 September 2010

    Yes, yes, yes!

  18. Rory Short Rory Short 3 September 2010

    @siyabonga I hope your last “their” in the following quote – “The same media that speaks down to South Africans is now hoping to rally them to their cause, for their sake” – refers to all of us South Africans although I fear it does not. Why? Because no matter how poor the quality of some of the print media is that situation is absolutely no justification for government attempts to control the freedom of the media. The media is for all of us as it’s information spreading ability is one of the most important bulwarks against corruption in government.

  19. RubinB RubinB 4 September 2010

    @XCepting:
    ” “God did not create the Universe”. Wow, hey, totally designed to start a war between Hawking and religious people, when what he actually said was that, based on his research, he discovered that the universe could have started up spontaneously and not needed devine intervention. Sensationalist fact as opposed to theory, based on scientific fact. Something I expect from the tabloids, but not M&G. ”

    You have given us a perfect example of how the press exagerates, distorts, sensationalises. This should definitely be referred to the Media Control COuncil, and the journalist who wrote it, suitably punished.
    I am collecting specific examples of press distortions in order to create a concrete case for the Media Bill.
    No use talking hypothetically. So let those examples come!

  20. Kanthan Pillay Kanthan Pillay 4 September 2010

    Siyabonga: This is the first commentary on the media tribunal that I unreservedly agree with. Thank you.

  21. Ashton Ashton 4 September 2010

    Oh, please. I’m with Johan. There are a few mistakes in the media but seldom anything that would stand up in court. All this whining and over-sensitivity is not needed. We have the law and the markets. Nothing more is needed. Unless you want to hide something. This is exactly what I believe the ANC wants to do – hide their incompetence, looting and corruption.

  22. Siobhan Siobhan 5 September 2010

    @ “A vague page-two apology can never undo a bold front-page splash. But that is as far as recourse goes in this country.”

    Nonsense! People who feel they have been harmed by stories that are later retracted (in full or in part) have the option of laying a charge of crimen injuria, libel, or slander as the SA Constitution provides for all three options.

    The ‘lack of funds’ argument could be nullified by the creation of a public fund (like the Road Accident Fund) to pay the costs of either Mediation or Court Action (Restorative Justice) to win compensation for what the injured party believes is the damage to his/her reputation.

    Given that it is usually the wealthy or powerful who believe themselves to be victims of inaccurate or misleading information published about them, the fund would be available only to those who are unable to afford legal representation.

    There ARE alternatives in the system already that make the POI and MAT both irrelevant and counter-productive.

    And please distinguish between the tabloid/gutter press and the real press. Read the existing Codes of Ethics for Journalists.

    There is no democracy in the absence of two things: a free, independent Press and an Independent Judiciary.

    As for transformation/ ownership of the press:

    There is absolutely nothing to prevent the ANC instant billionaires (the “Black Diamonds’) from INVESTING IN THEIR OWN COUNTRY by BUYING OR STARTING UP NEW MEDIA OUTLETS OR NEWSPAPERS. Why are they NOT doing so?

  23. Tlanch Tau Tlanch Tau 5 September 2010

    This is very true Siyabonga. The South African media that is up in arms is stupid in a sense that they did not publish the document and then show the public what is flowed with it, they just went up in arms and went on and on about it not explaining why they needed to do that.

    A good example of poor reporting that I saw was yesterday’s Saturday Star’s story about the Bees story in Pretoria, the paper reported that “According to an unnammed senior police officer in the Pretoria said that the Bee’s story was flowed” I found it funny that all the other people’s name appear there but it’s just the senior police officer’s name that doesn’t appear but the article is based on his story, how do you write a full page story based on one paragraph of the unnamed senior police source and the rest of the story was a repeat of what we had read.

  24. fergie fergie 5 September 2010

    @RubinB, when I read the article I didn’t get the same thing as you got from the article. Hawking said that god didn’t create the universe but, the laws of physics created the universe. The paper only reported what Hawkins said and how could the papers cause a war between the religious people. The only reason why the ANC led government wants to muzzle the press is to stop them from exposing the wide spread graft and corruption in that country. This is happening all over Africa because the rulers don’t want to be exposed and many reporters have been put in jail or killed. In Cuba, Castro had reporter put in jail for writing about the failure of the Cuban government. The late president Abacha had a reporter killed for writing about the destruction of the Nigerian delta by the oil companies and history has proven this reporter was right. Papa Doc did the same thing in Haiti while he robbed the country. You are doing nothing but playing cheer leader to the corrupted led ANC government and you don’t value freedom. In Ghana the people rose up and took their freedom back from the corrupt led government who tried to muzzle the press in that country.

  25. Lesego Lesego 6 September 2010

    I said it before and Ima say it once more that if you’re a level headed person you will see that this boils down to a racial argument. The whites side with the racist white media and the blacks side with the black government. Its really touch to actually take this saga seriously. You can just see that the whites don’t want the ruling blacks hence they support the racist media.

  26. Peter L Peter L 6 September 2010

    @Sipho

    Your post is not very coherent, so I am not sure if I properly understand the point you are trying to make (perhaps it was esoteric and I am not bright enough to get it).

    Presumably you were attempting parody or the use of a ficticious example to make your point, which is what? – Support for Poib and MAT?

    The point that I was trying to make was made far more eloquently by Siobhan – that there is no NEED for Poib and MAT given the spurious justification supplied by ANC – there are more than enough existing remedies available to obtain releif against media transgressions..

    To use your example, I would sue the organisation that defamed me, given the circumstances that you posit.

    FYI I am neither a qualified lawyer not a CA, but I have successfully appealed an income tax ruling in the special tax court (I represented myself), and have also successfully apppealed the ridiculous valuation on my very modest private property, once again representing myself.

    If a nobody like myself can successfully seek redress and take on the mighty SARS and local municipality then anyone can.

    The media needs to up its’ game – no arguments there – Poib and MAT are just completely the wrong instruments to achieve this.

  27. Peter L Peter L 6 September 2010

    @Siobhan

    Quote:
    “There is absolutely nothing to prevent the ANC instant billionaires (the “Black Diamonds’) from INVESTING IN THEIR OWN COUNTRY by BUYING OR STARTING UP NEW MEDIA OUTLETS OR NEWSPAPERS. Why are they NOT doing so? ”

    I think that they have – the newspaper in question is called “The New Age” and is sponsored by the Guptha family of Sahara computer fame – self-confessed ANC supporters and benefactors.

    Good luck to them and let’s see if there is a big enough market for their product to ensure financial viability.

    I just hope that no taxpayer’s money ever finds ite way to supporting this paper (remember the Citizen debacle?)

  28. George Makola George Makola 6 September 2010

    Siyabonga,its either u cant read properly or u got a very fertile imagination.De ombudsman upheld Mrs Kaunda’s(and Phosa’s) complaint because she wasnt given a chance to give her side of story,not because de story was incorrect.I hope u dont get paid 4 such kindergarten propaganda.

  29. Siphiwo Siphiwo Siphiwo Siphiwo 7 September 2010

    Keep them coming…M’Siyana.

    What a refreshingly good piece I’ve read in a veerrrrry long time!

  30. X Cepting X Cepting 8 September 2010

    @RubinB – Not exactly what I meant. Nothing justifies the media bill, I simply find sensationalism tasteless at M&G that usually prides itself on factuality. If some like reading this type of story, they should still be able to. Being in bad taste or unfactual is not a crime yet, just annoying to others.

    @Fergie – You are a living example of how urban legends start.

  31. Norman Clint Norman Clint 7 November 2010

    The Freedom of Speech and the Press should not be curtailed and regulated there are avenues where those matters are taken up. Media is free and stays that way.

  32. RubinB RubinB 18 November 2010

    @XCepting and Fergie:
    I was trying to be sarcastic when I responded to what XCepting wrote. I am fully au fait with what Steven Hawking writes and thinks. If you have not done so yet, read his “The God Delusion”. You will then realise that he would gladly have said that God did not create the universe. And presumably M&G fully knew that when they wrote the article.
    What I was trying to do was to expose yet one more ridiculous example being used as justification for the Media Bill. Normally supporters of the bill do not give examples, so when they do, as you have done, XCepting, you just demonstrate the shallowness of your thinking.
    So, let me repeat: Keep coming with those examples. You keep on making fools of yourselves.

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