Legislation won't stop 'negative' reporting

The celebration of our icon Nelson Mandela and what he stands for is invariably marred by individuals and organisations that promote their own (sometimes bizarre) causes in his name.

So it was this week when ANC spokesperson Jackson Mthembu used his outrage over a controversial painting of Mandela on an autopsy table to sneak in a call for tighter curbs on the media, in the form of a statutory tribunal.

Brimming with anger, Mthembu said the “unbridled” freedom of the media is a recipe for disaster and added that a media appeals tribunal should be instituted to “monitor, regulate and chastise gutter, soulless and disrespectful journalism”.

A statutory tribunal, some in the governing ANC insist, would correct negative, sensationalist reporting. They just don’t explain how.

The tribunal is a scarecrow that is publicly displayed when the heat in the political kitchen increases and some protagonists are unable to find a “sympathetic voice” in the media. “Behave,” it warns, “or we’ll regulate.”

Proposals for a tribunal were a major issue ahead of the Polokwane conference, where the Zuma lobby felt the media had prejudged and condemned Zuma because of the rape and corruption cases he was facing. This anger ultimately found its way into a resolution at Polokwane to form a media appeals tribunal, to balance the right to freedom of expression and freedom of the media with the right to equality, privacy and human dignity.

The party then undertook to investigate the desirability of a tribunal and its mode of establishment, but nothing was heard until ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe raised the issue two weeks ago, at the height of the media’s outpouring of World Cup-related patriotic enthusiasm.

Mantashe sounded frustrated with the media, saying we focus on negativity and resent national success. He said the media was not prepared to debate the need for a tribunal, and instead had attacked the idea from the outset. It is an idea, he said, that must be engaged with to deal with “prevalent” unethical journalism.

The fact is, you cannot legislate away “negative” reporting, whatever that means. All you can ever hope to do is diversify and accommodate a variety of voices, which surely is already the case with so many newspapers and with an ANC-aligned paper set to join the competition soon.

Avenues to deal with unethical and irresponsible reporting already exist in the form of the Press Council and the courts. Several editors feel that the national press ombudsman has already adopted a considerably stricter approach to newspapers, perhaps in an effort to give credibility to the self-regulatory approach so maligned by the ANC.

In truth, the story of ex-Cape Argus reporter Ashley Smith and former Western Cape premier Ebrahim Rasool shows that there should be deep concern and perhaps it is time the media got off its moral high horse. Smith recently confessed that he and others were paid to promote Rasool during his battles with adversaries in the ANC.

To accept cash to influence stories is about as low as a journalist can sink, and this incident needs to be very seriously addressed. It is the media, however, that exposed this scandal and are dealing with it. The Mail & Guardian reported on evidence of misconduct at the paper, and the Cape Argus ran an internal investigation, ultimately splashing the confession across its front page, accompanied by a self-critical editorial.

It was from these efforts that the truth has begun to emerge, along with proposals for clearer guidelines on ethical conduct. Meanwhile the ANC in the Western Cape, which had gathered hard evidence in its own investigation of the affair, sat on its internal report for years, and still refuses to release it.

Mantashe wants us to be more sanguine about proposals for a tribunal, but while it remains a statutory body that reports to the government or parliament and has the final say on what is appropriate journalism and determines sanctions against those who cross the line, the media are reasonably entitled to look at a similar model in Zimbabwe and panic.

In fact, going to Zimbabwe for examples of state interference is looking too far. Right here on our doorstep we have the SABC where the head of news, on instruction from the party apparatchiks, can summarily decide to ban “undesirable” political commentators and politicians in order to appease the dominant faction of the ruling party.

Our politicians should not try to force “positive” reporting down our throats. The bar for those who hold public office is very high, as shown in the case of Holomisa vs Argus Newspapers, where the Supreme Court of Appeal pronounced that “the dictates of a democracy insofar as they relate to political figures require that criticism of politicians should be free, open, robust and even unrestrained. This is so because of the inordinate power and the seductive influence which these attributes have upon corrupt men and women.”

It is time for those who want the tribunal on the agenda to articulate its real role and its relationship to the Constitution—and to stop using Nelson Mandela to justify a clampdown on media freedom.

Rapule Tabane

Rapule Tabane

Rapule Tabane is the Mail & Guardian's politics editor. He sometimes worries that he is a sports fanatic, but is in fact just crazy about Orlando Pirates. While he used to love reading only fiction, he is now gradually starting to enjoy political biographies. He was a big fan of Barack Obama, but now accepts that even he is only mortal. Read more from Rapule Tabane


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