SABC COO Hlaudi Motsoeneng's proposal that journalists be licensed is a ploy to get us to accept dangerous threats to our democracy.
SABC chief operating officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng has a delightful proposal for journalists: we should all be licensed. Apparently he thinks we should be treated like doctors and lawyers: proper professionals with a licence to practice, framed certificates on the wall and everything.
Motsoeneng, we’re flattered. And while we’re about it, can we professionalise the executives who run our public broadcaster, too? I’d love to see your qualifications framed and up on a wall.
But that’s not going to happen because, besides making news with his nonsensical proposals for journalists, Motsoeneng has dominated headlines because of his repeated misrepresentations about his qualifications.
Rumour has it Motsoeneng remained in his position thanks to his powerful connection with Number One, President Jacob Zuma.
And one thing Motsoeneng and Zuma do have in common is a dislike for an interrogating media that does not allow either of them to get away with much and has caused them both mass embarrassment. Cue the calls to regulate the media.
We’ve been here before. A few years ago it was threats for the media tribunal, which came from the very top of government and the ANC, and was reinforced by repeated hints and threats. Accordingly civil society and the media rallied. We reasoned, compromised and cajoled government against anything so harsh. What the hell is a media tribunal anyway? I’m still not sure. All I know is that we launched a press commission, and changed the very nature and composition of our regulatory system – from self-regulation to “co-regulation” in a system that some saw as open to manipulation and potentially dangerous.
That was in 2012. In the meantime the secrecy Bill was going on in the background. Likewise, we lobbied until the draconian clauses were “watered down”. And that’s what we have right now: a “watered down” poison to our democracy sitting on Zuma’s desk waiting to be signed into law. We’ll naturally take it to the Constitutional Court if he does, of course, as it contradicts the very tenets on which our democracy is based. But Zuma is yet to sign it, so anyone wanting to challenge the Bill is yet to fight it. What is he waiting for? A more complacent selection of judges at the Constitutional Court once our Judicial Services Commission is done with watering that down? I wouldn’t be surprised.
Which is why I refused to respond to Motsoeneng’s proposal that journalists be licensed. The debate around whether journalism is a trade like plumbing that you learn through apprenticeship or a profession like law has been raging for decades. It’s a good debate as the craft itself changes enormously, but it is one that must be held on its own merits: not as a thin veneer for some power-hungry, deeply compromised government deployee who wants to control journalists.
You see, the threats of a media tribunal and now licensing of journalists constitutes brilliant PR. If I had a very unpopular idea that I wanted the public to accept, I would first propose an extreme version of the idea. For example: let’s put e-tolls on all roads in South Africa. Then I would allow my detractors to “win” what may look like major concessions and present a watered-down version of the idea. For example: “Oh ok, we’ll just do e-tolls in Gauteng then. And only on national roads.” Your detractors get to feel victorious and you get the original idea passed. Easy.
Similarly, the media tribunal and the threats to license journalists are essentially a red herring. Together with the more draconian version of the Protection of State Information Bill, they created a perfect storm of threats against free media. Accordingly, we all rose up and wore ourselves out defeating this spectre, and with, say, eight out of 10 battles won, we’ll be happy to let two or so slide by and get signed into law.
Such as the Bill’s proposal for bulk classification of sensitive documents. That means, if the Bill was applied to the Nkandla situation, the fact that we rightfully should not report on, say, the strength of the bulletproof glass at Zuma’s residence for security reasons, means we would not be able to report on anything else. The exorbitant fees that were charged, the use of public funds for features, such as a lavish swimming pool, that were clearly not for security purposes, the complete trashing of normal procurement processes and more. The same could be applied to any investigative story. Find one detail in the documents that is legitimately sensitive, and the state is able to classify everything and keep journalists at bay – or risk over 10 years of their life in jail.
This is not democracy. And yes Motsoeneng, we don’t even need to tell you how ridiculous your proposal is to license journalists, because we see right through it.