As the South African media and opposition parties united against a new Protection of Information Bill introduced by the ruling African National Congress (ANC), Udo W. Froese argues that the media brought the strictures of the new bill upon itself as it has been out of control for too long.
South Africa’s media, the jointpolitical opposition, and Zwelinzima Vavi, the general secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), have all described the government’s new Protection of Information Bill as “unconstitutional and anti-democratic”. They call it the “state secrecy bill”. In fact, together they plan to challenge this new law passed by the ruling African National Congress (ANC), and take it to the Constitutional Court. And true to their words, they have mounted a public relations drive against it.
It was the revered American publisher and journalist, Joseph Pulitzer, who, speaking of journalists, stated: “They are the lookout on the bow of the ship-of-state guiding it through the storm.”
The media has a lot to answer for in South Africa. The corporatisation of the very few media houses and advertising industry in the country has moulded the media into the working tools of their owners and the lobbies they support, and they manipulate the markets out there. This pays tribute to the old saying, “He who pays the piper calls the tune”.
A retired journalist once said in conversation with me: “South African journalists have the reputation of being hitmen and women for their masters. There is a growing tendency to use the media to play judge, jury and prosecutor in the court of public opinion.”
Here are examples. Well before 1994, the prominent founder of a leading insurance company and his family, known rightwing capitalists masquerading as liberals, arrogantly admitted at dinner parties that they would not shy away from making false accusations and name a certain individual as a paedophile to get him out of their way. The accused had to defend himself for three years in the public domain. He was accused on the front pages of being a paedophile. He was, however, eventually acquitted.
In the process of the character assassination in the media, that person was ruined. His wealth was destroyed and his wife divorced him. He had a nervous breakdown and was close to suicide.
South Africa’s president, Jacob Zuma, is no stranger to such character assassination, or trial by the media.
In the years before the election of Nelson Mandela as state president, Anton Harber, the former editor of the weekly newspaper, Mail & Guardian, now media professor at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, coined the term “black on black violence” to describe the urban warfare in the black townships.
Harber not only misled the local media and its client base, but also the foreign media based in South Africa at the time. They copied him, describing the manipulation of urban warfare between the followers of the highly incensed Inkatha Freedom Party and the ANC as “black on black violence”.
Apartheid’s super spy then, Craig Williamson, admitted in front of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) that this urban warfare was a structured strategy of covert operations of the South African Military Intelligence (MI) and the Civil Cooperation Bureau (CCB), also known as the Third Force, to play black Africans off against one another in order to destabilise and ruin the international image of the then incoming ANC.
Both apartheid covert operations and the media presented black South Africans as barbarians, unfit to govern. It was an obvious racist ploy.
It is at the heart of the new Protection of State Information Bill to encourage the noble view of the media, as Joseph Pulitzer put it. Good, balanced, and fair reporting will retain its place in South Africa.
In the above context, it seems that the moment the media is challenged, they squeal for their “freedoms”. But what about the freedoms of the individual citizen? In essence, the media attacks democracy as it attacks the freedom of the individual, which was rightfully hard fought for. As in most former colonies, South Africans paid with their blood for the freedom of the individual. However, there is this small group with its own agenda, screaming that its “rights” (the right word should be “wrongs”) should not be taken away. Under “media freedoms”, gutter journalism is consistently promoted in South Africa, irrespective of the rights of the individuals that are continually trampled on. It is also interesting to note that the same media no longer publishes articles written by independent and so-called “dissident” authors.
It is no coincidence that the media houses have decided to shut certain views and historical facts out and promote their own views only. This is their interpretation of their “media freedom”. It poses a serious danger as history will never be reflected truthfully, but in a distorted fashion.
Indeed, in the South African media, drama and sensationalism, character assassination, the misrepresentation of facts, tendentious reportage and trampling on individual rights are protected under the guise of “media freedoms”.
The conduct of the South African media and its support structures is embarrassing. It failed dismally to self-regulate itself through its own ombudsman. At the same time, it allowed, if not helped, tendentious gutter journalism to flourish.
The media has indeed overplayed its hand by destroying lives willy-nilly. But, when this is corrected, the media squeals.
In all working democracies, corrections are made to ensure the growth of democracy. It is a natural process. Now, the Protection of State Information Bill is addressing and correcting these evils mentioned above. The elected state carries the responsibility to protect its voters and treat them fairly. The bill will serve as a “code of fair information practices”. The consequence for those who do not respect or uphold such a code will be punishment.
The times of peddling perceptions as fact, of character assassinations, or power lobbying would seem to be short-lived.
The Protection of State Information Bill was passed through parliament properly to ensure fair play. State security matters will be protected. South Africa has a vibrant civil society with different agendas and highly politicised citizens. Should the government use the bill in a manner that would trample on the rights of the people, it would be met with stiff opposition. The bill protects the rights of each citizen.
The problem of the South African media is that its ownership is concentrated in the hands of a few barons with very serious cross-shareholdings.
The country’s few media conglomerates have always made it too difficult for any newcomer to succeed. There should actually be policies against the formation of media conglomerates.
Finally, it seems that there is an agenda promoted with the assistance of the media to weaken the ANC through a host of “revelations”, including character assassinations and slanted reports. The goal is to force the ANC to form a coalition with opposition parties. This will mean that the ANC will be disempowered and finally destroyed. The architects of these strategies will however not succeed, as the pro-ANC voter base remains too large, and the party too popular.