Siyabonga Ntshingila
Siyabonga Ntshingila

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