Nelson Mandela this week used an international gathering of the world’s newspaper publishers to fire a volley of shots across the bows of South Africa’s major media groups.
In a keynote speech at the FIEJ conference in Prague, be urged the major newspaper conglomerates to break themselves up to make way for greater diversity in the media. He decried “the reality that three large conglomerates, drawn exclusively from the white racial group, dominate the print media in our country.
“What is disturbing and, in our view, harmful, is the threat of one-dimensionality this poses for the media of our country as a whole. It is clearly unacceptable that a country whose population is overwhelmingly black is serviced by a media whose principal players have no knowledge of the life experience of that majority,” he said.
He said the conglomerates should realise that it is in their interests to ensure the diversity of the South African press, “even in the teeth of the economic pressures that militate towards Monopolies. “It is important that meaningful steps are taken to reduce the imbalances in control and access to the media,” he said.
Mandela strongly praised the “alternative, independent” media, saying that it was on this “outstanding” tradition of “free, independent and outspoken” press that the African National Congress hoped to build. He cited the fact that important recent exposes had been uncovered by “small, independent publications which pioneered a new tradition of investigative journalism that South Africa sorely lacked for the last 30 years.
“That the criminals in high places responsible for these deeds might one day, soon, be brought to justice is a tribute to the alternative and independent weekly newspapers,” he said. The ANC, he said, believed this tradition must be safeguarded.
“A critical, independent and investigative press is the lifeblood of any democracy. It must be free from state interference. It must have the economic strength to stand up to bullying by government officials. It must be protected so as to protect our rights as citizens.
“The huge imbalances that persist in our press sector between a handful of struggling, independent, alternative newspapers and the giant monopolies — the Argus, Times Media, Nasionale Pers and Perskor — must be redressed. This should include re-assessment of the control exercised over distribution,” he said.
Mandela said his organisation “understands and welcomes” the concern expressed by the South African and international media about the ANC’s track record and commitment to justice. “The ANC has nothing to fear from criticism. I can promise you, we shall not wilt under criticism or close examination. It is our considered view that criticism can only help us to grow, by calling attention to those of our actions and omissions which do not measure up to our people’s expectations and the democratic values to which the ANC subscribes.”
He said the ANC wanted to get to the bottom of allegations that it had “abused, maltreated and even tortured” alleged government agents in its custody in exile. He urge the media to help with the ANC’s inquiry into this issue giving the assurance that the organisation had no interest in a cover-up.
“I cannot over-emphasise the value we place on a free, independent and, outspoken press in the democratic South Africa we hope to build … Such a free press will temper the appetite of any government to amass power at the expense of the citizen. A free press will be the vigilant watchdog of the South African public against the temptation to abuse power.
“This is all the more reason why the press in South Africa, including in its ownership, should reflect the composition and varied viewpoints of all our people,” he said.