Media diversity under the spotlight
“How diverse is our media?” was the question pondered upon at the Mail & Guardian‘s Critical Thinking Forum, hosted by the Durban University of Technology on its Ritson Road campus on Tuesday evening.
At a time when media freedom appears under threat from proposed legislation, including the Protection from Harassment Bill, the Protection of Information Bill and a proposed media tribunal by the majority ANC, it is a pressing question to be addressed both by the sector and broader society.
Pity, then, that the forum suffered from some panellists approaching the exercise as nothing more than an opportunity to relay information about their organisations—otherwise easily found on their websites.
If the forum were a music concert, then panellists like Icasa spokesperson Jubie Matlou and Lumko Mtimde, chief executive of the Media Development and Diversity Agency (MDDA), would be a bit like the Rolling Stones: not dishing up anything new, but still on stage.
Mtimde and former arts and culture minister, and ANC member, Pallo Jordan did raise valid points about the print media’s lack of diversity hinging, in no small part, on the monopoly by the big four: Media 24, Avusa, the Caxton Group and Independent Newspapers.
Jordan also pointed out that that some companies are also “vertically integrated” into other areas in the media sector, like distribution and the ownership of paper—all related to the adverse conditions for new titles to emerge in the local market.
Elephant in the room
Of course, one big elephant in that room is that the largest newsprint manufacturer is Mondi Shanduka, with Cyril Ramaphosa a joint chairperson. As an ANC cadre deployed into business, it really does beg the question as to why the MDDA and government/the ANC have not, as yet, approached Mondi on agreements on competitive newsprint provision for emerging entrepreneurs.
Ayesha Kajee, of the Freedom of Expression Institute, noted that in South Africa there was currently “a climate of increasing political intolerance — from a variety of areas — and that racist, sexist, homophobic and xenophobic comments by people in positions of leadership” were on the rise.
Also noting there was “increasing repression of legal gatherings and protest” and the raft of legislation being proposed, Kajee questioned the direction South Africa’s democracy could potentially take in light of current events and attitudes.
Media entrepreneur Mbali Dhlomo, who publishes a glossy provincial lifestyle magazine and a local community newspaper, highlighted some of the challenges facing those attempting to break into the market—including lack of government advertising, start-up funding and the poaching of young journalists groomed in their newsrooms by bigger titles.
Meanwhile, debating the controversial Protection of Information Bill “hysterically” would not help people who had concerns about it, said Jordan.
“We need to debate it honestly and not hysterically. Debating it hysterically only adds heat,” he said.
The contentious Bill has been met with firm opposition mainly from the media practitioners who argue it will make it impossible for journalists to operate.
Jordan said there was a need for a “sober debate” on the Bill, saying that secrecy Bills had a purpose.
“There is no country that has no secrets. The purpose of the Bill is to protect secrets of this country. All we have to do is to take part in the debate.”
Jordan was responding to a comment made by former KwaZulu-Natal government spin doctor and former journalist Bheki Ncube.
“The Bill is not going to improve service delivery. I don’t know why the ANC is pushing for it. Some of the things that the ANC do make me think that this is not the ANC I grew up in,” said Ncube.
He said the ANC tended to send Jordan to pacify the intellectuals whenever the party introduced controversial things.
Jordan reacted angrily to Ncube’s comment, saying that he had not been sent by the ANC to attend the debate.
“I have noticed that former journalists like to make assumptions. The ANC did not send me here to participate. I have also not been sent by government because I am no longer in government.”
Jordan said he was surprised at how media organisations had reacted to the introduction of the New Age, a new newspaper that would be openly pro-government.
“There has been a negative response from other titles and commentators. It is either they don’t like the competition or they don’t want a paper which will approach stories differently,” he said.
It was a very odd response, he said.
The New Age is funded by the Gupta Group, which has close links to the ruling ANC.
Its launch was postponed for the third time last week after its senior editorial staff including its editor, Vuyo Mvoko, resigned.