[DEBATE] : Media and press freedom (or is it press "freedoom"?)
azwell at ecsecc.org
Thu Feb 7 15:05:52 GMT 2008
I asked, not so long ago, for someone to educate me, on what "press freedom"
in the specific social realities of South Africa today. Russell attempted a
small response, and alluded to how workers elsewhere have been harmed by
state measures to restrict certain freedoms in their "class interests". He
evaded my question, actually.
Blade Nzimande of the SACP (whom I have not asked this question), has
attempted to raise this question again, countenancing it with freedom of
expression in general. In my view, he raises quite some topical points, and
I too hope the Chris Hani Institute will hold the proposed event, on this
subject, and soon too.
Apart from raising the fact that millions of workers in South Africa have no
jobs and live in poverty and may therefore be prevented from accessing
commercial media, and that this may harm South African "democracy", I fear
that Blade has not simultaneously raised the crucial issues of education,
skills and languages and cultures which the dominant commercial media uses
in South Africa, and how this in fact continues to prevent workers from
accessing and using these platforms for expressing themselves, and how they
quite literally get pissed off, by most of its content.
We must also know, surely, that the mainstream Afrikaans and English
commercial media is not aimed at the millions of Black and African workers -
it is meant for consumption by the White population and its sprinklings of
the emerging Black and African middle class - and I think Blade is right
when he says the debate concerning media freedom in such a context is an
There is also the thorny issue of the historical moorings of the mainstream
media in this country, and the value system which underpins it -
materialistic, individualistic, a thoroughly backward racist and consumer
capitalism - how best can those who preach "media freedom" unhinge the media
from its horrific past?
I have read the ANC Resolution on the "media tribunal" and I find the
automatic reduction of this proposal into "media censorship" quite
unintelligent, and a very bad and uninformed way, of dealing with the debate
the Resolution requires. So many "straw men" have been constructed out of
this Resolution and killed by their creators, by those purportedly fighting
for "media freedom" or "press freedom". Rather than first demolish the
argument advanced by the ANC for proposing the media tribunal, and then
proceed to demonstrate how any mechanics of any media tribunal invariably
leads to censorship, I have largely read views that simply infer the
intentions of the ANC - that they want to advance to gag journalists and
introduce censorship through the back door, and therefore, kill "press
freedom". This is conspiracy theorisation at its best, masquerading as
intelligent reasoned argument.
In my view, what needs to be done is thorough research, analysis and
critique of the mainstream media post 1994 in South Africa, with a view to
understanding whether it is indeed uprooting itself from its race, class and
patriarchy cultural moorings, and how best to open up space for alternative
viable, mass working class media. I use the word media in the broadest sense
here - including films and other forms of media.
In my view, the least the ANC can be accused of is their appeal to the lazy
use of shortcuts (media tribunal) to the tedious bourgeois mechanisms
embedded in libel laws, in responding to the perfectly understandable
challenge posed by the slow pace of "transformation" of the mainstream
dominant media, in this country.
I paste Blade's piece below.
Media and the battle of ideas: Intensify ideological and mass work to
consolidate and deepen a radical national democratic revolution
Blade Nzimande, General Secretary
The responses of the City Press editorial team as well as other media
editors to the letter I wrote to Media 24 about the editorial orientation of
the City Press, do not deal at all with the substantive issues I raised.
Instead, these responses do exactly what they normally accuse political
parties of doing - throwing labels ('apartheid type behaviour', 'intolerance
of media freedom', 'rooi gevaar', etc).
What concerns me about this reaction is that media, in the name of its own
freedom, is trying to blackmail those of us holding political positions not
to state our own views about what we see as weaknesses and agendas pursued
in the media. This is tantamount to saying freedom of expression is only for
the media, that only the media can freely criticise those in political
positions, while the latter have no such rights regarding the media.
Otherwise, what is wrong in publicly and openly, in a democratic society,
challenging the City Press and its owners about what we see as its
provocatively factionalist role inside our organisations? It is interesting
that the City Press has not responded to nor challenged the main contentions
made in the open letter, about the fact that it has factionally positioned
itself inside our organisations. It cries foul, without engaging the
Yet, a detailed study of the City Press editorials have displayed some of
the worst factionalist and divisive journalism. Just to cite a few examples.
Mathata Tsedu in the City Press of 9 July 2005, commenting about the ANC NGC
said, amongst other things:
"And as a bored Mbeki sat at the NGC listening to the diatribe against him,
his mind must have wandered to where he wished he could have been. Dealing
with serious issues of upliftment and not listening to choruses of seemingly
confused tribalists and single issue campaigners"
This is indeed a serious insult to the ANC delegates at that NGC, and
reducing serious discussions and proceedings to a 'diatribe' by 'confused
tribalists' against President Mbeki. How factionalist can you get beyond
this highly offensive, judgmental attitude towards the delegates of the ANC.
What this clearly says is that Zuma is supported by a bunch of confused
tribalists! We have indeed compiled many of similar editorial interventions
in order to demonstrate the validity of our open letter. But we will come
back to these at an appropriate time in future.
However, this edition does not intend dealing with the specific matters
relating to the City Press, but to identify some of the issues requiring
further debate about the media in general, but much more importantly to
identify some of the urgent tasks for the SACP (and the alliance) on this
The SACP would also like, in future, to have an open engagement and debate
with the Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI), in the interests of freedom
of expression, on whether it is for freedom of expression in general or
whether it is only protecting the media's freedom of expression.
Unfortunately, FXI, together with the media, seems to be saying everything
else can be freely debated in South African society, except the media
itself. And even where media is debated, interventions by political leaders,
no matter how openly raised, are based on a hidden agenda to control and
silence the media. The SACP has no such intentions, and we fear no robust
engagement and debate on any matter.
I am made to understand that the Chris Hani Institute may soon be convening
a debate on the role of the media pre, during and immediately after the ANC
Polokwane Conference. This is to be welcomed and will hopefully lay a basis
to open up a number of critical questions about the role of media in general
in our democracy, and specifically the question of the relationship between
political parties and the media in our nascent democracy.
I am of the view that there are a number of very critical issues that need
to be debated in the context of the above. Firstly, we all need to openly
debate the relationship between media freedom and freedom of expression in
general. This essentially relates to the points raised above on whether the
rights to media freedom are of a higher order than the general rights of
freedom of expression for the rest of the citizenry including political
A second issue that we have to debate relates to the question of the impact
of the nature of media ownership, especially private media, on its editorial
content and style and coverage of news. In our country, mainstream media is
highly monopolised and generally profit-driven. Coupled with this is the
fact that we live in a country with very high levels of unemployment and
poverty, with millions of our people not having access to newspapers. A
question needs to be asked, including by the media itself, about what impact
this has on freedom of expression in general and media freedom in
particular. Is the debate about freedom of expression and media freedom a
truly broad South African debate or is it a debate amongst elites? What
impact does this have on access to information as part of strengthening our
It is interesting and very instructive that the mainstream media, including
the public broadcaster, failed dismally to predict the outcomes of
Polokwane. In our address to the COSATU Special Congress last year, we
raised the issue of the dangers of 'palace politics' played far away from
the masses on the ground, with leaders trying to out-manoeuvre and outwit
each other by smearing each other largely through the media. Perhaps the
failure by media to predict Polokwane is a reflection of the fact that
whilst it opportunistically thrived on this 'palace politics', it
simultaneously became its victim, thus completely failing to read the ANC
membership. For instance, in the run up to Polokwane, I made it a habit to
deliberately listen to as many community radio stations as possible, and I
generally found that, despite these suffering from a serious lack of
resources, they were a thousand times more in touch with the mood of the ANC
membership than mainstream media! Surely this says something about our
mainstream media? This issue has recently been aptly captured in ANC Today
by the President of the ANC Cde Jacob Zuma:
"Every day brings fresh instances of a media that, in general terms, is
politically and ideologically out of synch with the society in which it
"This phenomenon is most starkly illustrated at those moments in our
political cycle when the people of South Africa get an opportunity to elect
parties and individuals they want to represent them in government.
"The outcome of the 52nd national conference in Polokwane is a most recent
example of the media yet again becoming a victim of its own propaganda and
manipulation. Some are correctly asking themselves: 'how did we get it so
wrong?', while others now use every opportunity to "prove" that there is
something that was seriously wrong with ANC delegates at Polokwane."
The third issue for debate is that of the balance between media freedom and
rights of individuals (including political leaders as citizens), as
contained in the Bill of Rights, and the appropriate instruments needed to
strike the correct balance between these, outside of the expensive
litigation processes. It is, for instance, within this context that the
proposal for the establishment of a 'media tribunal' arose at the ANC Policy
Conference and 52nd National Conference. This matter has, to established
media, become like a red rag before a bull! Media generally wants to dismiss
this idea without even debating it. This attitude is principally aimed at
shielding the very serious short-comings in media self-regulation from
serious scrutiny and debate by the general public as well as by political
parties. Again, this reflects the attitude that says the media can debate
and criticise everything, and call for oversight processes for all other
institutions, except itself! We hope that the Chris Hani Institute will
sooner rather than later provide a platform for further debating the issue
of a media tribunal.
A fourth very critical issue that requires debate is that of the
relationship between owners and editors. We are often told that there is a
'Chinese wall' between the two, and this is highly questionable. Commercial
media is there to make money, and this alone blurs this claimed distanced,
and therefore it has never been heard of that one can bite the hand that
feeds him or her. The most glaring example is the clearly cosy relationship
between financial journalists and the institutions that they cover;
something that requires closer scrutiny!
Our challenge to the mainstream media is that in a democracy, media freedom
is not the sole responsibility of the media and the institutions created by
it, but it is a matter of fundamental concern to all of society, including
political parties. So it must not hide behind freedom of the media as a
trick to try and shield itself from broader and ongoing critical public
The biggest mistake mainstream media can make is to try and restrict debate
about its role only to within itself and the institutions it has created.
Apart from the responses to my letter to Media 24, there are a number of
other examples of this tendency, one being about commentary on the SABC.
When we, as political parties, legitimately meet with the board or
management of the SABC to complain about its clearly problematic news
division, we are condemned by commercial media for wanting to control the
public broadcaster. Yet, commercial media has turned criticism of the public
broadcaster into its pastime. Does this mean that critique of the SABC is
their exclusive domain, and that political parties are not entitled to raise
their own critiques?
Our tasks: Intensify direct interface with our mass base
It is imperative that the SACP (and indeed our alliance as a whole) does not
allow its internal debates and communication with broader society to be held
hostage and mediated primarily by commercial media. Media freedom is an
important foundation and cornerstone of our democracy which we fought for,
and we must protect it, but we cannot mortgage our internal political
debates and decisions to the mainstream media. This therefore requires that
we intensify our media work on a number of fronts.
Firstly, it is important to understand media within the wider context of
class and ideological struggles in society. Media itself is not immune from
these struggles; in fact, in many ways it is an active player in these,
often in the interests of the dominant capitalist interests. This requires
that at all times we do need to robustly engage and debate with the media,
which includes robust criticism of the media, unapologetically pointing out
their own mistakes and agendas, as we have done with the City Press.
Secondly, it is absolutely important that we make full use of our own
internal publications to directly reach out to our own members and to the
public at large. A key challenge here is that we need some synergy amongst
all alliance publications, without reducing the distinct role of each of
these publications (eg. sharing and syndicating of articles, creating some
co-operative methods of distribution, etc).
Thirdly, it is important to make full use of the opportunities provided by
the internet to try and reach out to as many of our cadres in particular,
and the public in general. Already we are making important advances on this
front, and we need to deepen these, including exploring the use of the
cellphone technology to quickly communicate and interact with our cadreship
and mass base.
Fourthly, we need to urgently activate the implementation of the ANC
resolution to drastically increase the funding of the Media Development and
Diversity Agency (MDDA), as part of the overall struggle to diversify media
in our country, such that it is able to capture the millions of currently
marginalised voices in broader society. The SACP played an active role in
engaging with the process towards establishing the MDDA, but we have somehow
not effectively interacted with the ongoing work of this important
institution. The increased resourcing of the MDDA should not be seen as an
isolated task, but must be firmly located in a broader struggle for the
de-monopolisation and diversification of media.
The establishment of the Chris Hani Institute and the planned ANC Policy
Institute/Foundation also provide important platforms for broader
ideological work, including political education, research and public policy
engagement from a working class and left perspective. It is important that
we strengthen these institutions and ensure that they are in touch with the
ordinary feelings and thinking of millions of South Africans, including our
Lastly and perhaps most importantly, is to intensify our tried and tested
'media' and ideological weapon - daily face-to-face contact with millions of
our people through our campaigns, taking up the daily issues that affect
them. The Polokwane conference has (re-)opened an important bridgehead in
this regard, by committing the ANC to be an actively mobilising organisation
both during and outside election periods. It is this work that has
consistently confounded our critics and detractors especially during, and on
the outcomes of, our congresses.
We must do all the above, not in response or in reaction to mainstream
media, but as the only sure way to mobilise the workers and the poor to
advance and deepen a national democratic revolution through ideological
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