Open season on the media

The biggest onslaught by the government on the media since the advent of democracy is coming fast and furious and from three corners: its new advertising spend policy, the re-emergence of media tribunal talks and the looming Protection of Information Bill. Controversy about media standards isn't helping.

Economic sanctions
Jimmy Manyi, the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS) boss, last week announced the Cabinet's decision to centralise all departments' media buying under the GCIS and threatened to direct the government's R1-billion in advertising spend to where it would get the most "bang for its buck". The South African National Editors' Forum fired back, calling the move "bribery" and tantamount to economic sanctions.

It was not the first time a threat like this has been made. After an August 2007 exposé in the Sunday Times of former health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang as a "drunk" and a "thief", then-minister in the presidency Essop Pahad said advertising would be withdrawn and it was, resulting in major losses for Avusa, the paper's publisher.

Also that year Grocott's Mail, the country's oldest independent newspaper, experienced a similar situation. The Grahamstown municipality withdrew all its advertising after then-editor Jonathan Ancer wrote an editorial saying R13-million had gone missing from the municipal budget. The paper took the matter to court and a settlement was reached in 2008, after which the municipality resumed its advertising.

Media lawyer Dario Milo said the withdrawal of government advertising on the basis of content raised media freedom issues and potentially infringed the Constitution and public procurement principles set out in the Public Finance Management Act.

According to Milo the government was required to contract on the basis of a system that was fair, equitable, transparent, competitive and cost effective. 

"These principles would be infringed if government advertising was allocated on grounds which were intended to reward pro-government reportage," Milo said.

The Protection of Information Bill (the "Secrecy Bill" to its opponents) was introduced to replace the apartheid-era Protection of Information Act of 1982—ostensibly to align it with the new Constitution.

But the Bill, say its opponents, fails that very test. Advocacy groups say problems include a "cloak of secrecy" that it will draw over many of the state's workings because more than 1 000 state bodies will be allowed to classify their documents, and that there will be no provision for a public interest defence to be used by whistle-blowers, journalists and others, who could be jailed for up to 25 years for handling classified documents.

The parliamentary ad-hoc committee processing the Bill was supposed to have concluded its work by June 24 but a respite was granted until August after pressure from civil society.

Media appeals tribunal
The ANC appears committed to its demand for a parliamentary investigation into a statutory media appeals tribunal because it finds the self-regulatory system has "no teeth".

In the past two weeks Stella Ndabeni, the ANC parliamentary communications portfolio committee whip, and Jackson Mthembu, the ANC spokesperson, have signalled the party's intention to forge ahead with the investigation into how a tribunal might work, in spite of an earlier assurance from Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe that the process was on hold.

The tribunal, according to its sponsors, will aim to make the media more "accountable" by making it pay for "mistakes and sensational reporting". At present, the print media employ a self-regulation mechanism consisting of a press council, press ombud and the press appeals panel. When the ombud rules that a publication has erred it orders an apology, but the ANC believes the apologies printed are not commensurate in size and placement with the mistakes made.

The internal threat
The Right2Know Campaign, although its focus is primarily on the Secrecy Bill, has also signalled its intention to campaign about media diversity. At its national conference in February it noted that 90% of South African print media was controlled by five companies: Avusa, Media24, Caxton, Mail & Guardian and the Independent Newspaper Group. "This impacts negatively on diversity and the free flow of information," it said in a statement.

But researchers into the state of media in South Africa have cited other threats: the juniorisation of newsrooms, increased inaccuracies creeping into stories and poor journalistic standards, some of which were highlighted in a report compiled under the leadership of Anton Harber, the University of the Witwatersrand's Caxton professor of journalism and media studies, about the Sunday Times in 2008. The report was kept under wraps until this week when Business Day published it on its website.

Glenda Daniels is a national working group member of the Right2Know campaign.

The M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism, supported by M&G Media and the Open Society Foundation for South Africa, produced this story. All views are the centre's.



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