Sandile Memela
Sandile Memela

The government must speak to the people not the media

The government does not need to fight or over-invest in the media.

In fact, it can afford to keep its distance and insist on factual, accurate, correct and truthful reporting.

It is an open secret that not only is the media overly juniorised but its professionals are so underpaid and demoralised they cannot uphold their own standards. In fact, the media does not understand how the government works. The government’s history of delivery, for instance, shows that it does well without it.

If the people of this country were asked to choose between a media without government stories (which are misunderstood as propaganda) or a government without mainstream media that speaks directly to the people, they would choose the latter.

Engaging the media on how to correctly cover government stories, improve its battered image, improve its poor standards plagued by poor research, lack of skilled staff and junior writers does not benefit the government.

Instead it is mistaken for interference with so-called freedom of expression. The government should re-examine its programme to shift it towards selling its message directly to the people.

Instead, the talk about a media tribunal, the Protection of Information Bill, Limpopo textbook saga, Nkandlagate and other negative stories have entangled the government, especially members of the portfolio committees, in controversy and disputes. This distracts the government from its main agenda, to deliver to the people.

Government needs to develop a new communications strategy that delivers the message directly to the people. Adverts and advertorials in newspapers, media briefings, press conferences or a one-on-one with an editor does not, necessarily, work.

As a government that is the product of a former liberation movement embedded among the people, the government — through the Government Communication and Information System, for instance — must create structures and platforms where its messengers, that is, the political principals or communicators can speak directly to the people.

And if the messengers can speak directly to the people — in their own language in their own space and place — there is a greater chance for them to internalise the message. In fact, they become messengers themselves.

We all know that when it comes to President Jacob Zuma, for instance, one of his distinguishing characteristics is his intuitive connection to the people on the ground. They identify and relate to him because they see him as one of their own.

In the Africa the government operates in, the messenger is a message.

If you ask me, Jacob Zuma does not exactly need the media, for instance.

The media needs him.

Far too many government communicators have become elitist, disconnected from their target audience and constituency.

This new communicator must be a part of the community, understand its needs, aspirations and hopes.

For freedom of expression to flourish, the government must be seen to encourage information and knowledge sharing and a critical exchange of views, especially in indigenous languages.

And this is something the media does not exactly encourage, not only because it does not know or understand indigenous languages but it tends to publish only those that agree with its perspective.

The communicators must make it easier for the people to take ownership of government programmes and have a sense of belonging in making this country work — deliver the government’s mandate to create an empowered, fair and inclusive citizenship.

There should be very little place or consideration for the media, specifically one that is not concerned with and completely at one with the urgent need to empower the people through information and knowledge so that they can be active agents of the change they want to see in their lives, in their country.
The biggest challenge is the government spokespeople who think appearing in the media is a big achievement. An obsession with mainstream media, popular newspapers and TV programmes, which are not, necessarily, the best vehicle to reach the people.

Of course it cannot be wrong to understand or appreciate modern media and use it to enhance government communications.

But when it becomes the primary and dominant means of communication and does not speak the same language as the people of the country, then there is a problem.

In the last three elections, we have seen how the ANC, for instance, had negative coverage but always found ways to intuitively connect to the people and emerge victorious.

Countless times, the media predicted the governing party would suffer major losses in voter support. This did not happen. The media is completely out of touch with the people, the society it covers.

The people want to be spoken to directly, not through a middleman or interpreter.

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